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Hab serves as the next-best thing to Mars

Why spend weeks in a polar desert, playing at being an astronaut? Simulation crew member April Childress reflects on the reasons.
/ Source: Mars Society

Here I am on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic (our Mars), and my college girlfriends are convening in my hometown this weekend for their annual get-together. This is a 22-year tradition, and I’d be there, if I weren’t here. It’s fun, and I’m sorry I’ll miss it. They will eat and drink too much, talk about the things that have happened to us all over the last year, brag on their kids’ latest accomplishments, report on their love lives, and sit on the dock at the lake and soak up rays and have a good old time. They will be wearing swimsuits; I will be wearing down booties and a sweater. It’s probably 92 degrees in South Carolina — but it is 35 degrees here.

InsertArt(1966690)WE ALL have made sacrifices to be here, big and small: Jan Osburg’s 3-year-old daughter Clara has learned to say “actually” while he’s been here; Peter Lee left his new wife Chae after only a week of marriage. Steve McDaniel left behind his girlfriend and her dog (both of whom he pines for). My husband Jody Tinsley and I miss corn on the cob, his grandmother’s cucumber pickles, and home-grown tomatoes.

We’ve all made financial sacrifices, too: We paid our own way here, and flights to the Arctic are not cheap. The Mars Society (a nonprofit organization) supports us while we are here, at no small expense, flying us to Devon Island from Resolute, buying equipment we needed, and providing food and fuel for seven people for 28 days.

Obviously, a lot of people have worked hard to make this mission happen. It’s a reasonable question to ask: Why make those sacrifices? Why we are doing this — why are we participating in a simulated mission to Mars, in the Canadian Arctic?

Jan addressed this question pretty well today, and I can do no better than to pass on what he said. He, Steve, Jody and I had some down time in the common room, and naturally, the conversation turned to space and the reasons for FMARS being here in the first place. Jan has done a lot of thinking on the subject. A simulated station in a remote environment (as opposed to one near a city or space research facilities) has a real purpose in space research.

Sure, suits, helmets, gloves, radios and the like can be tested by the manufacturers, or put through quality control at NASA or some other space agency. Jan argues, however, that a crew on the scene — away from labs and controlled environments — will use the equipment in ways the designers don’t expect. They will try things no one had ever thought of.

What a crew at a remote habitat does is put the individual parts together and use them as astronauts would on a real Mars station. We here at Flashline are the only ones simulating the whole picture; we are going outside in suits to fix a road or repair an antenna tower or work on a wind generator. We are exploring the terrain, taking samples, studying our environs. These are perfectly realistic tasks for an actual Mars mission. Our job is to stretch the limits of what engineers expect of the equipment they design, to give researchers specializing in human factors real data they can use.

Being in a remote place and simulating a Mars station is important. Cooping people up in a hab in a parking lot somewhere and not letting them go outside could accomplish some things, but it has less value when preparing for a pioneering mission to a new planet. Human factors studies can be done on sim crews who are kept inside a hab all the time. But those studies wouldn’t be as valuable as research on a crew who have the option to come and go from the hab.

Going out on extravehicular activities is part of a future Mars mission. Here in the Canadian Arctic, we can send crews out to explore places they haven’t been, just as astronauts would do on Mars. That exploring is exciting, but risky — the sim astronaut wonders, should I scale the rock to get the sample? Or shouldn’t I take the risk? There are no ambulances on Mars, and help here in this remote place is far away.

That fact affects our activities here, just as it would on Mars. Of course, it is exciting to be in a polar desert and play astronaut for a few weeks, but this is hard work — it wouldn’t be a good simulation if it were easy. Crews need to be challenged, or it wouldn’t be a valid sim. Every time a person leaves our Hab in an EVA suit, there is risk — we could damage the suits; we could hurt ourselves. The individual and the commander must be willing to face the risks, to calculate which risks are worth taking.

InsertArt(1966691)A Mars mission will involve a small group of people on a high-stakes assignment, in an extremely risky environment. There will be a lot of pressure on a Martian crew to meet their goals. If they don’t return the maximum, says Jan, the mission won’t be considered a success. They will have to have great, ambitious, complex tasks to complete on EVA, in and among daily reports and mundane station maintenance.

A hab-lab set up in a parking lot somewhere might be more convenient for researchers to have access to, but it can’t give the same experience or the same data as a hab situated in a remote desert that mimics the terrain of Mars. Here, we can bring an away team in after a 12-hour EVA excited about new and amazing scenery or rock samples, hearing them over the radio talking about scary moments they experienced, supper and a good night’s sleep. They are tired and hungry but elated when they stumble in through the airlock.

When we come back after a long day out on the all-terrain vehicles, we are explorers on our way home. The Hab is not a place we’re cooped up in, it’s a place we’re glad to come home to. You can’t get that kind of data in a lab.

© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to