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{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, 2011-02-16}

It’s a place of stunning beauty, all the more so because of the stillness. Red rocks, red dirt, no sign of humanity for miles. I might as well be on Mars.

That’s why the Mars Desert Research Station is here.

I’ve come to drop off my son as he and his teammates go “into sim.” For two weeks, they’ll live and work together, coming outside only through an airlock in spacesuits. As my son says, it’s “Fantasy Camp for Space Geeks”.

Members of the Mars Society are the most optimistic, far-thinking people on the planet. Working exclusively through private donations, they want humanity to envision a post-Earth future. Mars can be terra-formed, made suitable for life, and colonized within a century or two. Time to start thinking about that now.

To encourage awareness of Mars exploration and to get the science done that future explorers will need, the Mars Society has established two facilities where humans can live as if they were on the Red Planet. One is on Devon Island, above the Arctic Circle. The other is about eight hours west of Colorado Springs.

Teams submit research proposals to the Mars Society for permission to live and work in the facility. When your team arrives, the previous team hands the facility over to you. In this case, we’re greeted by the first Romanian team to man the facility. They are exuberant, enthusiastic, and deeply moved by America.

“I love this country” says Virgil, the commander of the Romanians and a space law expert with the Romanian Space Agency. “Have you ever seen any place so beautiful?” “I would love to live here. Not in a big city, but a nice small town. I’m a fairly conservative person with traditional values. Some place around here would be perfect for me.”

The team’s astronomer, Haritina, is a “Kiwi”, a New Zealander and the only non-Romanian. “I didn’t really understand magnificence until I came here.” She sweeps her hand toward the breathtaking rock formations of the Utah desert and the majestic peaks of the Rockies in the distance. I understand what she means. Most people think of America as an economic powerhouse. Too often we forget that we are also a country of astonishing natural beauty.

I say goodbye to my son. Virgil rides back to Grand Junction with me. He tells me he’s a libertarian, working on the necessary legal institutions to developing property rights and markets in space. He hopes to find work at a university as a space and legal theory lecturer. I hope he succeeds. He’d make a great American.

Two weeks later, I return in my rented SUV to greet everyone when they come “out of sim.” Fourteen days of showerless living and recycling water doesn’t seem to have dampened their spirits. Three women and three men, they’ve known each other since their NASA Academy days and have worked together on numerous projects. Their primary effort here was a device for detecting life in soil samples. Seems like something a Mars exploration mission might find useful.

The relief team from the European Space Agency is late, but we’re standing on a butte and eventually see dust clouds in the distance. The Europeans step out and introduce themselves. The commanders shake hands, and the Americans head to the nearest town, population 200 or so, to the local diner for burgers and shakes.

By the time this column appears, everyone will have headed back to school. A real letdown, I should think, even for people who love learning as much as these young scientists do. And they are nothing if not enthusiastic. Which is a good thing.

In an age of national upheaval, economic uncertainty, and general pessimism about the future, we need people who can dream big dreams. When it comes to expanding the reach of humankind to another planet, you can’t dream much bigger than that.