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The Year-Long Mission to Mars, On Earth, With Polar Bears

The Mars Society wants to send a crew of six to the least habitable place it could find.

Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station Image:  Mars Society, used with permission.

Far off though it may seem, people are getting ready to live on Mars. The Mars One mission is selecting contestants for a one-way trip/reality show that is scheduled to launch in 2022. At the same time, the Mars Society is in the process of finding a six-person crew for their most ambitious mission yet: a year of living 800 miles from the North Pole in the Canadian Arctic, starting this August.

Called Mars Arctic 365, or MA365 for short, the plan is to simulate a one-year Mars human surface exploration mission at the Mars Society’s Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island, an uninhabited polar desert island that's mimics Mars as well as almost anywhere. The island's biggest feature is a meteor crater, which gives the island a Mars-like geology; the temperatures "are comparable" to that of Mars and there's almost no vegetation, although polar bears do stop by from time to time, but they're pretty much the only visitors.

Polar bears notwithstanding, for these reasons, Devon Island been selected for a year of Martian living and scientific work. According to the Mars Society’s website:

The mission crew will conduct a program of field exploration in one of the most Mars-like environments on Earth, while operating under many of the same operational constraints as an actual Mars mission. In the course of doing this, crew members will learn a great deal about which methods, technologies and tactics will work best on the Red Planet. Furthermore, they will do this while dealing with the stresses that come not only from isolation, as the Mars500 crew experienced, but also cold, danger, hard work and the need to achieve real scientific results, and thus truly begin to explore the critical human factor issues facing Mars exploration.

A crew of six will live on Devon Island, wearing spacesuits every time they go outside, and doing lab work with a “mission support” team in the United States. According to the Mars Society’s founder and president, Robert Zubrin, MA365 is “a full dress rehearsal for a Mars mission.”

“Nothing like thisnothing remotely like this—has ever been done before!” he stressed over the phone.

That’s not strictly true—the Mars Society itself has done things like this many times, at its Utah Mars test site, where Zubrin told me a crew from Belgium was simulating life on Mars as we spoke. A trip to Mars was simulated in Moscow; life on Mars has been simulated in ice caves; NASA simulates Martian conditions in Mojave Desert. The Mars Society has even been using the Devon Island site for a decade and a half now, for 11 missions. But those were mostly only for a month, with one 3-month mission. A yearlong trip to Devon Island is certainly an unprecedented degree of prolonged isolation. Does isolation set this mission apart?

“Let me say something about isolation,” Zubrin said. “The essence of isolation isn’t that you’re alone. If you had to stay in your apartment for a year under house arrest, with access to the world wide web, let’s say, you could just work on the novel you’ve always wanted to write—if food was either in your apartment or if it was delivered but you couldn’t talk to the delivery boy, you still wouldn’t truly be isolated,” he continued. “Because if you had appendicitis, you could walk out the door.”

“This entire global civilization of seven billion people with a massive division of labor—every kind of service imaginable, medical or otherwise—is available to you for a price.”

Image: Mars Society, used with permission.

The crew on Devon Island will have a truer form of isolation, at least to a degree. “If you need help and you’re on Devon Island, the only way to get it is to contact Resolute Bay [airport] to send a Twin Otter [plane],” Zubrin said. “And you conceivably could get it that day, but I’ve never seen it go that fast. Three days is possible, but maybe not for a week due to weather. It has to be good at the Bay and on the island and it has to hold.”

The only company on the unvegetated island, beyond the crew of six, will be the polar bears, who occasionally swim ashore hunting for seals. Zubrin, who has spent three months on Devon Island, has seen bears on occasion, but in the distance and with ample opportunity to get away. The bears, along with months of darkness that will come with a winter spent 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle are hazards that future Martian explorers won’t have to deal with, but then Devon Island doesn’t have the danger of Martian dust-storms, reduced gravity, and more ultraviolet radiation. It also has enough oxygen for people. So overall it's a push, I guess.

“The element of danger, while not horrible, does add a kind of realism to the mission because you have to take the decision-making process seriously otherwise really bad things might happen,” Zubrin said. What if you’re out on the all-terrain vehicle and it breaks down? Well, you’re walking back in your heavy spacesuit. What if you’re hiking back when a fog rolls in? “Now you’re vulnerable to bears, because they can smell you, but you can’t smell worth a shit, not in a spacesuit,” Zubrin pointed out.

Motherboard TV: Mars on Earth

It’s important to get the design right but it’s even more important to design the right thing.

So a sense of danger is always nice and the practical concerns of what this kind of isolation—where the only communication is emails that can be replied to only after a requisite 10-minute interval, simulating the distance between the planets—are all well and good, and give the mission an edge over something like the Mars 500 isolation experiment, where the mission to Mars was simulated in a room in Moscow. Zubrin reiterated that people will be doing field research in this more-dangerous environment, not just “playing chess.”

He also described at least one big engineering question that he hopes will be addressed: how much water will people need on Mars?

“The second heaviest thing used on the mission to Mars is the water they’ll bring—after return propellant,” he said. “And this is actually a very important piece of engineering data, because the amount of water we have to take to Mars determines the size of the booster we need to launch the mission, which is the most costly and formidable technology requirement we need: the heavyweight booster.

“Do we need a 100-ton booster or a 150-ton booster? The most important step of any engineering problem is the first one: figuring out the requirements,” he said. “It’s important to get the design right but it’s even more important to design the right thing.”

So the limits are going to be tested. Needless to say there won’t be nice long hot showers on Mars, nor on Devon Island. They’ll be down to sponge baths, and even the minimum number of sponge baths will be sought. “How about a sponge bath every other day? Every third day? Once a week? You can push this and push this and you end up with a mass versus morale dichotomy,” Zubrin said.

Image: Mars Society, used with permission

Mass versus morale, riding on the edge of how few sponge baths you get, made the whole thing sound a lot less appetizing, as if spending five months in freezing darkness away from everyone I know and love wasn’t enough. I’m not a scientist, didn’t apply, and am confident I won't be among the selected scientists, mechanics, engineers, journalists (“in the 18th century sense of the word,” Zubrin noted, saying it was more of in the interest of writing and filing the public record of the mission, which actually does sound pretty fun), and medics.

Out of 200 applications, the Mars Society announcing its 62 semi-finalists from 17 different countries this week. From there they’ll narrow the field to three crews of six, who will each do a two-week rotation on the islandmay the best crew win the year-long mission. “They’ll all be together and they’re doing hard work both intellectually and physically and they’re under the stress of the mission and they have to smell each other,” Zubrin seemed to promise.

For the Earthbound and the Arctic-adverse, our contribution is still welcome in the form of contributing funding to the mission’s Indiegogo campaign. The money goes towards more insulation for the habitat, upgrading the plumbing, and more generators.

The crowdfunding page quotes praise from Mars One, NASA and the CEO of the XPrize Foundation, Peter Diamandis, because even when you’re going away as far as you can, you’re in still in good company.

Mars, consider this your warning.