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Would life on Mars be this messy?

Miles O'Brien at the Haughton-Mars Project base camp
Miles O'Brien at the Haughton-Mars Project base camp  

CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien and producer Linda Saether are in Devon Island, Canada, where NASA and other researchers are taking part in The Haughton-Mars Project, a NASA-led program researching the Haughton impact crater in the Canadian high arctic. The area is said to be similar to Mars and may give insights into the possibilities of living in the extreme environment of the red planet.

MONDAY, JULY 16 -- DEVON ISLAND -- Our little tent beside the airport offers the bare minimum of shelter from the incessant, maddening rain. The tent has some leaks and we, of course, track in our share of mud. It is a mucky mess and keeping all the boxes and cables coordinated in this environment is a big challenge.

But the show does go on. We beat back the technological gremlins and offered up a series of live videophone dispatches, mostly of the "holy-cow-we-are-here-and-we-are-live" category. After a while any reporter worth his salt wants to break free of the live tether, go some places and see some things.

The Duke of Devon, Pascal Lee, came to the rescue in the afternoon, once our final live shot was history.

CNN's Miles O'Brien has a look at a possible faster way to Mars (June 17)

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He proposed a hike over to the "Hab," the cylindrical "spaceship" where a half dozen people are inside living "La Vida Roja." The trip did not appear to be that arduous. The Hab sits about a mile off on the crest of the Haughton asteroid impact crater.

We grabbed the gear and hit the craggy rocks. Once we crested the first ridge, we realized why most people ride ATVs to the Hab -- a rushing river meandered through the valley floor below.

Lee looked back at us and offered a gently patronizing offer to turn back if we didn't want to brave a ford that would undoubtedly swamp our boots. You can lead a reporter to water, but you can't make him wade, unless, of course, you offer what amounts to a dare. We accepted the challenge and hit the water, thinking somehow that we were being hazed.

The stream was shallow but still deep enough to crest over the top of my Timberlands. Linda's boots fared even more poorly. I looked at Lee and realized he was wearing high rubber boots. He smiled sheepishly and for reasons that elude us, said, "the water is very clean." It was also wet and cold, adjectives that seemed more relevant to me at the time, but Lee is clearly a man who looks at the bright side.

Our slog to the rim of the crater and the Hab resulted in a great payoff -- a spectacular vista. Twenty-three million years ago, a rock one-half mile in diameter struck here. It did not cause a global extinction but did leave behind an impressive 14-mile-wide hole -- it certainly would have warranted some CNN Breaking News coverage. I guess we were a little late showing up for this cataclysm.

Gray rolling hills rise out of the putty-brown tundra, proof that something big and powerful dropped in. Lee says the rocks that are here are very porous as a result of the impact, so much so that microbes actually live inside. Interesting. An impact crater might be a very cool place to land on Mars. Lee told me, "the rocks are like books -- each one has a story to tell."

But they sure are taciturn, aren't they? Pleading the Fifth, no doubt.

Producer Linda Saether sorting out the gear
Producer Linda Saether sorting out the gear  

TUESDAY, JULY 17 -- DEVON ISLAND -- A break in the weather, at last. When we emerged from our tents -- about 5 a.m. local time, 6 a.m. in Atlanta -- we saw blue sky for the first time since arriving. We should not complain too hard about the weather. In the 14 days since the 2001 campaign began here, 12 of them were wet.

We missed a pair of live shots this morning -- technical issues. And this time we could not blame our temperamental suite of technological troublemakers. We had moved our location to another side of the tent in order to use the Hab as a backdrop. The signals were fine coming and going, but when we walked out of the tent to take our places for the report, the whole thing went to seed.

Finally, it dawned on me that we were standing smack dab in front of our satellite phones, blocking their path to the bird. Don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that is not a bright idea. It was about this time that the image of that juggler on the Ed Sullivan show who kept all those plates spinning on poles entered my head.

Every time we seem to have them all spooled up, one hits the floor and shatters.

As the day wore on the weather got better. We were cut loose from our live tether to shoot some tape.

We set out for the Hab once again, this time riding on ATVs. No more foot-fords for this TV team. We may have our moments, but eventually we learn our lesson. A trio of live-in Hab crew members was staging a fully-suited extravehicular activity. It was a Mars walk, wearing helmets, backpacks, heavy boots and thick gloves. The idea is to get a feel for what a real workday on the red planet might be like.

It looked like space camp on steroids. With Hab commander and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin leading, they plodded through the installation of a sounding device designed to spot the telltale signs of subterranean water. Vladimir Pletser, an astronaut candidate for the European Space Agency, and Katy Quinn, a grad student at MIT, joined Zubrin.

The Haughton-Mars Project base camp
The Haughton-Mars Project base camp  

They had a terrible time talking with each other over the radios. Pletser's voice activation was not set properly -- every time he exhaled he broke squelch. This drove Zubrin nuts and he was sure to let everyone know it. Zubrin is not a shy man, but he is the guy who radically changed NASA's thinking on how to get to Mars (Mars Direct). I suppose his impatience is an attribute that has served him very well.

We rounded out the shooting day with some other scenes of this tent city in the middle of nowhere, and I really mean nowhere. Humans don't usually inhabit this island. Polar bears sit atop the food chain on Devon.

The weather continued to improve as the afternoon wore into evening, although it really takes a lot of effort to figure out just what time it is. Right now it is just after midnight and the sky is azure blue and the sun is shining so bright I will wear my sunglasses as I traverse the camp for my tent.

The sun never sets here this time of year. Very strange place.

In addition to his work covering space for CNN, Miles will be a prime-time anchor on the new CNN Headline News when it premieres on August 6.

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