USU student heading for 'Mars'

Habitat in Utah resembles that of Red Planet

By Joe Bauman
Deseret News
March 10, 2004

Mars Society members explore area near the Mars habitat in the desert badlands near Hanksville.
Mars Society

Utah State University student Jamon Neilson takes off Saturday for the vivid, barren red-and-white striped hills of Mars — make that southern Utah. Neilson, 31, will be joining the Mars Society's "Mars habitat" in the desert badlands near Hanksville, Wayne County. He will be part of the simulated Mars station for two weeks.

A Taylorsville resident, he has earned a master's degree in physics and is nearing completion on a second bachelor's degree in flight technology. He says he has always wanted to be an astronaut.

This is the third field season for the society's Mars Desert Research Station. "Crews" there go on geology expeditions while dressed in space suits, carry out science studies and compile reports. They attempt to cope with the kinds of difficulties that members of expeditions to the Red Planet might experience.

"I applied online at the Mars Society Web site and saw that they were looking for volunteers, and so I submitted a proposal for a project that I wanted to do," Neilson said in a telephone interview Monday.

The project is to grow vegetables in a Lada module, the high-tech gardening chamber that USU's Space Dynamics Laboratory designed and built for the International Space Station. At last report, a Lada chamber was in use on the station, orbiting 240 miles above Earth's surface.

If astronauts ever went to Mars, they might want a bit of fresh salad.

That's where Neilson's experiment comes in. He is planning to grow Mizuna, Russian lettuce, or radishes — one or both. Mizuna "doesn't look like regular lettuce," he said. "It's a long, leafy kind of thing, and I believe it can grow to a full crop within 13 days."

In the harsh desert where the habitat is located, tending small growing plants may provide a pleasant diversion. So he will not only play the role of a Mars farmer, but also psychologist, studying his own and his five fellow crew members' reactions to the growing process.

Meanwhile, anyone going outside the habitat will need to put on a mock-up space suit. "We'll actually go through the procedures the astronauts will go through" in suiting up, he noted. In the past, he said, expeditions outside the habitat included seismic surveys, searches for fossils and geological examinations.

The project will give him the chance to find out, for two weeks, what it's like to be an astronaut, Neilson said. He hopes the experience may lead to the real thing. He intends to apply to NASA for astronaut status, probably this summer. "NASA won't be selecting astronauts for another year," he said. Meanwhile, "I meet the basic requirements."

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