Devon Island is a bleak, windswept wasteland in the Canadian Arctic. It's as close as you can get to Mars without leaving Earth, and that's the lure for a band of space-suited "colonists" who are gathering there this week.
During a two-month simulated mission to the Red Planet, the Mars enthusiasts will live inside a cylindrical fiberglass "habitat," and they'll send dispatches to mission control in Lakewood, Colo.
They will trudge across the alien landscape in helmeted canvas spacesuits with back packs, gloves and rubberized military cold-weather boots.
And they will be guarded by an Inuit native with a rifle who will watch for polar bears from an ATV.
"If a polar bear shows up, all bets are off. We stop the simulation and deal with it," said Robert Zubrin, founder and president of the Mars Society, an organization that promotes manned and robotic Mars exploration. It has 4,500 paid members and chapters in 40 countries.
The simulated mission started Thursday, and Zubrin will command two of the six nine-day shifts.
The Mars Society has raised $800,000 in private funds for the project, which is expected to continue for at least three years. Corporate sponsors include the Discovery Channel and Flashline Inc.
About $400,000 was spent on the habitat, erected on Devon Island last summer. Known as a "tuna-can hab," the two-story domed dwelling is 27 feet in diameter and will house a crew of six.
Though no NASA funds were spent to build the Arctic base, about one-quarter of the 25 crew members are current or former space-agency employees, Zubrin said. They are geologists, microbiologists, engineers and others who support a manned mission to Mars. NASA's current Mars exploration program is strictly robotic.
"We're not just a bunch of amateurs playing Mars," said Frank Schubert, a founding member of the Mars Society. "We're for real.
"I know that there are certain people in NASA who would rather that we just go away, but there is another segment that takes us seriously. They know we're not flakes."
The main goal of the simulation is to learn how to live and work on Mars an 18-month round-trip journey from Earth. What kind of tools and equipment would you need? How much water is required? Will confinement and isolation drive the crew stir-crazy?
"If you ask the question, 'What can you do on Earth to prepare you for Mars?' I think the most obvious thing you can do is to get to a remote site that simulates the conditions on Mars as much as possible," said Michael Drake, director of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and chairman of NASA's solar system exploration subcommittee.
"What they are trying to do, I think, makes a lot of sense, in terms of trying to live autonomously," said Drake, who is not a society member.
John Mankins, manager for advanced concept studies at NASA's Office of Space Flight, said information about crew interactions during the two-month Devon Island simulation could be "immensely useful."
"The human-human interactions in the context of trying to conduct these exploration science goals - the field geology and so on - that's what's unique," said Mankins, who doesn't belong to the society.
Zubrin compares the Devon Island simulation to war games that help soldiers prepare for battle. But the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station is also an effort to build credibility for the fledgling Mars Society, launched in 1998.
To follow this summer's simulated mission, check out the society's Web site: marssociety.org.