We need to learn about Mars. As the most life-friendly extraterrestrial planet, Mars is the Rosetta Stone for letting us know whether the phenomenon of life is something unique to the Earth, or prevalent in the Universe.
Dr Robert Zubrin
President of the Mars Society
The nearest planet with all the resources required for technological civilization, Mars will also be the decisive testing ground that will determine whether humanity can expand from its globe of origin to enjoy the unlimited prospects open to a spacefaring species.
No one goes outside unless they are in a suit
Up to now, we have scanned Mars with telescopes and robotic probes, but our most potent instrument for scouting new worlds, the human explorer, has for the most part been left on the bench.
That has begun to change.
No, piloted spacecraft are not set to lift off for Mars. But starting in the summer of 2000, a group of scientists began the process of learning how to explore the Red Planet by engaging in a mission to one of the most Mars-like places on Earth.
North to Mars
Devon Island is located circa 75 degrees north in Canada's Nunavut Territory.
Consisting largely of polar desert with a 15-mile (24 km) diameter meteorite impact crater, the island is completely uninhabited and unvegetated.
The impact, which occurred 23 million years ago, destroyed all life on the island and created a variety of shocked terrains which are believed to be very similar to those found on Mars.
For that reason, in 1997, US space agency (Nasa) scientists started exploring the area in order to learn about Mars by geologic comparison.
When venturing into the unknown, the unexpected will happen. But a resourceful crew can deal with it
Then, in 1998 the Mars Society was founded, with the goal of promoting the exploration of the Red Planet.
We decided that, for our first project, the society should build a simulated human Mars exploration station on the island.
The purpose of the station would be to continue the geologic exploration of Devon, but do it in the same style and under many of the same constraints as would be involved in conducting such activities on Mars.
By doing so, researchers would be forced to confront some of the real problems of human Mars exploration and begin the process of developing appropriate field tactics.
Benefits from the field
Such research is vitally necessary. For example, it is one thing to walk around a factory test area in a new spacesuit prototype and show that a wearer can pick up a wrench; it is entirely another to subject that same suit to two months of real field work.
Water use is a key variable in defining Mars mission logistics requirements, yet are unknown, and will remain unknown until assessed in the context of a programme of active field exploration.
Psychological studies of human factor issues, including isolation and habitat architecture, are nearly useless unless the crew being studied is attempting to do real work.
The impacts on crew operations of candidate subsystem maintenance requirements, or various proposed procedures, can also only be measured if the crew is really operating.
Furthermore, there is an operations design problem of considerable complexity to be solved.
A human Mars mission will involve diverse players with different capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, including the crew of the Mars habitat, pedestrian astronauts outside, astronauts on unpressurised but highly nimble light vehicles operating at moderate distances from the habitat, astronauts operating at great distances from the habitat using clumsy but long-endurance vehicles such as pressurised rovers, mission control on Earth, the terrestrial scientific community at large, robots, etc.
Taking these different assets and making them work in symphony to achieve the maximum possible exploration effect will require developing an art of combined operations for Mars missions.
The Mars Arctic Research Station project would begin the critical task of developing this art.
Construction of Flashline Station
So, starting in the fall of 1998, a volunteer Mars Society task force was formed to define the project further, and during 1999 private funds were raised allowing the project to be initiated in earnest.
In January 2000, a contract for fabrication was let to Infracomp, of Commerce City Colorado, whose unique ultrastrong, comparatively lightweight, and weatherproof fibreglass honeycomb technology provided an attractive option for the Devon Island Station.
Since Devon has no air strip capable of landing items as large as the station's primary components, we arranged with the US Marine Corps to paradrop our materials in using C-130 Hercules aircraft.
The knowledge gained will be taken to Mars when we go for real
That's when things started to go wrong. The first five paradrops carrying the walls, legs and some of the dome sections of the habitat occurred on 5 July.
Despite adverse gusty winds, these delivered their payloads safely to the ground, but fell wide of the Haynes Ridge target construction site.
