From the Arctic & Desert Analog Stations
to a Real 1st Human Outpost on Mars

Changing Mars Mission Plans to fit Lessons
Learned on Devon Island and in Utah

by Peter Kokh, MDRS Veteran, Crews 34 & 45

[Published in Moon Miners' Manifesto #193, March 2006]

The Mars Direct Mission Plan Revolution

Mars Direct, the Mars Mission Architectural revolution introduced by Dr. Robert Zubrin more some fifteen years ago, showed how we could mount exploratory missions to Mars with far less throw weight, total tonnage to be paid for dearly with fuel, than NASA's then conventional mission architecture forecast as necessary. By the simple device of making the fuel for the return on Mars itself, instead of carrying it along, as well as all the fuel needed to get that return fuel to Mars, the cost of human missions to Mars was cut to a tenth. Now exploring Mars became something we could budget for, something in 1960's dollars, not much more than another Apollo Program.

But another Apollo Program, a heroic Flags & Footprints Epic to be followed by yet another half century of nothing, is not exactly what we need. By the plan, if the first unmanned crew return ship lands successfully and produces fuel successfully, then, at the next launch window 25 plus months later, a manned Habitat would be landed at the same site, along with a second unmanned crew return ship with fuel making capacity to a site reachable by the first party if necessary. Then another manned Hab would be sent to that second site, etc. Over a period of 8 years, three manned Habitats would be established on Mars, each to be abandoned when its crew went home.

First things first! Settling in before Exploration!

While this plan introduces measures to guarantee a safe return of each crew, and to gradually extend the reach of manned exploration across the globe, it clearly puts exploration ahead of establishment of even one viable outpost. In fact, none of the three manned Habitats would be viable for more than weeks, in our opinion. They are each too small to house all that is needed to sustain a crew for up to two years in good physical and mental health. I say that having spent two 2-week tours of duty at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

Before I make that particular case, let me advocate clearly and forcefully that exploration should follow, not precede establishment of a permanent outpost. We know far more about North and South America and Australia through exploration by their own settlers, than we could ever have learned from a series of expeditions leaving from and returning to Europe. Why? Logistics, logistics, logistics.!

Exploration is best done from up close, by people living off the land, because it is their land. We must not let the curiosity itches of planetary scientists be scratched at the expense of settlement. In the long run, settlers will find out vastly more about Mars than "foreign" explorers bent on leaving the land they are exploring.

The Mars Analog Habitats tell the tale.

The Mars Hab testbeds at the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island and at the Mars Desert research Station in south central Utah, are classical cases of design according to the principal "function follows form." Yes, I know that's backwards. That's precisely the point. Instead of defining the facilities and functions we need in a self-sufficient crew habitat, and then finding a modular architecture to house those functions, we have settled on a fixed volume structure, determined not by the needs of usage but by the needs of transportation to the site. Then we have sought to cram all the needed facilities and functions into that fixed volume.

And guess what? They don't fit.

That's not apparent to many crew members because they are there for a 2 or 4 week tour of duty. But Mars crews, on the real (not analog) Mars will make that Hab home for two years or more. If FMARS and MDRS veterans are honest, they will realize that neither Hab can produce its own food, produce its own energy, or keep itself in good repair without all too frequent outside inputs, help, rescue, and resupply - recourses that could not apply on Mars itself.

There is no real allowance for crew recreation - on two week tours, you can simply go without. There is no real attempt to rely solely on original rations and food grown on site in a greenhouse. There is no capability at either location for making parts needed for repair. Again, the Classic Double Tuna-can Hab does not have the space to provide these functions, yet we would send crews in such a cages to Mars. And rather than add additional structures to this complex of one, we would send new Habs elsewhere on Mars.

An Alternative Plan

I think we should send to Mars three or more Habs, each differently configured, to the same site, along with other ancillary structures, including inflatable ones.

If we do not establish a viable outpost on the first shot, we may never, ever get another chance.

Exploration will take care of itself. Other things come first. For starters, we need:

Establishment of a Remote Way Station, a few miles away, where EVA exploration crews could overnight, and to which crew members could retreat for brief periods of quiet rest and privacy in relief of tensions.

