Building the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island|
by Robert Zubrin
Devon Island, is located circa 75 degrees north in Canadaís Nunavut Territory. Consisting largely of polar desert with a 15-mile diameter meteorite impact crater, the completely uninhabited island is one of the most Mars-like environments on Earth. Since 1997, NASA scientists led by Dr. Pascal Lee have been exploring the area in order to explore Mars by geologic comparison. At its Founding Convention in 1998, at the suggestion of Dr. Lee, the Mars Society decided to make the construction of a simulated human Mars exploration station on Devon Island its first major project. The purpose of the station would be to continue the geologic exploration of Devon, but do it in the same style and under many of the same constraints as would be involved in conducting such activities on Mars. By doing so, researchers would be forced to confront some of the problems of human Mars exploration and begin the process of developing appropriate field tactics for exploring the Red Planet.
Starting in the fall of 1998, a volunteer Mars Society task force was formed to define the project further, and during 1999 private funds were raised allowing the project to be initiated in earnest. In January 2000, a contract for fabrication was let to Infrastructure Composites International (Infracomp) of Commerce City Colorado, whose unique ultrastrong, comparatively lightweight, and weatherproof fiberglass honeycomb technology provided an attractive option for the Devon Island Station.
Infracompís craftsmanship proved to be excellent. However, for various reasons, the fabrication effort fell seriously behind schedule. This resulted in a crisis in early June, when it became clear that unless something was done, the structure would not be ready in time for the scheduled June 28 shipout. This crisis was overcome however, by the mobilization of additional labor from Mesa Fiberglass, Pioneer Astronautics, and volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Mars Society, some of whom worked up to 2 weeks in the fiberglass factory with no compensation in order to get the structure out of the factory on time. Accordingly, on June 28, three trucks carrying the components of the Station left Colorado for Moffett Field, CA, where, together with gear for the NASA-led Haughton Mars Project, they were loaded on US Marine Corps C-130 aircraft for flight to Resolute Bay in the high Arctic.
With the loss of the trailer, the floors, and the crane, the construction crew that the Mars Society had paid to fly to Devon to assemble the station declared that building it this year was impossible, and left the island. At this point, it seemed to most observers that the project was doomed. Indeed, one journalist covering the events went so far as to ask me "Dr. Zubrin, do you see a parallel between the failure of your mission and that of the Mars Polar Lander?" My reply was "Thereís a parallel in that we both hit a rock. But the difference is that we have a human crew here, and we are going to find a way out of this."
Refusing to give up, Pascal and I assembled a new makeshift construction team consisting of a combination of Mars Society scientist-volunteers, Inuit youth hired from Resolute Bay, and journalists, who, having come to cover the construction of the station, were strongly encouraged to participate in the effort. Frank Schubert, a general construction contractor from Denver and Founding Member of the Mars Society was brought in to direct the construction effort, with the assistance of his foreman Matt Smola, and Infracomp president John Kunz. A new trailer, "the Kunzmobile" was constructed out of wood and parts of a wrecked baggage cart from Resolute Bay airport, and using it, the team managed in three days of heavy sledding in freezing rain to move all the mistargetted habitat components to the construction site. Wooden floors to replace the ruined fiberglass decks were designed, and materials for their construction were secured in Resolute Bay. To replace the crane, an alternative ancient-Roman style construction technique was devised, utilizing large labor teams with bracing timbers and guy ropes operating in coordination with a scaffold and a winch to lift the 20 ft by 7 ft 800 lb wall panels into place. Shortly before the wall-erection effort was to begin, the weather cleared, and the team seized the opportunity to get the job done fast in good weather by instituting 14-hour work-days. In three days, the walls were up. The decks were then partly built out, and then block and tackle gear was used to haul the 350 lb dome sections up onto the upper deck. Once there, a scaffold was constructed, and two dome sections plus the central core were erected to create an arch. The dome sections were then added in, with the last one being brought into place around 7 pm July 26. Interior buildout then commenced rapidly.
On the evening of July 27, I sent a message to the
Mars Society Mission Control in Denver to establish contact
in preparation for the commencement of simulation
operations the next day. "Mission Control, this is Flashline
Station. Are you there? Please Respond." Mission Control
"Flashline Station, this is Mission Control. Itís good to hear from you.In a ceremony attended by about 50 scientists, Inuits and journalists on the evening of July 28, the station was formally commissioned. Speeches were given by NASA Ames scientist Carol Stoker, British Antarctic Survey scientist Charles Cockell, Pascal Lee, and myself. At the conclusion of my speech, a shotgun was fired in salute to the red, green, and blue Martian tricolor flag flying atop the station. I was then given a bottle of champagne, which was smashed against the habitat to christen it. This provoked a sigh from the crowd. Pascal, however, immediately reassured them; "Itís all right folks. Itís just Canadian champagne."
The first crew, consisting of Pascal Lee, Mars Society webmaster Marc Boucher, Frank Schubert, the Discovery Channelís Bob Nesson, and I then entered the habitat for a largely symbolic one night and one day occupation and simulation. A more thorough four-day shakedown simulation was begun on July 30. Commanded by Carol Stoker, the crew of the shakedown consisted of Stoker, Marc Boucher, NASA Amesí Bill Clancey and Larry Lemke, the University of Torontoís Darlene Lim, and Bob Nesson. In the course of the next several days, this group lived and worked in the hab, supporting a series of exploration traverses on Devon Island and the field testing of a Hamilton Sundstrand Mars spacesuit prototype. To report of their activities, the crew engaged in Mars-earth simulated time-delayed dialogue with Mission Control in Denver.
On August 4th, simulation operations were discontinued. The hab was then sealed for the winter. Based on experience gathered to date, plans are now being developed for the summer of 2001, when the station will be used to support 8 weeks of Mars operations field research in the high arctic.
Everything did not go right on Devon Island. Neither, however, can we expect everything to go right on the first human mission to Mars. The military has a saying; "All plans fail upon contact with the enemy." In the wild Arctic, all plans fail on contact with reality. The same will be even more true on Mars. When venturing into the unknown, the unexpected will happen. But what we proved on Devon Island, is that a resourceful crew can deal with it.
On the piloted Mars mission, the human crew will
be the strongest link in the chain.