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Utah Scientist Work With NASA On A Mission That Is Out Of This World, Or Will Be Soon
Drs. Bruce Bugbee (left) and Lance Seefeldt (right) in the lab where they grow plants under conditions similar to those expected on Mars.

Drs. Bruce Bugbee and Lance Seefeldt are both scientists at Utah State University. Dr. Bugbee is a botanist, he studies plants; and Dr. Seefeldt is a biochemist, he studies the chemistry of living organisms. It may not sound like these scientists have very much in common, but they do have one common interest.

At a recent public presentation Dr. Seefeldt asked the audience, “How many of you are excited to hear about Mars?” The crowd errupted in cheers.

That's right. Mars.The two scientists are part of a larger interdisciplinary team funded by NASA to prepare for the first manned missions to Mars. Their task: figure out how to grow food on the harsh planet.

“But it isn’t just growing plants. It’s how to use the resources of Mars so we can live there. For long-term habitation," said Dr. Bugbee. The team met in Logan this month to discuss their progress and plan their next steps.

“The Mars atmosphere is something like 1% of our atmosphere, and it has lots of carbon dioxide. Well, that’s perfect because that’s the food for photosynthesis.  There’s a little bit of nitrogen in the air, and that’s enough.Then we’d mine as much as we can from the regolith, we call it. We don’t call it soil because really it’s a sterile dust.”

Dr. Bugbee says any colony on Mars would have to be underground, to protect the inhabitants from solar radiation and meteorites. I had to ask, why would anyone want to live on Mars?

“It’s a very hard place to live. It’s not pleasant at all. I mean, they’re exploring a different place. Learning about it,” he said.

So when will the first mission to Mars happen?

“The answer is it depends on available funding. I think we could go in five years.  If they said 20 years, we could do it more efficiently and more reliably.”