The Mars Desert Research Station in Utah (MDRS) attracts rocket scientists, Nasa workers, teachers, engineers, aspiring astronauts and space enthusiasts from all over the world. BBC News Online's Hilary Bowden recently spent a fortnight living alongside a crew of volunteers.
The Desert Research Station simulates Mars as far as possible
Deep in the red rocky canyonlands of southern Utah is a centre devoted to simulating what it will be like for the first humans to land on Mars.
The Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville is a two-storey "habitat" where international crews spend two weeks living under Mars-like conditions, only venturing outdoors in a spacesuit.
It is owned by the Mars Society, an organisation dedicated to expanding knowledge of the Red Planet and encouraging human exploration.
Images from the Mars Desert Research Centre in Utah
My crewmates included Alain Souchier, a French rocket scientist; Stacy Cusack, a Nasa flight controller; Derek Shannon, a student; Pierre-Emmanuel Paulis, a teacher at a Belgian space camp; and our commander, Charles Frankel, a geologist and writer.
All are equally passionate about sending humans to Mars - Stacy and Derek hope to become astronauts one day.
Pierre-Emmanuel and Stacy don space suits and explore
Stacy, 29, from Webster, Texas, currently looks after the life support systems for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
She said: "Mankind has already landed on the Moon. I think it's womankind's turn on Mars."
Desert tin can
On the ground floor of our desert base is a laboratory where the crew can test rock and soil samples they have picked up on geological hunts or work on their Mars robots and ground-penetrating radar machines.
A wooden ladder leads upstairs to the mess room where everyone sleeps and prepares meals and writes up their scientific and engineering reports on a bank of computers.
Mars holds a strange fascination
It is also where the crew contacts mission control - which in reality is made up of a group of volunteers manning computers scattered across the east coast.
Crew biologist, Derek Shannon, 22, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, admits: "It may seem a little crazy to be out here pretending we are on Mars but it is even crazier that we are not doing the real thing and exploring the planet. That would benefit humanity in ways that we can't even imagine right now."
He is currently studying data from the Themis instrument on board the Mars 2001 Odyssey orbiter. It is a camera that can determine the distribution of minerals on the surface of Mars.
Commander Charles Frankel, 46, from Paris, likens the experience of being cooped in a tin can in the middle of the desert to a "university summer school for Mars experts".
MDRS rehearses everything necessary for a Mars landing
Breakfast conversations at the habitat do not consist of "pass the cereal". They are more likely to be about possible biosignatures in the Martian meteorite ALH84001.
Each day we don our homemade space suits - with helmets cleverly made out of rubbish bins - and go out on EVAs or extra vehicular activity. Like real Martian explorers, we enter an airlock before emerging outside.
For French Ariane rocket scientist Alain Souchier, 55, the rocky desert terrain is perfect to test out his cliff reconnaissance robot. It is designed to be suspended down Martian cliff faces to take video footage.
He said: "In 200 metres of a cliff - you can interpret 200 million years of evolution.
"I think it is very important that we go to Mars, to compare the evolution of planets, understand more about the origins of life, develop new technologies that can be used on Earth and increase young people's interest in science. Also we need to dream."
Inspiring that dream in young people is the mission of Pierre-Emmanuel Paulis, 38, a teacher from Euro Space Center, Libin, and a well-known cartoonist.
Alain and Derek test the cliff robot
He hopes his experiences in Utah will help him to establish a similar Mars habitat for children who come to his space camp in Belgium.
He said: "The pioneering spirit that runs through us all is the bridge that connects past and future."
The recent loss of the space shuttle Columbia may have dealt a devastating blow to human space exploration but these Mars enthusiasts fervently believe that it is still just a matter of time before the lure of the Red Planet becomes irresistible.
In the meantime, there are plans to build further Mars simulation bases in Iceland and in the Australian outback.
Another base already exists on Devon Island in the high Arctic of Canada.
Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, said: "We need to colonise new planets to ensure our own survival as a race and to forge new frontiers. If the dinosaurs had had a Mars programme, they might still be here."