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Return from Arctic Mars

Mars Society
Simulation crew member Ryan Kobrick flashes a thumbs-up sign outside the Mars

Society's habitat in the Canadian Arctic as a 100-day expedition winds down.  

The Mars Society’s 100-day simulation of an expedition to the Red Planet is wrapping up in the Canadian Arctic - and although some have scoffed at the exercise as little more than grown-ups "pretending to be space explorers," a prominent NASA researcher who participated in the effort says the crew has done groundbreaking research.

"The work that this crew has done will contribute to studies of Mars and to studies of the response of permafrost on Earth to global warming," Chris McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center, who was in charge of the mission's remote science operation, said in a report marking Tuesday's official end of the simulation. "Their pioneering simulation of crew operations on Mars time is by far the best work on this topic ever done. It sets the standard for future Mars mission simulations such as the proposed European Space Agency 500-day mission."

Mars Society President Robert Zubrin even argues that, in some ways, the 100 days spent at work in the Arctic are worth more than the 500 days that will likely be spent sitting around an isolation chamber in Russia.

"What we have been doing is opening up a new field of research," Zubrin told me today. "We're researching extraterrestrial exploration. Not the planet, but we're researching the exploration process itself."

The aim of the simulation was to put people to the test as they lived and worked under conditions that were made as Marslike as possible. The locale was Devon Island in the Canadian North, a cold, dry place that bears an eerie resemblance to the Red Planet. When the crew members ventured outside "in sim," they had to don faux spacesuits - not really to test the spacesuits themselves, but to test how humans cope with wearing all that bulk every time they step out the door.

During their workday, the crew members surveyed their surroundings, riding all-terrain vehicles for simulated rounds of extravehicular activity, or EVAs. At night, they'd take shelter in a habitat designed for life on Mars, digesting the scientific observations they made (as well as the meals they cooked for each other). For more than a month, they even adjusted their sleep cycle to obey the Martian clock, which adds 39 minutes to every 24-hour Earth day.

Three-month mission simulations have been conducted before, at NASA's Johnson Space Center and Russia's Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, and those experiments occasionally highlighted the dark side of long-term crew isolation - phenomena well-known to longtime "Survivor" or "Big Brother" reality-TV fans.

But Zubrin said the 100-day Arctic simulation went a step beyond those experiments, by putting the crew members through the same types of stresses they would face during a Mars surface mission. "Not with a group in a chamber in isolation in a hangar in Moscow or JSC, but with an active team out in the field," he said. "If the crew is not doing work, the study is of little value."

Zubrin said this year's sim reinforced many of the lessons learned from past years:

  • Crews can keep their morale high even if the resource usage is low. Some NASA studies on future Mars missions have budgeted as much as eight gallons of water per day per person, but the Arctic crew got by just fine on a third that amount of water usage. That's good news: Next to propellant, water accounts for the most mass on the manifests for a Mars mission, even after you take recycling into account. Having to bring less water could save 48 tons of mass, Zubrin said: "That's roughly half of a heavy-lift launch vehicle. That's a lot."
  • Zubrin advocates a new type of telescience in which specialists on Earth work with science-savvy generalists on Mars. "There will have to be scientists on the mission," he said. "We don't want to have just test pilots go to Mars and have them be told 'Go here, go there' by scientists on Earth."
  • For a long-duration, far-frontier mission, the ultimate control should rest with the expeditionary crew, not with so-called Mission Control. "We did not try to run this mission from the rear," Zubrin said. "We found in the past that that was not productive."
  • When it comes to managing the crew, a "consultative command style" works better than a top-down, confrontational style. Zubrin said this year's commander, Melissa Battler, was just the woman for the job. "One of the things that really stands out here is how well the crew worked together as a team. ... We have had a fair number of two-week rotations where there was tremendous friction with the crew."

Crew member Ryan Kobrick seconded the view that the team cohesiveness was a big factor behind the simulation's success. I asked him via e-mail whether the experience was more like the "Big Brother" TV series or the "Mission to Mars" movie, and here's his response from the Arctic:

"This was nothing like 'Big Brother,' we were mostly on our own and their were very few conflicts... well, pretty much none. I could punch someone for you for a story :-) Just joking, my crewmembers are like family... sometimes they get on my nerves, but I love them anyway. As for 'Mission to Mars,' we didn't quite have that level of support, but the group that did volunteer their time this summer to be our remote team were very helpful."

You can find much more from Kobrick by searching through the field reports for the simulation, or by watching his YouTube video dispatches.

To mark the end of this year's simulation, the Mars Society crew members will take part in a teleconference with space station astronaut Clay Anderson, then head down to the society's annual convention in Los Angeles to present their preliminary findings. But Zubrin says this won't be the end of the Mars analog experiments.

The Mars Society sims have already branched out to the Utah desert. Meanwhile, the NASA-supported Haughton Mars Project only recently wrapped up its own field season in the Canadian Arctic - and will soon start looking ahead to next year.

In the future, the stakes in the sim game could get much higher, Zubrin said.

"When we actually send crews to Mars, the way the crew should be selected is that we'll have three high-fidelity research stations in the Arctic," he said. "Ask each crew to do a practice mission like this for a year. We'll see which one holds together best as a team, and that's the team you send to Mars."

Now that's the kind of show that could turn into must-see reality TV. What do you think? Feel free to add your comments below.