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FMARS 2003 "Postcards from the Arctic"

About every other day during our mission, I sent "Postcards from the Arctic" to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia, where I lived at the time. These vignettes appeared on the front page of the local section, hence they were written with a general audience in mind. Each highlighted the day's thoughts and adventures. A brief status report on important mission parameters was included as well.

You can read the text of the "Postcards" below, or download them in their original as-printed layout as a PDF file (2 MB).

 

Issue 01 - July 4, 2003

The planet Mars is one of those mysterious locations embedded in our culture. Who has not heard of Little Green Men or seen movies featuring invaders from the Red Planet? Popular notions aside, Mars is indeed a fascinating place. Scientists think that there is water on Mars, but was there ever life? If so, where is it now? If not, why not?

The only way to find out for sure is to go there - robots and space probes can do only so much. The first manned expedition to Mars will be a defining, historic event for all of mankind.

But many technologies and procedures will have to be developed and tested before the first crew can be sent with confidence on this momentous mission. The Mars Society, an international organization of space scientists and engineers, has built a field research station dedicated to just that purpose. Termed the "Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station" (FMARS), it is located on Devon Island in Canada only a few hundred miles from the North Pole.

Starting July 6, I will be part of this unique simulated Mars mission. As an aerospace engineer specializing in manned spaceflight, I will perform research related to the integration of crew and station - a crucial topic since the "real" Mars astronauts will have to live in their Mars base for over one year before they can fly back to Earth. I will also run our radio system, help with station engineering, and be the safety and security officer. Polar bears are one threat that we won't find on Mars!

During our mission, we will be subject to strict rules aimed at making operations as similar as possible to those on a real Mars base. For example, prior to leaving the station to perform research activities outside, we will don space suits and exit through an airlock. We will deal with any problems that arise on our own - just like a crew on Mars would have to. The location of the station, set in Mars-like terrain far from civilization, contributes to the realism of our simulation.

I intend to share my impressions of our life on board this unique facility with you through a series of brief articles, so watch for this column during the next four weeks. For more information on Mars, don't miss Dr. Rutland's column on July 7. And to read our daily reports from FMARS, check out our website at http://www.marssociety.org/arctic.

Now it's off to the Arctic, and on to Mars! 

 

Issue 02 - Saturday July 5, 2003

The crew arrived in Resolute Bay today, our last way station before "Mars". Touching down on the gravel strip of one of the world's northernmost airports after a five-hour flight from Ottawa, we entered a strange, cold and barren world populated by frontier people. I am glad that I loaded up on sunshine in Ottawa yesterday. Getting into Canada wasn't easy, though: Only after reading the article on this expedition in Friday's Ledger-Enquirer did the Canadian immigrations officer believe my claim that I was headed for a Martian research base. I was glad that I had brought a copy of the paper along. Simulating Mars on Earth is obviously not a subject taught at the Royal Canadian Police Academy.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day:      -1

Temperature (high/low):       85F/34F

Average Wind Speed:     5 mph

Average Sleep Time:     6 hours

Food of the Day:  Airline Sandwich

Polar Bear Count:       0

 

Issue 03 - Monday July 7, 2003

Two crewmates and I have arrived at the "Hab", as we call the FMARS main structure. We are the advance party; the rest of the crew will follow today. We were glad to see that the station, our home base for the next month, was still there after being unattended throughout the long polar night. Everything is in surprisingly good condition. However, even Mars can't possibly be more desolate than Devon Island: Rocks, craters, cold, and not the slightest signs of life. That makes the human presence here stand out even more, and we are glad to be a part of this great adventure.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 1

Temperature (high/low): 50F/30F

Average Wind Speed: 2 mph

Average Sleep Time: 7 hours

Food of the Day: Last year's crackers

Polar Bear Count: 0

 

Issue 04 - Wednesday July 9, 2003

Our last morning on "Earth" today! During the past 48 hours the crew has been preparing the station for what we call "closed simulation" - no interaction with the rest of the world except through e-mail, leaving the station only in space suits. This will make our research results much more viable: after all, we want to gather experience that will one day help the first astronauts on Mars. So we are enjoying the last day of unfiltered sunshine while scrambling to get everything done: Erecting antennas, vehicle and space suit training, checking out the power generators, and so on. We just returned from polar bear safety briefing, which mainly meant getting everyone up to speed on our shotguns. The bears are rumored to eagerly await the arrival of new scientists each year after not having had a decent meal all winter.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 3