Teleoperations Vantage Points on Phobos/Deimos

Nothing leads to failure more surely than impatience. Impatience to explore is an example. Once we have a growing crew at a growing outpost, we will have personnel who can be tasked with the teleoperated exploration of Mars by a whole fleet of mini-rovers and drone aircraft, operated in near-realtime via relays on Deimos and Phobos where the transmission delay is only a fraction of that for the Earth-Moon loop. Manned expeditions could then be sent to the most interesting spots, rather than waste their time on less interesting areas.

Crew expansion leads to economic diversification

Once an outpost, the outpost, is clearly viable and at least partially self-sustaining, crew members could be given the opportunity to renew or reup their commitment. Compatible couples could choose to do so, forming the first families on Mars. We have to shut our ears to those who say we can't allow births until we know for sure that humans can survive long term on Mars. Why? Because the only way to know that is to see how the second native born generation turns out, and that means taking the plunge without delay. The is no believable ivory tower way to find that out. If humans had always been so "timid," (let's call a spade a spade) we would still be in the rain forests or plains of Africa or in the caves of Europe. It is human to take the plunge, as an exercise of faith in the capacity of the human genetic architecture.

One outpost, repeatedly revisited by supply ships, can grow methodically. As it grows, a more diverse slate of occupations can be supported. Made on Mars consumer goods will be first produced by workers with day jobs in their free time, as cottage industry startups. More and more personnel will be freed from outpost support duties to partake on further exploratory expeditions. Once the needs of outpost expansion can be met with home grown industries, we will have the start of a new civilization on Mars, one making real steps towards an independently viable future. And that, after all, is our Holy Grail.

Bidirectional lessons: MDRS to Mars and Mars to MDRS

Consequences flow forward and backward. We can see from what has happened at FMARS and MDRS that the Hab plan will not work for Mars as the plan now stands. The flip side of the coin is that it is not working even now in the Arctic or in Utah. Yes, we simulate exploration procedures, geology and prospecting procedures, exobiology procedures. But we don't simulate the isolation without hope of relief for two plus years.

It would be both valid and honest to say that the Mars Society has had to chose its battles. Some battles are more easily won. The engagement in others seems beyond our grasp as a small nonprofit society. But we ought to advance steadily in that direction, especially since those battles must be won before we dare set out for Mars.

Picking a site on Mars - a prime candidate

If we are to settle on just one landing site, we need to pick that site with care. As of now, we have but a foggy start to an Economic Geography of Mars, tracing where all the resources are, the logistical advantages, the logical transportation corridors, a priority list for 2nd, 3rd, and following outposts needed for a trading economy on Mars itself. We can expect this hazy map to become a bit clearer by the time the first crew leaves for Mars.

In the meantime, this suggestion. Pavonis Mons is one of Mars four largest shield volcanoes. Almost as tall, but not quite as large in area as Olympus Mons, it more than makes up for any shortfall by its location, smack on the equator. Its summit caldera rim would be the best spot in the inner solar system to anchor a space elevator (we have to figure out how to avoid Phobos which crosses that path) and its gentle west slope, the ideal place in the inner system for a mountain launch track. The eventual establishment of either would greatly lessen the cost of exports to the Earth-Moon system. More, as a shield volcano much like Mauna Loa/Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii, it is almost certainly laced with intact lavatubes. In "The Argument from Medicine Lake" (MMM # 74 March 1994, p. 3, republished in MMM Classics #8, pp 12-13) Bryce Walden conservatively estimates that Pavonis offers 333 km2 = 128 mi2 of usable sheltered floor space, the size of a major American central city in the one million population range.

But the outpost doesn't have to be on/in Pavonis Mons itself. It could be to the west, between the outer mountain ramparts and the crater Ulysses - call it "Ulysses Junction."

Or it could be east, between Pavonis Mons and the Head of Valles Marineris. While undoubtedly, other sites will have some merit, a location along the equator to either side of Pavonis Mons will certainly be in the running and hard to out-merit. Again, exploration goals and geological and scientific curiosities should score no points. They are irrelevant to the overarching need to establish an outpost beachhead of humanity on Mars "securely."

