Mars Society Tries the Cousteau Approach for Research Funding

By Keith Cowing
January 26, 2000
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Mars Arctic Research StationThe Mars Society announced today that Flashline.com had agreed to donate $175,000 towards the cost of constructing and operating the Society’s Mars Arctic Research Station (M.A.R.S.) – which will now be referred to as the Flashline Arctic Research Station.

The project, which will cost $1.3 million to operate over a 5 year period, seeks to construct and operate a facility modeled after a Mars lander spacecraft that would carry humans and place it in the Canadian arctic where it will serve as a base for ongoing scientific research. Additional funding for the project has been provided by the Steve and Michele Kirsch Foundation, FINDS (the Foundation for the Non-governmental Development of Space), Bushnell Sports Optics, and the members of the Mars Society.

In December 1999, the Mars Society selected Infrastructure Composites International (Infracomp) as the prime contractor for the construction of the research station. The facility will have two decks, will be 27 feet in diameter, and will use an advanced fiberglass honeycomb technology in its construction. If all goes according to plan, the structure will be field tested this summer and will commence a full season of operations in the summer of 2001.

The project will be operated in cooperation with The Haughton-Mars Project (HMP). HMP began in 1997 and has become a collection of multidisciplinary research projects sponsored by NASA, NSF, and a number of research agencies designed to study Haughton crater and its environs on Devon Island in the Canadian arctic.

Haughton CraterHaughton crater was formed by a meteorite impact 23 million years ago. This crater has the distinction of the highest latitude terrestrial impact feature known. Since its formation, erosion of the crater’s rim has caused the original 15 mile feature to fade to a vaguely circular structure 10 miles in diameter surrounded by ancient dry lake beds and tundra. What remains sits within a polar desert environment that is similar in many ways to conditions on Mars – in more temperate times, that is.

The intent of the Flashline Arctic Research Station is not only to better understand what sort of facilities will be needed for the human exploration of Mars in the future, but also to facilitate actual ongoing astrobiology and geology research right now.

The Flashline Arctic Research Station will also serve to promote the idea of sending humans to Mars. Much of this will be done as a working backdrop for various media and educational interests – one designed to afford them intimate access to the reality of doing the work, both exciting and dull. Careful attention will be paid by the Mars Society to balancing the requirements for actual scientific research and the environmental concerns of the local Nunavut people with the working requirements of today’s news and educational media. Both factors are important, since one feeds the other. The key is striking the right balance so as to form a synergy between the two.

Cousteau and ConshelfThe approach being taken by the Mars Society is not at all new. Indeed, some of the more exciting and memorable research projects of the last century were done by a synergistic mixture of scientific and commercial interests.

Throughout the 1960’s television audiences around the world tuned in to a regular series of special programs that featured the exploits of Captain Jacques Cousteau and the red-cap wearing crew of the Calypso. Among the exploits documented by filmmakers were three
increasingly complex experiments in saturation-diving techniques mounted between 162 and 1965: Conshelf I, II, and III. During Conshelf III, six men lived and worked at a depth of 300 feet for three weeks while breathing an atmosphere composed of helium and oxygen.

Not only were technical and physiological issues explored during Conshelf, so too were the sociological issues that face humans in confined and extreme environments. These research programs, and many others carried out since that time, have allowed techniques to be developed whereby work at such depths can be done on a routine basis if need be.

Cousteau’s work always contained a healthy dose of PR. Yet there was never a lack of real science and technology demonstration being performed in front (or behind) the lens. Science and what we now call “edutainment” fed off each other with synergistic results. The proceeds from television and book sales were funneled directly back into Cousteau’s research – and indeed, made such research and expeditions possible in the first place. Cousteau’s filmed exploits were so well received that he won an Academy Award for “World Without Sun”, a documentary about this project.

Later, with the advent of the Cousteau Society, additional research and public education programs became possible. Cousteau entertained us – and he also educated us, and, in so doing, certainly led to a greater awareness of issues facing the health of the “the water planet” as he was so fond of calling Earth.

What is about to happen in the Canadian arctic is quite similar in scope, intent, and motivation to the work done by Captain Cousteau and his crew. Captain Cousteau was an avid supporter of space exploration. Just as his work exposed an entire generation to a sea they hardly new, perhaps the Mars Society’s Flashline Arctic Research Station will have a similar effect upon the generation now coming of age as we (they) prepare to go to Mars.

One final note. There are a number of Mars-related films coming out this year. “Mission to Mars” opens on 10 March 2000. Isn’t it curious how the designers of this film’s Mars Base concept chose a design so similar the Mars Society’s Flashline Arctic Research Station. Art imitating life?

Related Stories

° Flashline.com Secures Naming Rights to M.A.R.S, press release, Mars Society, 26 January 2000

° Contractor Selected for Mars Arctic Research Station, Mars Society press release, 5 January 2000

Background Information

° Mars Society

° Flashline Arctic Research Station

° Haughton-Mars Project

°Mission to Mars” official website

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.