Arctic doubles as martian landscape

Society enlists GA to help put humans on Mars

September 10, 2013

Richard Spencer on short final to Devon Island

Slow to about 60 knots, keep clear of the rock formation on the right, aim for the mud patch just past the rock garden, and reverse the prop as soon as the wheels are on the (uneven) ground. Take care to avoid getting bogged in that muddy mess to the left.

Welcome to Devon Island. Keep an eye out for polar bears. Seriously.

Dr. Richard Sugden landed first, after making a few low passes over what passes for a runway on this desolate island about 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Richard Spencer, also the owner and pilot of a Quest Kodiak turboprop, circled above with an eye on Sugden’s landing, then followed onto the uncertain ground. With piles of late season snow melting under the July sun, there was no way to know with certainty just how solid it was. Aircraft that sustain serious damage, or even just get stuck in the mud in these parts are unlikely to ever depart, according to various bush pilots, and others with experience in the region.

“It’s like everything in life: You push yourself,” said Spencer, a retired U.S. Marine Corps captain, who volunteered his time and aircraft to help prepare for the most ambitious undertaking to date by The Mars Society: to spend a solid year, beginning in 2014, with a crew of six stationed in a replica space vessel that is perched on a narrow ridge at the edge of the Haughton Crater, 75.43 degrees North, 89.82 degrees West.

“You crawl to the edge and look over the side,” Spencer said, referring to the flying. “It’s good for you.”

With the engines shut down, the pilots and three volunteer crewmen chosen by The Mars Society set to work unloading supplies and equipment to be used in the months to come. The society is working to raise about $1 million for the science mission, studying an extreme of isolation that will put volunteers out of reach of fellow humans for months. Alone on an island about twice the size of Maryland, they will test equipment, techniques, and their ability to endure isolation along with some of the worst weather Earth has to offer.

This inspection and supply mission flown in by the Kodiaks was to last about a week, mercifully in July.

‘Another planet’

The Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station looks, from a distance, like a roll of cash register receipt paper dropped on end in the middle of a vast and barren expanse of dirt and snow. (Fortunately, the pilots had no trouble finding it with GPS, which is by far the most reliable and effective means of navigating these latitudes.)

The fiberglass cylinder is 27 feet across and divided into two levels inside, with sleeping quarters, a kitchen, and even a working shower. In 2007, the society tested just how much water people need to stay happy and productive. The habitat is perched on a ridge at the edge of Haughton Crater that is barely visible to the untrained eye.  

Debris within the meteor crater is gray, contrasting with various shades of brown rock and dirt, or snow-covered plateaus that comprise the rest of the island. Important tip for pilots: The ground inside the crater is treacherous, with a consistency in summer between quicksand and wet cement, able to snatch an aircraft like flypaper and never let go.

On July 10, as the two Kodiaks made their first approach to the landing strip, patches of snow still covered large swaths of the island. A nearby NASA camp, a cluster of tents known as the Haughton Mars Project, was unoccupied.

The wind was silent with no trees or vegetation to rustle. There were no bird calls, insect chirps or clicks, or any background noise. A vast and empty silence was punctured by the sounds of six people unloading two airplanes, trying to work quickly to make up for lost time, a full day already having been spent waiting for clouds to clear. There was no sign of any living thing—welcome news, with respect to polar bears, an active predator in the region, if not often in the island’s interior. (The crew would later discover evidence of at least one polar bear visit to the FMARS habitat during its four-year vacancy.)

The Mars Society plans to man this station for a full year, beginning in July 2014

A closer look at FMARs reveals a more spaceship-like structure, though the habitat would lose an aesthetic competition to some trash cans. That is not, of course the point: This $1.3 million home away from home was built for science.

“It’s the closest you can come in many ways to living on the surface of another planet,” said Dr. Alexander Kumar, a British physician and explorer who has logged months living in both polar regions. “It helps us take another step forward to understanding how we can support such a crew. We can start to understand how the human mind reacts to isolation.”

‘It sounded kind of neat’

Kumar recently spent (endured) nine months on the Antarctic plateau. Just as with an Antarctic expedition, a crew on Devon Island is farther removed from the world than an astronaut on the International Space Station. From low Earth orbit, one could be rescued in a matter of hours if an emergency required evacuation. Such was not the case at Concordia Research Station, where Kumar was the doctor for a small group that survived a winter’s stay much like the one planned for FMARS.

“There was such a great disconnection from being on our planet. Three months of darkness, no sunrise. You start to lose the things that our bodies depend upon and your mind starts to unravel, unzip,” said Kumar. “Watching crewmembers undergo the difficulties, that’s really, you know, one of the most interesting things.”

Dr. Alexander Kumar, right, and Robert Zubrin, Ph.D., in Colorado

Kumar and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin hatched the plan to spend a full year occupying FMARS. The society last ran a mission on Devon Island in 2009, and has never attempted to occupy the station in winter, when the wind howls and recorded temperatures have plunged to 62 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The society was launched by Zubrin in 1998 out of frustration that NASA had abandoned serious efforts to plan a manned mission to Mars. (Zubrin had designed a relatively low-cost option that drew an enthusiastic initial response—in the early 1990s.) The society, which counts among its members scientists, students, and enthusiasts, hopes a year-round mission will stimulate renewed interest in visiting Mars, to “keep the flame alive” in the words of Barry Stott, a benefactor of both The Mars Society and AOPA. Stott, a longtime space exploration enthusiast, helped organize and fund the July expedition, and recruited Sugden and Spencer.

“If nobody was doing this, there wouldn’t be any groundswell for putting pressure on the government,” Stott explained. “I think that launching man out into the stars is absolutely the most important thing that we could be doing. Going to Mars is the first step.”

While July, the height of the Arctic summer, warms the region to 50 degrees (Fahrenheit) or more at times, flying here still demands careful planning, and patience. Warmer temperatures release water into the atmosphere that can settle as blinding fog for days on end. Icing is another summer hazard, and it forced one journeying pilot to divert to Resolute Bay while the expedition was in town. Airports north of the Arctic Circle stock only jet fuel—piston pilots unable to use mogas who venture into the high latitudes plan a year or more in advance, carefully caching barrels of avgas along the route.

Spencer, a retired investment banker who has seen much of the world, though never quite this far north, said the chance to fly within 800 miles of the North Pole was the primary draw.

Kodiaks are unloaded on Devon Island

“It sounded kind of neat,” Spencer said.

There will be thousands of pounds more equipment, supplies, and people to be shuttled from Resolute Bay and points south to the Devon Island camp in 2014, and the society is eager to hear from individuals and corporations willing to lend a hand.

“Pilots can help get us to Mars,” Zubrin said.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.