Four sealed in chamber to test space-age recycling technology Stay-at-home researchers prepare for trip to Mars

October 10, 1997|By HOUSTON CHRONICLE

HOUSTON -- Their lapel pins proclaim "Mars or Bust," and the four volunteers take that so seriously they have sealed themselves off from the outside world for 90 days.

Their home is a small, furnished test chamber at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The volunteers gathered Sept. 19 to begin the fourth in a series of increasingly sophisticated tests of new recycling technologies that NASA is developing at the center for future human spaceflight.

"This is as close to space as you can get without being there," said NASA's Don Henninger, the agency's chief scientist for advanced life-support systems studies.

Volunteers Vickie Kloeris, John Lewis, Nigel Packham and Laura Supra share 30 gallons of water a day, stretched into meager individual showers, a communal clothes washing and some to drink. Moisture is so precious they recycle all their wastewater, including urine. They will use the same water more than a dozen times before they emerge from their self-imposed isolation just before Christmas.

Currently, there is no national directive to send Americans back to the moon or on to Mars to establish the first settlements. But without technologies to recycle air, water and food, the cost of those grand adventures would be prohibitive.

Sequestered in their three-level chamber, the young engineers and scientists are pioneering the technologies, if not the missions themselves. And if one of them is selected years from now for the actual journey, so much the better.

"I remember as a small child watching the first space shuttle launch [in 1981]. I knew at that point I wanted to work in the space arena," said Supra, at 28, the youngest of the volunteers. "I don't know what the future holds, but I haven't ruled anything out."

Supra, a biospace engineer, left her regular duties with AlliedSignal in suburban Los Angeles to join the NASA experiment.

"This is just a great honor and experience to be able to participate in," said John Lewis, a 30-year-old Lockheed Martin engineer. Lewis' wife, Lisa, agreed to his participation though she will be two weeks from childbirth when he completes the test.

By taking several new strides, Kloeris, Lewis, Packham and Supra will pave the way for more ambitious tests planned for the turn of the century.

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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