The sixth drop, on 8 July, carrying the remaining domes and other equipment, went well. However, 8 July's seventh and final drop was a disaster.
The payload separated from the parachute at an altitude of 1,000 feet (300 metres), causing the complete destruction of the habitat fibreglass floors, a trailer that had been shipped to the Arctic to help move the 800-lb (360 kg) fibreglass wall panels in the event they did drop wide of the target site, and a crane required to construct the station.
With the loss of the trailer, the floors, and the crane, the construction crew that the Mars Society had paid to fly to Devon to assemble the station declared that building it was impossible, and fled the island.
At this point, it seemed to most observers that the project was doomed. Indeed, one journalist covering the events went so far as to ask me: "Dr Zubrin, do you see a parallel between the failure of your programme and that of the Mars Polar Lander?"
Human ingenuity could be the key to survival
I replied: "There's a parallel in that we both hit a rock. But the difference is that we have a human crew here, and we are going to find a way out of this."
Refusing to give up, we assembled a new makeshift construction crew consisting of a combination of Mars Society scientists, Inuit, and journalists.
We built a new trailer out of wood and parts of a wrecked baggage cart found at the Resolute Bay airport.
We acquired a rickety old scaffold and block and tackle from Resolute Bay as well, and with the help of these items, the rag-tag team of volunteers managed to improvise its way through two weeks of fifteen-hour workdays to get the station up.
Thus was bravely born the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station.
Learning Lessons for Mars
As a result of the delays caused by the paradrop accident and its difficult sequel, we did not have time in 2000 for much in the way of mission simulations.
But starting in the summer of 2001, a series of six-person crews occupied the station, conducting sustained programmes of field exploration in geology and microbiology while operating under many Mars mission constraints.
No one is allowed to go outside without wearing bulky spacesuit simulators which limit the users' agility, mobility, dexterity, and situational awareness in ways comparable to that imposed by a real spacesuit, and force teams of extravehicular explorers to communicate with each other by radio.
Limited to their own resources, the crews need to perform all the required fieldwork, lab work, repair of equipment, mundane chores, and get along, all while sending comprehensive science and engineering reports to our Mission Support centre in Denver.
This operations research programme was then expanded substantially in February 2002, when we opened our second station, the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah.
A third station, the European Mars Arctic Research Station, or EuroMars, has been fabricated and, funding permitting, will be deployed to Iceland in the summer of 2004.
Between the Flashline Station and the MDRS a huge amount of research has already been done.
Plans to improvise
We have fielded 26 different crews, comprising some 150 different individuals drawn from 20 nations.
Over 2,000 person-days of field experience has been acquired. We have tested out crews with a variety of age, skill, gender, nationality, and character mixes.
We have tested different kinds of field mobility systems, scientific instruments, and robotic assistants. We have tried commanding the mission from Denver and from the field (the later works better - the Mars mission will have to be led from the front.)
We have experimented with ancillary systems ranging from astronomical observatories to bioregenerative waste reprocessing greenhouses, and investigated a variety of alternative mission operational protocols.
Telescopes and robotic probes can tell us only so much
Many scientific conclusions have been derived from this experience base, covering areas ranging from crew water and power requirements to the scheduling of sleep cycles, resulting so far in the publication of over 25 scientific papers and three books.
But perhaps the most important lesson was learned during the stormy building of Flashline Station itself.
Everything did not go right on Devon Island during the summer of 2000. Neither, however, can we expect everything to go right on the first human mission to Mars.
The military has a saying: "All plans fail upon contact with the enemy."
In the wild Arctic, all plans fail on contact with reality. The same will be even truer on Mars.
When venturing into the unknown, the unexpected will happen. But a resourceful crew can deal with it.
On the piloted Mars mission, the human crew will be the strongest link in the chain.
Dr Robert Zubrin is an astronautical engineer and president of the Mars Society. He details the Arctic and desert research experiences of his organisation in his new book Mars On Earth, (Tarcher Penguin, 2003.)