De-marginalizing the Mars Analog Stations

Back to the Mars Society's analog research stations - FMARS is already pre-marginalized by the extreme climate on Devon Island as well as the order of magnitude greater cost of logistics: transportation and supplies.

MDRS has been marginalized unnecessarily, we believe, in the absence of a decision to shield it. Shielding, which will clearly be needed on Mars to attract those unwilling to sign waivers that accept the chances of cancer and risk of reproductive sterilization, is one of those things we have silently put on the list of things not to simulate.

The tall profile of the Hab (again, putting form before function instead of vice versa) makes shielding difficult. A Horizontal ranch-style complex would be much easier to shield. While the landlord, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, BLM, would not take kindly to wholesale earth-moving, shielding could be simulated in easily removable fashion by bags of mulch, for example.

The thermal equilibrium to be gained would result in a significantly longer field season, now limited by summer heat, and thus make possible a true greenhouse, not the very limited graywater recycling GreenHab system we have. Yes, there are other summer heat related issues: cooling the EVA suits for example. But these too are surmountable.

The existing facility could grow, adding a horizontal crew quarters module, reoutfitting the present Hab structure for a more complete lab (whole second floor deck now given to crew berths, ward room, galley, computer stations) and a much expanded engineering, machine shop, fabrication space on the first floor deck. But where we put what is another question. The priority is to expand, create more usable space.

What about FMARS?

The "first-born" has a special place in the affections of Mars Society members. Devon Island offers a different kind of Mars Analog Terrain. The fact remains that any facility not used full-time is too expensive per man-hour of use to maintain.

It would be a hard choice to take it down, ship it to some other location where it could enjoy full(er)-time use and reassemble and reoutfit it. There are cost-benefit issues that come into play but which can only be correctly assessed if we take the long view. Have we done about all we can do on Devon Island? If so, the time has come to take a fresh new look at this asset and how it can best serve the dreams of the Society.

Relocation of the Arctic Hab to a new home side by side to the Desert Hab and then rethinking how each is outfitted, is one option it will do no harm to brainstorm. The result? A more complete outpost capable of simulating more of the facilities and activities a real outpost must have.

Another idea would be to relocate FMARS to the Orlando or Las Vegas areas as a tourist center. Both MDRS and Euro-Mars have indeed been on display, but in each case, that was prior to interior outfitting. The upshot is that the visitor did not get a good idea of what it would be like to live and work in such an outpost. Missed Opportunity!

In an FMARS tourist facility, visitors could see how and where crews live and work, both by walking through a near-identical layout and through live web-cams to all of the activity areas of MDRS. Such a facility could pay for itself and the whole analog station program by visitor donations.

Then with FMARS retired to visitor duty, MDRS could be logically expanded first by inflatables, outfitted with local materials, then by modules produced and outfitted from (simulated) local (Martian) materials. This would provide a much better model of the way we will need to do things on Mars if we don't want the Mars Program to end as the Apollo one did, as a futile "moment of glory" dead end. We are here to make "History," not an "Historical Moment!"


The present goal of the Mars Analog Research Station Program is to establish a series of minimal stations at a multiplicity of sites that are each analogs of Mars in different ways. Many things cannot now be modeled or simulated because of the Procrustean limitations of the form/shape/size of the Hab design based on transportation constraints. It would seem better to go beyond the simulation of exploration procedures and the testing of equipment. We need to phase in simulation of transition from initial bare bones outpost into a viable permanent beachhead.

Establishment of a more capacious foothold with endurance capacity is much more important than butterfly sampling of many locations. Exploration, and much, much more of it, will be best guaranteed by establishment of a viable beachhead as the primary goal of a Manned Mars Mission program.

Currently, the separate Mars Foundation works on its own to find pathways to settlement. The Mars Society needs to collaborate with the Foundation to vastly improve its analog program., which is currently aimed only at the exploration of Mars, not settlement.

If we want to simulate what we will need to have on Mars, we must grow MDRS as we would the first outpost on Mars.

It's all so simple, really. <PK>

[We realize that this article will prove to be quite controversial, "apple cart upsetting." But it often happens in any movement that a time comes when we must stand back and ask, "are we still on the track? Or did we get off it somehow? If so, how do we get back on the path to our dreams?"]