Temperature (high/low): 50F/30F

Average Wind Speed: 5 mph

Average Sleep Time: 5 hours

Food of the Day: Fresh Bread from our Bread Machine

Polar Bear Count: 0

 

Issue 05 - Friday July 11, 2003

Yesterday we enjoyed our first "EVA", or Extravehicular Activity, as our space-suited excursions outside the hab are called. (The first rule of spaceflight, and spaceflight simulation, is that there has to be an acronym for everything.) Our task was to survey waypoints with our satellite navigation units in order to establish reference lines for North, South, East and West. Like on Mars, there is no usable magnetic field here near the Pole, so compasses do not work. Emerging from the airlock in our suits felt almost like the real thing. As we took the small step from the habitat onto the rocky terrain, it symbolized another leap towards the big goal of one day sending people to Mars.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day:     

Temperature (high/low):       55F/34F

Average Wind Speed:     3 mph

Average Sleep Time:     7 hours

Food of the Day:  "Tharsis" Tuna Salad

Polar Bear Count:       0

 

Issue 06 - Saturday July 12, 2003

Our science program is quite ambitious. Both the commander and the medical officer have PhDs in microbiology, and they will be looking for exotic microbes that can survive under the extreme conditions here. If we get lucky, new antibiotics might result from our discoveries. The EVA or "Marswalk" today led us to a promising rock formation where we took many samples for analysis in our laboratory. Being here is such a great learning experience! The weather has been perfect so far, but now the temperatures are dropping and we are expecting a storm soon. Let's see how our station will weather it.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 6

Temperature (high/low): 55F/30F

Average Wind Speed: 5 mph

Average Sleep Time: 7 hours

Food of the Day: Polar Pie (rocky on the surface, sticky underneath)

Polar Bear Count: 0

 

Issue 07 - Monday July 14, 2003

Monday's EVA, or simulated Marswalk, kicked off our "Campaign to the Coast", an ambitious effort to reach the northern coastline of Devon Island. Distance on the map is about ten miles, which translates to a full day of arduous travel over rocky, broken terrain. Nothing is easy on simulated Mars, but that is what we are here for: to go where no crew has gone before, pushing the envelope of explored space, and recording the effects on our systems and on the crew. The road to the stars is rocky indeed!

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 8

Temperature (high/low): 58F/40F

Average Wind Speed: 10 mph

Average Sleep Time: 6 hours

Food of the Day: Chili "Candor Chasma"

Polar Bear Count: 0

 

Issue 08 - Wednesday July 16, 2003

Tuesday's EVA was another key step in our push for the northern coast of Devon Island. Reconnoitering the route to the sea, we established our northernmost waypoint so far, near a lake whose outline resembles a man with a big belly. Given our proximity to the North Pole, we named it "Santa Claus Lake"... Although these long-range EVAs are physically exhausting due to the difficult terrain and our bulky space suits, they are the most rewarding activity here at FMARS. Looking out from behind the suit helmet's visor at the alien polar landscape populated by fellow crewmembers in similar suits really makes Earth feel like Mars.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 10

Temperature (high/low): 50F/35F

Average Wind Speed: 10 mph

Average Sleep Time: 8 hours

Food of the Day: Peter's Pittas

Polar Bear Count: 0

 

Issue 09 - Friday July 18, 2003

Today we set out to reach the northern shore of Devon Island. If we succeed, we will be the first crew to have done so, though not the first to have tried. The EVA team consists of Steve, our commander, Jody, executive officer and accomplished outdoorsman, April as embedded reporter and myself as navigator and scout. We are prepared to spend several days in the arctic desert, but we hope to be back much sooner than that. The groundwork laid by a week’s worth of reconnaissance EVAs will surely pay off. Our major concern is the weather, which has turned cold and wet. And the polar bear count is sure to increase, since the coastline is their favorite stomping ground. What an adventure!

