Tue, Aug 25, 2009 - Page 16 News List

Mad for Mars

Joe Palia’s mission in life is to go to Mars. He’s got as far as the Arctic

By John Barry  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ST PETERSBURG

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What brought a bright young man who sweated through electrical and nuclear engineering classes at MIT to this, a month on a frozen rock in the Arctic, with a fish bowl on his head, a Buzz Lightyear space suit, a shotgun to scare off polar bears and a busted “incinerator toilet”?

That’s how bad Joe Palaia wants to get to Mars.

Joe is almost 30. His mission in life is Mars, but his Martian clock is ticking. Bailout-happy, cash-for-clunkering politicians are making it very difficult for the space program. Since graduating from MIT three years ago, Palaia has done all he can to keep hope alive.

To advance the cause of manned Mars missions, he left wife and home in Holiday, Florida, to spend last month with five other volunteers in a can-shaped shelter on top of the world just 1,448km from the Earth’s North Pole. The place was Canada’s Devon Island, which hasn’t made much news outside musk oxen circles since a meteor fell on it 20 million years ago.

Their assignment: Pretend they’re on Mars.

Palaia and mates wore fake space suits. They endured snow, rain and fog. They slept through hurricane-force winds and blazing sunshine at midnight. They were armed for bear but saw one mosquito and one rabbit.

They did accomplish something astronauts may one day attempt on the Red Planet. They drew water from rock.

By now in the story, your eyebrow may be up to your hairline. North Pole. Fake space suits. Polar bears vs polar bunnies. Incinerator toilets. Fourth rock from the sun. The fair question is: “Is Palaia nuts or what?”

He seems to be an intelligent, adventurous, focused young man. He just happens to be in a hurry to leave Earth. Draw your own conclusions.

The Mars Society has been sending volunteers on shoestring expeditions to the Arctic since 2000. It’s as close to a Mars environment as you can find on Earth. Everything is like Mars except the polar bears, oxygen and Twitter.

Back in 2000, the Mars Society set up a tall fiberglass tube on the rock and furnished it with generators, stove, showers and cubby holes each just big enough for a bunk and a shelf.

Palaia’s crew was the 12th to occupy the tube. He answered an open call for volunteers because going to Mars has been all he’s thought about. After MIT, he helped start a company called 4Frontiers in New Port Richey, Florida, aimed at getting on the ground floor of Mars commercial opportunities. When he married, he told his wife, Melissa, he’d eventually have to leave for three years or so for a round trip.

The Mars Society made him chief engineer of the Devon Island expedition, meaning he had to keep the tube heated and the balky incinerator toilet working.

When they got to the island by bush plane it was snowing sideways.

The team was three men, three women. Besides engineer Palaia, it included a geologist, two NASA workers, a seismologist and a fifth-grade teacher. Each was encouraged to bring a personal research project. The geologist mined and cooked the mineral gypsum, which was all over the island, and also happens to exist in the polar regions of Mars. When heated to 149°C, it releases water.

Palaia brought an aircraft. He’d persuaded a Gainesville company called Prioria Robotics to loan him a small robotic plane rigged with surveillance cameras. Palaia’s project was to show that he could fly the thing while encumbered in a spacesuit. He flew it six times.

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