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Iceland tells tourists it's like an alien planet. A NASA scientist agrees

Iceland is like Mars — if the Red Planet had hot tubs. That's the cheeky idea behind a new pitch from Iceland's tourism board, which says people don't need a spaceship to see otherworldly sights like red rocks, black sand and subglacial volcanoes. Plus, they note, oxygen is abundant in Iceland.

To drive home the message, they launched a promo video and a space billboard with the tagline, "Iceland. Better than space."

Space tourism has been making headlines for years now. But people can find a similar experience in Iceland — at a fraction of the cost and without the baggage of a large carbon footprint, Sigríður Dögg Guðmundsdóttir, head of Visit Iceland, tells NPR.

NASA agrees: the agency has repeatedly used Iceland as a stand-in for the Moon, and it's doing so again as it prepares astronauts for new missions off-world.

"Iceland is an amazing analog for both the Moon and Mars," says NASA's Kelsey Young, who researches the exploration of planetary surfaces and who has done geologic fieldwork in Iceland.

Iceland vs. space

"From experiencing the Northern Lights at Reykjavik and relaxing in a geothermal spa to dining in a tomato greenhouse, there are new experiences of joy and wonder just waiting to be discovered" on Earth, Guðmundsdóttir says.

She adds, "Your enjoyment of these experiences would be greatly reduced by wearing a space suit."

Of course, space famously allows people to escape Earth's gravity. Overrated, Guðmundsdóttir says.

"For one thing, gravity gives you water," she notes. "Without gravity, there are no geothermal pools to relax in. Geothermal pools, on the other hand, give you the feeling of weightlessness."

Iceland launched a space billboard

The country recently launched a space billboard as part of its new tourism push. A weather balloon took an electronic tablet into the stratosphere, carrying an ad and a camera to capture an image of the "Better than space" message with the curve of the Earth as a backdrop.

In case you're wondering: It's not in orbit.

"We are not big on space junk and would never set something on a trajectory around Earth for the sake of marketing," Guðmundsdóttir says. "That would be irresponsible."

"Using a weather balloon means we did not use any fuel to launch the space billboard," she says, adding that the balloon lifted off from one part of the country, deflated at a predetermined altitude, and was recovered near Lake Mývatn in the northeast.

NASA and Hollywood have used Iceland's alien landscapes

Iceland's unique characteristics have long made it a destination for scientists, who come to study everything from single-cell organisms that live in extreme conditions to geological processes that play out on an epic scale.

Before NASA sent its first astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s, it sent them to Iceland, where the island nation's volcanic craters and rocky landscapes let them rehearse operating on the lunar surface.

"One astronaut, after returning from his trip to the lunar surface, reported that Iceland was the most lunar-like of the field sites he visited during training," Young tells NPR.

In July, Young was part of a NASA contingent that visited the same sites as the Apollo crews. Two astronauts performed Artemis spacewalk simulations, she says, with an eye to do more training for the upcoming moon mission there.

Iceland's unique features lets astronauts practice navigating in a moon-like environment, Young says. They can also test how tools and gear might cope with the lunar regolith — the mix of soil and rocks on the Moon's surface.

Those features have also helped Iceland evoke other worlds in films and TV, Guðmundsdóttir notes.

"Iceland frequently stands in for space in movies, due to its otherworldly nature," she says, reeling off titles ranging from Star Wars' Rogue One and The Force Awakens to Star Trek Into Darkness. For Interstellar, it portrayed two different planets. The country keeps a running list of its star turns.

Tourism sank during the pandemic's worst days

Worldwide tourism took a massive hit in the first two years of the pandemic. But Iceland kept promoting its getaway appeal — and it seems to be enjoying pent-up demand.

"This year, we expect to see around 90% of pre-pandemic numbers in terms of visitors," Guðmundsdóttir says. "This is not the case for all countries," she adds, noting that the U.N.'s World Tourism Organization puts the world tourism average at 57% of pre-COVID levels.

Tourism is a vital piece of the Icelandic economy, she says: While it accounted for 8% of the national GDP from 2016-2019, its share fell to 3.6% in 2020 and 4.2% in 2021.

There's one last area where Guðmundsdóttir sees an advantage for her country. While both outer space and Iceland offer enormous expanses of beauty, space doesn't offer much in the way of cultural exchange. After all, she says, "the real value in travel is in the interactions you create with other people."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.