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 12

Temperature (high/low): 44F/35F

Average Wind Speed: 15 mph

Average Sleep Time: 6 hours

Food of the Day: "Tharsis" Tuna Salad, again

Polar Bear Count: 0

 

Issue 10 - Sunday July 20, 2003

We have reached the coast! After more than five hours of bone-jarring travel over boulder-strewn ridges and through steep canyons, an exhausted but elated EVA team arrived at "FMARS Fjord". The view that greeted us there compensated for all the hardships of the past week: the deep-blue fjord surface covered in a maze of brilliant white ice floes, surrounded by steep cliffs bringing to mind the canyons of Mars. Maybe one day astronauts surveying the polar regions of the Red Planet will reach a site like this, where the Martian ice caps have cut deep channels into our neighboring planet's rocky surface. I wonder what these explorers will think of our humble efforts to pave the way.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 14

Temperature (high/low): 40F/30F

Average Wind Speed: 15 mph

Average Sleep Time: 6 hours

Food of the Day: Mars-Mex Enchiladas

Polar Bear Count: 1/2 (saw traces of one)

 

Issue 11 - Tuesday July 22, 2003

It is nearly midnight on Devon Island, but the bright daylight outside is only attenuated by a storm of Martian proportions. The icy wind howling around FMARS makes us appreciate this protected enclave we call "the hab" even more. FMARS is a testament to human ingenuity, creativity and perseverance. Designed by a team of space architects and funded by private donors, it mirrors NASA's current thinking on the layout of the first Mars base. Its elements were air-dropped by a US Marine Corps C-130 cargo plane in the northernmost such operation in Marines history. Alas, the parachute on the final drop package did not open, and key parts were destroyed. But in a week of incredible effort, a crew of dedicated Mars Society volunteers managed to erect the hab against all odds. Hence, even before the first crew rotation had started, FMARS had already proven the value of manned exploration activities. Let's call it a corollary to Murphy's Law: Something will always go wrong, and then you'll need humans on site to fix it.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 16

Temperature (high/low): 38F/30F

Average Wind Speed: 25 mph

Average Sleep Time: 5 hours

Food of the Day: Barbecue Chicken (sic)

Polar Bear Count: still at 1/2

 

Issue 12 - Thursday July 24, 2003

Another successful EVA that took us into previously unexplored territory lies behind us. Our science team had identified an impressive mountain about ten kilometers west of the hab as a promising site to take biological samples. However, previous crews had only gone about one third of the distance. Our maps did not even cover the area. So, after a morning of planning and preparations, of extrapolating waypoints and plotting a tentative route on an improvised map, we entered the airlock laden with scientific sampling equipment, navigation gear, and a sizable survival kit. The trip was much more difficult than expected, but we nevertheless managed to reach our objective. The view from the mountaintop was even more spectacular than we had hoped for. It is impossible to imagine how a remote-controlled robot could have overcome all the unexpected obstacles, or conveyed the sense of excitement and wonder at the beauty of this place that is still fresh in our minds.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 18

Temperature (high/low): 38F/30F

Average Wind Speed: 15 mph

Average Sleep Time: 6 hours

Food of the Day: Omelets "Olympus Mons"

Polar Bear Count: still at 1/2

 

Issue 13 - Saturday July 26, 2003

On the way back from today's EVA, we stopped at Devon Island's new memorial to the final crew of Space Shuttle Columbia. It was erected a few days ago, on the anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing, by the staff of a nearby scientific base. Situated on a ridge overlooking Von Braun Planitia, a plain to the north of the hab, the tall two-column stone sculpture in the shape of a launching Shuttle is visible from miles away. In this barren desert, it embodies the human spirit of exploration and reminds those who are working on the future of manned spaceflight here on Devon of the sacrifice made by Columbia's valiant crew.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 20

Temperature (high/low): 37F/31F

Average Wind Speed: 10 mph

Average Sleep Time: 7 hours

Food of the Day: Peach Cobbler "Phobos"

Polar Bear Count: 1/2

 

Issue 14 - Monday July 28, 2003

Our work here at FMARS is almost completed. Two days "in sim", under simulated Mars conditions, are remaining, plus a day or two of preparing the hab for the long Arctic night. The station has been a good home-away-from-home for us, an outpost of science and civilization in the polar wilderness. But how would it be to live in a super-sized tuna can like this for a whole year? And a seven-month voyage away from home to boot? Much remains to be done before the first crew can be sent to "real" Mars, but our month-long mission of research, exploration and discovery was another step along that path. Some day soon, I hope, a station like FMARS will host a full-duration simulation, with volunteers prepared to spend up to one year separated from "Earth" by the constraints of their mission, as a final rehearsal before the first envoys of mankind launch for Mars.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 22

Temperature (high/low): 40F/32F

Average Wind Speed: 10 mph

Average Sleep Time: 7 hours

Food of the Day: Salmon Patties "Syrtis Major"

Polar Bear Count: 1/2

 

