Status Report

Dispatch from Mars Society Arctic Expedition by Robert Zubrin July 7, 2001

By SpaceRef Editor
July 7, 2001
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I left Denver yesterday, heading north to take part in the Mars Society’s arctic expedition.

What we will attempt to do is unique. For two months, six person crews of scientists and engineers will attempt to conduct a sustained
program of field exploration in the 75 degree North polar desert of Canada’s Devon Island, while operating under the same
operational constraints as a human expedition exploring Mars. We will live in a combination habitat/laboratory module that is an architectural duplicate of a Mars mission unit. No one will be able to go outside without wearing a simulated spacesuit, and spending ten minutes in the airlock going each way. All communication between spacesuited crew members will be by radio. All communication with our Mission Control will be through radio messages with an 8 minute time delay. Water use will be rationed tightly. While the outside environment will only actually pose the ordinary Arctic hazards of weather, polar bears, logistical cut off, and so forth, we will behave as if it is as lethal as Mars. Under these conditions, we hope to start developing the book of field tactics needed for effective human Mars exploration.

Getting to Devon Island is by no means as hard as going to Mars, but it is a bit of a trip. If you are coming from the western United States, you must first fly to Edmonton, Alberta, From there you fly to Yellowknife, near the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territories, after which you fly to Resolute Bay, at 72 N in Nunavut Territory. None of this is particularly hard – the Edmonton-Yellowknife – Resolute route is flown by 737’s – but they only make two flights a week, and if the weather is bad in Resolute your travel schedule can be set back by several days. To get from Resolute Bay to Devon Island however, you must charter a Twin Otter, a small two engine Arctic workhorse with great cold-weather and rough landing strip capability. The problem is, there are only a few Twin Otters serving all of Nunavut, Canada’s Inuit Territory with an area the size of western Europe and a population of 20,000 people. In addition, for the Twin Otter to be scheduled, it must be not merely available, but available at a time when the weather is simultaneously good at both Resolute Bay and our Devon Island landing strip.

Getting these three favorable conditions simultaneously can sometimes be as frustrating as trying to get three clocks to strike as one. Our advance team, led by Project Scientist Pascal Lee arrived at Resolute Bay June 24, but only made it to Devon July 3. Pascal seized the opportunity of the break in the weather on that date to rapidly shuttle 8 Otters back and forth, loaded with people and supplies. But unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. On the fourth, the weather turned bad again, blocking the shipping of the remainder of our equipment until July 6. As a result, our first crew rotation, which was to have started at the end of June, only moved into the station today.

However, my flights this year have thus far been easy. I made it to Edmonton last night, then right on through today to Yellowknife and Resolute.

A word about these places is in order. Edmonton is a city of 800,000 people, and not too different from the kind of places where most North Americans live. But there is a flavor to it, kind of like Seattle, of being a jumping off point to wilder places. I stayed at .place called the Nisku Inn. When I left in the morning, everyone in the hotel van was also travelling north.

When you reach Yellowknife though, you’ve reached the frontier. It’s a town of 20,000 on the edge of a vast uninhabited wilderness, which in the summer, at least, is verdant with subarctic flora. There are still many elements of the familiar; the town has a movie theater, a supermarket, fast food restaurants, and sometimes even Shakespeare in the park. But this is the last stop for all of that. Don’t expect to find ATM machines north of Yellowknife.

Resolute Bay is a different reality altogether. An Inuit village of several hundred hosting a small base for the support of Arctic scientists, it is desolate in an almost post apocalyptic way. The Nunavut guidebook says “Resolute Bay is not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.” An indeed I think you can. The place is barren of greenery, and wreckage going back over a century to whaling days litters the shore. Along the beach, dogs scavenge for dead seals, and the remains of their work are abundant. Yet there is a real community here, and the Inuit work hard to both keep up with the times while preserving their identity. The Nunavut Guidebook says; “Someday an Inuk will be Prime Minister of CanadaÖSomeday an Inuk will be a starship captain. But he will still be an Inuk.” I find that inspiring.

There will be six crew rotations serving in the Mars Society’s Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station. I will command the second and third, while Pascal Lee will lead the others. At Resolute Bay I encounter three members of my crew for the second rotation; Bill Clancey, an industrial psychologist from NASA Ames Research Center, Katy Quinn, an Australian born geologist just finishing her PhD at MIT, and Vladimir Pletser, a physicist and Belgian astronaut candidate working with the European Space Agency. I call a meeting, and explain to them that, in view of the delay in starting the first rotation, Pascal had requested, and I had agreed, to take two days off of our rotation and give it to the first crew, moving the start of our mission stint from the 8th to the 10th. Subsequently, Pascal had left me a message asking for yet another day to be shifted. Since my crew would be more severely impacted by this than I (since I have another shift beyond theirs), I ask for their views on this manner. They are clearly disappointed by this turn of events, and it is not completely clear that such a move is warranted, since three of the first rotation have several other shifts later in the season, and the other three have additional Devon related work that can be done outside of the Flashline Station crew activity. Yet we all recognize that the first crew has worked hard to get the station ready, and it would hardly be right for their shift to be stripped down to next to nothing. So we agree to acquiesce to postponing our shift until the night of the 10th to give the first crew an extra day of simulation activity.

The word comes from Colleen Lenehan, a Canadian graduate student who is running logistics for the program in Resolute, that a Twin Otter will be available at 4 AM to take us all over to Devon. One of the crew demurs, saying he would prefer to go over on a later plane. I make it clear; when a plane is available, we take it.

With luck, we will all reach the island early tomorrow morning.

SpaceRef staff editor.