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Mars Madness

Surface of planet Mars that suggests former prescence of lakes, Mars Orbiter photo
People in make-believe space suits are exploring the Utah desert as if they really were 240 million miles away.

"We needed a place on earth where we could practice for Mars. There's no point going to Mars unless you can do something useful when you get there," explained Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society.

In a corner of some of this planet's more forbidding landscape, the privately funded Mars Desert Research Station is a kind of outer-space camp for members of the Mars Society.

At the camp, self-described space junkies spend two weeks simulating life on Mars, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob McNamara. Among them are vacationing geologists and NASA computer scientists.

Most of them are grounded in serious research and all want to go to Mars.

"Most of the engineer thinking about missions to Mars have focused on the rockets that get us there and there has been very little thought about what you do when you get there," said Chris McKay, a Mars Society member.

Though a robot rover has already made it to Mars, Mars Society members believe that's not enough.

"It is true that robotic missions are cheaper than human missions, but you can't send a robot to do a man's job," said Zubrin.

But boots and bulky suits take getting used to.

"We have trouble punching buttons on our radios. We have trouble picking up rocks. I mean the simplest tasks become much more difficult in space suits," said Mars Society member Tiffany Vora.

Utah is not the only place on earth that the Mars Society has a simulator - there's another one in the Canadian Arctic. But the Utah desert, more than any other, comes closest to resembling the red planet, where the landscape is often amusing and sometimes lifeless.

"You could actually be training a crew in this setting," said NASA researcher Bill Clancey.

"All of this is about showing engineers and flight controllers and rocket scientists what does the process of exploration look like," explained Clancey.

With footprints and flags already on the moon, a walk on Mars is a dream that some won't let die.

"If President Bush were to get up next week and commit the nation to sending people to Mars we could have people on Mars before the end of this decade," said Zubrin.

But until then, the desert will have to do.