Issue 15 - Wednesday July 30, 2003

Today we woke up to Gregorian Chant playing from our digital audio collection. Amazing how this thousand-year-old music complemented the pensive early-morning mood of the crew on this, our last day of "sim". Would the Benedictine monks who wrote these ageless tunes ever have dreamed of their legacy being enjoyed on board a simulated Mars base near the North Pole? Or maybe one day even on Mars itself? It made me think about how future generations will look at our own fledgling attempts to conquer space. Will they be stuck on Earth, cut off from the universe due to short-sighted decisions we might make, bitter about the fact that mankind never managed to establish a permanent foothold beyond the confines of its home planet? Or will they be spacefarers themselves, grateful for the groundwork that was laid in the 20th and early 21st century? Here at FMARS, as our mission is nearing its end, we are glad that we have had the opportunity to make a small contribution towards that great goal.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 24

Temperature (high/low): 42F/30F

Average Wind Speed: 15 mph

Average Sleep Time: 6 hours

Food of the Day: Mars Rocks Chocolate Cookies

Polar Bear Count: 1/2

 

Issue 16 - Thursday July 31, 2003

FMARS 2003 is over. Our mission accomplished, we shut down the hab yesterday and made it ready for the ten-month winter. It was hard to say goodbye to the station that had been our base of operations, our refuge, our crew family's home for the past four weeks. Apart from the daily reports and pictures, we are bringing back a huge amout of scientific and engineering data that might one day help the first astronauts on Mars have a successful mission. Now we are back on "Earth". Departure went as planned, on three Twin Otter planes that were rushed to the dirt-and-mud airstrip near the hab during a break in the bad weather. They took us back to the South Camp Inn in Resolute Bay, where for the next couple of days we will be enjoying spacious rooms, a relaxed work schedule, and a neverending flow of delicacies from the hotel's excellent kitchen. It seems completely unreal after a month of being simulated Martians.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Status

Mission Day: 25

Temperature (high/low): 45F/38F

Average Wind Speed: 5 mph

Average Sleep Time: 10 hours

Food of the Day: South Camp Inn Steak

Polar Bear Count: 1/2

 

Final Issue (16) - Friday August 08, 2003

Returning home to the gentle warmth of the South was quite a transition after spending a month in the barren Arctic desert. What struck me most as I stepped out of the plane was neither the hustle and bustle of Hartsfield at rush hour, nor all the ads and TV screens screaming for my attention, but the incredibly lush vegetation along the Interstate on the way back to Columbus. Greenery is what astronauts returning from long-duration space flights describe as what they missed most about Earth; it speaks for the fidelity of our simulation that I was experiencing something similar even though I had never actually left the planet. Getting fully used to all the accoutrements of civilization that awaited me took some time, though; they initially seemed as alien to me as Devon Island had at the start of our mission.

Now I am sorting through all the data that FMARS 2003 has generated, compiling reports for distribution to Mars Society headquarters and my science support team at Johnson Space Center in Houston. They will be happy to hear that our mission has been successful: NASA has just approved initial funding for a similar project, a full-scale analog facility for manned space missions, and word has it that the Russians are planning a simulation experiment of their own. This is good news. Expanding the scope of analog research represents a significant step towards an actual manned Mars mission in the near future. I am glad to report that this year's FMARS was another demonstration of what a dedicated crew can accomplish even in the face of adverse circumstances as will most certainly be encountered during any pioneering space mission.

To find out more about FMARS 2003, attend the post-mission briefing at the Coca-Cola Space Science Center in Columbus on Thursday, September 4, 2003, from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Admission is free. The presentation will include a video documentary featuring highlights of the FMARS 2003 mission. After the event, the Coca Cola Space Science Center will show its new Omnisphere program on Mars.

 

FMARS 2003 Mission Statistics

Crew: 7

Countries represented: 5

Days in closed simulation: 21

Hours of continuous daylight: 686

Hours of videotape shot: 90

Daily reports transferred: 129

Images transferred: 176

Average transfer cost: $35 per Megabyte

Amount of data generated: more than 2.6 Gigabytes

Brain performance tests taken: 97

Design efficiency questionnaires completed: 7

Amateur radio stations contacted: 4

Extravehicular Activities: 20

Amount of rock samples collected: 40 pounds

New waypoints surveyed: 112

Total EVA range expanded by: 25 miles

Final polar bear count: still at 1/2*

* We did see bear droppings and bones of bear prey, and we heard about a nearby sighting from the natives, but that was it. These bears sure are sneaky.