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Report: My mission to Mars; The closest most of us will ever get to Mars is the nearest sweet shop. But not GRACE DENT, who boldly joined an all-male team of would- be astronauts at Space Camp to find out whether she's got the right stuff.

Byline: GRACE DENT

IT'S two minutes to lift-off, I'm strapped into the flight deck and shedding pounds through sheer stress. Hundreds of buttons flash and bleep, and orders are barked in my ear.

One foolish move could either lead to aborting the mission - and sheepishly returning to Cape Canaveral having chalked up $300million in costs - or simply a horrible death up where no one can hear you scream. Thank god I'm only in a simulator at Space Camp.

The contraption is situated in a giant Cosmodome on the outskirts of Quebec, Canada, where wannabe moonwalkers and science nuts flock to experience astronaut life first-hand.

With Brian De Palma's space-race epic, Mission To Mars, out on DVD this week, I have enrolled at Space Camp to discover just what astronauts like Woody (Tim Robbins) and Jim (Gary Sinise) went through.

My team is made up of me and five male twenty-somethings. Our mission is to recover satellites and deliver supplies to the Mir space station.

Sharing the ship, Endeavour, with men provides a test of mental agility as well as patience. Everybody wants to be in charge and I realise rapidly that my mundane responsibilities as "Payload Specialist 2" are all my blokeish colleagues think I'm worth.

"Payload Specialist 2 - go to 5A16 upper G, enable the fuel," screams my commander. There are dozens of switches, wires and circuits but the vital one I need is missing. The other astronauts tut, I begin to sweat.

Engines ignite and rumble loudly and my stomach lurches with nerves. "Prepare for countdown," comes the command from mission control. "All systems are GO!" shouts my commander. I'm very jealous, I wanted to say that.

We're off. Thousands of miles up into space, but there's no time to enjoy the view as red emergency lights start flashing. "Where is Payload 2? Is she doing her lipstick?" screams one mission scientist as I fumble to repair a faulty circuit. I wish I'd paid more attention at astronaut school.

A real mission to Mars would last 18 months, and that's a long time cooped up with some of these men's egos - not to mention their feet. Fortunately, we will only be spending a week attending lectures, experiencing weightlessness, driving moon buggies and practising with real astronaut equipment.

Training begins in a cold classroom with Patrick Gerard, an ex-NASA pilot. "Firstly, I'll explain exactly why you don't want to go to space," he announces. The answer is loneliness.

Astronauts are severed from family and friends and imprisoned 24-hours- a- day with colleagues chosen for their technical rather than social skills. In fact, it's like going on a long caravan holiday with your work's IT department.

In space, nobody wheels a trolley through with warm towels and Bloody Marys or lets you watch a movie - instead, it's sheer hard slog.

We're served real space food - vacuum-packed chicken casserole - which tastes of salty chalk. Just the thought of existing on such mush for a year brings a tear to my eye.

After hours of lessons I'm anxious to try on a replica spacesuit. They cost $6million each to produce and without one a human would survive 15 seconds in space before melting like a Mars bar. "Astronauts don't explode like in movies," Patrick says. "In fact, a death scene in Mission To Mars is the most realistic I've seen. Every cell simultaneously collapses, turning the astronaut into a human puddle. Your eyes might explode though." Lovely.

Spacesuits are heavy, weighing in at 256lbs, and without their complex air-conditioning mechanisms you would suffocate. "How do I go to the toilet?" I ask Patrick delicately. He explains that although astronauts use normal toilets within a spacecraft, once in a spacesuit, different rules apply. "Space nappies are filled with a chemical which turns urine to gel in seconds, so you're never damp inside the suit," he explains.

My replica spacesuit is a third of the actual weight but within minutes I'm feeling claustrophobic. The men in my crew are in seventh heaven as they giggle and discuss favourite Star Trek episodes.

Space Camp's most exciting feature is the training room, a cavernous hangar where simulators provide authentic physical astronaut experiences.

First up is the Multi-Axis Chair (or chuck-up chair as Space Camp tutors call it). It hurtles astronauts on three axes, recreating gravity-free conditions. I sit on the chair while my hands and feet are securely shackled.

THEN Patrick shouts, "Keep your eyes open. If you're going to vomit shout out and if you have a heart condition tell us now."

I begin spinning. The first 360-degree turn is the worst, then it becomes amazing fun. "Find the key panel and type in 1, 3, 6, 7," Patrick instructs, testing my hand-to-eye coordination. Impossible. There's a key panel somewhere beside the chair but my surroundings are a complete blur.

Real astronauts are strapped into these contraptions for hours, days even. I last two sessions and am delighted as my male crew members slope off to the bathroom green-faced.

In contrast, I'm dreading the "five-degrees-of-freedom machine" - another gravity-free simulator. A small hook is placed between my legs, then by a complicated arrangement of attached weights and springs, four fifths of my body weight is offset. At one fifth of my weight, this is how moonwalking feels.

The men jump, whoop and flail their arms. I'm just plain scared. One little jump hurls all 5ft 4in of me 20ft in the air.

Back on board the Endeavour I'm strapped into the chair of a space crane and, using buttons and levers, guide myself up to retrieve data from a satellite and fix a valve. I execute it all with no problems and return to earth feeling extremely smug.

Brimming with confidence I'm now convinced I'll be the first woman packing her cases when Mars is colonised. But to fine-tune my expertise, I meet Michel Dion, space scientist and Mars expert.

First, if I embark on the 18-month journey to Mars, can I really a) take a partner like Woody does in Mission To Mars? and b) have "relations" with him to break up the tedium a bit?

Sadly, the answer's no. Couples in space are forbidden but you can have sex in space if the urge is overwhelming - in a tube to prevent you floating away from each other.

Michel also points out that there's probably no life on Mars, aside from a random mystery molecule which he's very excited about. I think I'll stick to watching the film.

Fatigued by scientific brain strain, I leave space and retire to a bar - where there's a lot more atmosphere.

Brian De Palma's sci-fi adventure Mission To Mars is out to own from Monday 5 March. To celebrate the launch of this all-action space voyage, we're giving readers the chance to win one of 50 copies on VHS or DVD. Starring Tim Robbins and Gary Sinise, this is one to watch again and again. To enter, simply tell us who directed Mission To Mars? Send your name and contact details to: M/Mission To Mars, PIMS House, PO Box 2860, Mildmay Avenue, London N1 4SS

CAPTION(S):

The "chuck-up chair" recreates gravity-free conditions by hurtling Grace through 360 degrees; Strapped into the chair of a space crane, Grace uses buttons and levers to fix a satellite valve; Without a spacesuit a human would last around 15 seconds in space before meltingMovie space exploration in Mission To Mars
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:M on Tuesday
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 6, 2001
Words:1239
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