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Swiss teacher boldly goes on a Mars mission

Barbara Burtscher did an exceptional job in a Nasa flight simulator in the US

Swiss physics teacher Barbara Burtscher has been selected to undergo Mars training in the United States, a further step in her dream of becoming an astronaut.

The training will take place at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, whose clients include Nasa. For two weeks Burtscher will live in conditions akin to those on the Red Planet.

Burtscher, who is 24 years old, leaves on Friday and will join five others at the station, whose location in the desert of Utah is as close as it gets on Earth to the conditions on Mars.

"I'll meet my crew and then we'll go together to the desert to live there in the 24 square metre station and to do experiments," Burtscher told swissinfo.ch.

The centre is run by the non-profit Mars Society to prepare humans to set foot on the distant planet. It attracts space professionals and enthusiasts from all over the world.

Robots will be used and helmets and spacesuits must be worn at all times when outside the small research station. Communication will be maintained with "Earth". However, the astronauts will not have to endure the weightlessness associated with the lower gravity of Mars.

Burtscher's duties will include taking measurements in the grounds around the station and looking after a small garden in the greenhouse. All food will be astronaut-issue, such as dried fruit and rice. She will not be able to take shampoo and soap from home.

Liquids will be specially prepared. This includes, she says, the crew's urine, which will be purified and recycled as water.

Burtscher did not have to apply for the training. "They asked me if I would like to come to the station to participate," she explained via email.

Nasa impressed

Earlier this year the teacher took part in the International Space Camp 2009 at the Nasa Education Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, after a pupil of hers won a competition and took her along.

Burtscher so impressed Nasa – her space shuttle flight training was for example exceptional – that she was offered a job during the holidays training other teachers about space travel and astronomy. The invitation for Utah followed on from this.

The Swiss astrophysicist has always been a high achiever. She finished her studies at Zurich University at age 22 – early for Switzerland - and has since been teaching physics at a secondary school in Wattwil, near St Gallen. Next year the pupils will be offered the opportunity to take astronomy classes as well.

In addition, she organises the annual Swiss Astronomy Day.

Burtscher has been fascinated by outer space since she was child. Her dream, she explained, was to set foot on other, as yet unexplored, planets and to see the Earth from above.

Moon and Mars

"First it would be great to go to the Moon and then maybe later to Mars," she said.

A round trip to Mars, however, would take two years. So far humans have only sent probes down to the Red Planet's surface.

"I am not yet an astronaut, I have a big chance of becoming one," she told swissinfo.ch. It will certainly still take many years before a real chance arises, she added.

But her job as a trainer at Nasa is certainly a step in the right direction. In addition, Burtscher is also applying for Nasa's space travel programme for schoolteachers.

The busy teacher is currently doing her glider's pilot licence. Another hobby is playing table tennis, which is why she is "more than happy" that the crew has decided to play the game during the Mars Desert Research Station stay.

After her return on December 14, Burtscher will be straight back to school, where she has exams to sort out. She says that for now her day job, which she loves, and her dream job fit well together.

"Teacher, organiser of the astronomy day and all the other jobs don't interrupt my plan of eventually becoming an astronaut," she said.

Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch

Controversy (18.08.10)

An article published on August 17, 2010 in the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper elaborated on the nature of Barbara Burtscher’s dealings with Nasa. Her work at the Education Resource Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, a popular science centre supported by the American space agency, had been wrongly described by many media outlets, including swissinfo.ch, as being a part of Nasa itself.

In a statement published on August 18, 2010 on her internet site, Barbara Burtscher maintained that she had always endeavoured to inform the media correctly and that she had never presented herself as a “Nasa astronaut”. She said that she was nevertheless sorry if her statements had given rise to a false impression. Burtscher added that she would continue to pursue her dream of one day becoming an astronaut.

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Mars

Mars, named after the Roman God of War, is the fourth planet from the Sun. Its red colour comes from the iron-rich minerals on its surface.

The first flyby of a spacecraft took place in 1965. No proof of life on Mars has been found, but the planet is thought to be the most likely one to harbour liquid water.

At present three crafts are orbiting the planet.

The planet has two small satellite moons, Phobos and Deimos

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Barbara Burtscher

Burtscher was born in Ebnat-Kappel in eastern Switzerland. She later studied physics at Zurich University, and won several awards with her final term paper.

During her studies she founded the Swiss Astronomy Day with her partner Martin Signer. The next one takes place on September 11, 2010 in Basel. She also runs a wealth management company with Signer.

She is currently a secondary school teacher in Wattwill, teaching physics to around 200 pupils.

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