Scientists of all types have descended upon Devon Island in Nunavut, up around 75 degrees latitude, because it’s the closest thing on earth that approximates Mars. Like, they even call it Mars on Earth. Elaine Walker spent her summer living up there for the Haughton-Mars project. She’s the Education and Public Outreach Officer for the Mars Institute, so lots of her work is about letting people know about this project and others like it. It basically houses scientists from all over the world who study various aspects of the land and determines how to prepare the human race for the inevitable colonization of Mars. This might just be a very rich fantasy shared by few, but they are very driven people.
Vice: Are you an astronaut?
Elaine Walker: I’m an astronaut in my mind. I explore outer space inside of my mind.
How did you get involved with the Haugton-Mars
I’m friends with Pascal [Dr. Pascal Lee, Director of HMP, and also has ties to NASA Ames, Mars Institute, and SETI Institute], who runs the whole show. We met at a Mars Week conference at MIT. I’m excited about space, so I go to these things. Pascal looked like this tough military guy…but then he got up to speak and he was really eloquent, so I chased after him and we exchanged information. I eventually called him to speak at a conference when I was the president of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society.
You sort of have a long love relationship with Mars?
Yeah, we’re still courting.
What does Mars, er, Devon Island, look like?
Because Devon Island is a cold dessert, like Mars, the landscape is similar. It even has a reddish tint to it. The geology has a lot of Mars-like features and V-shaped valleys…those really stand out because it’s hard to figure out how they form. It really feels like you’re on Mars if you have your helmet on and you’re riding an ATV.
Do you have a space suit?
No. There is space suit research going on up there. Hamilton Sundstrand [a global corporation that manufactures aerospace products] is up there. They do the space suits for the space station and the space shuttle. It’s a real torso and a real helmet, but the arms and legs are just mock-ups. This year the suit was part of a study, helping NASA think about how to plan long range and long duration pressurized rover traverses. The suit was fitted into the rear door of the HMP’s Mars-1 Humvee Rover. It looks really cool! The “astronaut” gets into the suit quickly from inside, throws a few levers, and walks off to do some field work. No more 45-minute air lock time. The suits themselves are being redesigned so geologists can bend over and pick up rocks. You can’t do that very well in an Apollo suit. You’d just fall over. Apollo suits are also only meant to last one day. When we go back to the Moon or to Mars we’re going to stay a while.
What do you eat on Mars?
They hire gourmet camp chefs on Devon Island to keep the scientists happy and productive. But as far as I know they haven’t really studied that yet. They do a lot of psychological studies up there. I wouldn’t be surprised if we do one on what to eat or what drives people crazy, but that’s probably something we already know enough about.
Can non-astronauts visit Mars on Earth?
Every now and then they’ll have VIP guests come up, like people who donate money to the project. But people can submit a proposal to Pascal. You don’t have to be an astronaut, but you do have to have a really good idea of a research project that’s applicable to humans on the Moon or Mars.
What do you do for fun on Mars when
you’re not working?
It’s hard to ever stop working because there is always overlapping work to do! But every now and then I Skype with friends back on Earth, or attempt to write in the never-ending book I’m writing. We mostly play with rocks and dirt, but we also watch movies on the projector some nights. We mainly watch scary sci-fi movies about being stuck in research stations in the Arctic or Antarctic, especially if it involves monsters and other horrific stuff, like both versions of The Thing, for instance.
How do you haul all of your stuff up
Spacesuits and drills get packed in large crates and flown in on the twin otters. Twin otters fly in and out several times during the season bringing in barrels of fuel, scientists and personal luggage, and ship out barrels of pee with the unfortunate people who get to ride with them. Some stuff initially was paradropped from cargo planes, which can’t actually land on Devon Island. But by now the large tents and big items are already there and just get packed a bit and hunkered down over the winter. The Mars-1 Humvee Rover got there a few years ago by driving very carefully across the sea ice!
Sorry, back up. You ship out your pee?
The reason is that since many scientists are there for various reasons to study the local biology and plant life, we want to have as little impact on the environment as possible. Wherever the camp dog pees, a little oasis sprouts up. It's amazing how fast it can change.
How is the pee collected?
The boys basically "step up to the plate" as they like to call it, and pee into a funnel that goes into a barrel. That's simple enough. We girls pee into a pink pitcher and then walk over and pour it into the barrel. For the ultimate deed, there are toilet seats over buckets with heavy-duty bags that get carefully tied and placed into a crate, and its ultimate fate is to be burned in our incinerator. As you know, the pee is shipped out. When we look back and think of fond memories, this stuff is usually not part of it.
How is the pee collected?
Exactly how much pee are you shipping
Believe it or not, I've never really asked.
As far as Mars supporting life, how
will people breathe up there? Will we have to live in domes?
Most likely what will happen is that we’ll fly all kinds of things out ahead of time, such as the Earth Return Vehicles, living modules, food, supplies, and machines that produce fuel, air, and water. We can check from back on Earth that all of these things made it safely and are functioning before we send any humans. Every time there is another trip, more of all of these things can be sent out, eventually building up a large group of living modules and support machinery.
So any bubble coming up soon for me?
The bubble thing will be quite a bit farther off. Also imagine what it would be like to live in a giant structure, like the size of a mall. Living spaces might also be built underground, so that the regolith can help to keep the air pressure in, and maybe in spherical shapes since it is the strongest structure.
When do you think people will get to go to Mars in space?
The year 2050 at the extreme, extreme earliest. The question of getting there and back is the easiest. But we have a billion things to figure out before we can survive on the surface and get a lot of science done. These are the things we are learning on Devon Island. Plus the whole political timeline – there are only four years at a time to convince politicians to focus on it. Both George Bushes really pushed it, but plans never go incredibly smoothly. We’re definitely planning on going back to the moon first, so that’s where the funding is at the moment. But in the long term, Mars has so much more potential as far as supporting life with a nearly 24-hour-day-night cycle, water ice, soil, a thin atmosphere, and 1/3 gravity. We’d all be tall and thin.
Nice. But level with me here. Is Mars truly a plausible solution for mass migration once we destroy the earth?
It seems silly to phrase it that way, because we would have to "destroy" the Earth pretty badly for it to be as harsh as Mars to begin with, but on the other hand, it is amazing that Mars offers what it does. There are a million reasons to go there to stay, and to make sure that all of our eggs are not in one basket is one major reason.
Mass migration could also happen for a more uplifting and obvious reason, which
is that we are creatures of exploration and have been since time immemorial.
Our evolution happens when we subject ourselves to new and exciting and difficult
situations, not when we remain stagnant. Going to Mars is often compared to
crossing the oceans for the first time.
Many people wonder how can we expect to treat another planet more kindly than we do the Earth. However, in order to survive on Mars we will precisely need to learn to recycle every last little thing and be as conservative with our resources as possible, for sheer survival. Everything we learn with regards to surviving on Mars will be used to improve our resourcefulness on Earth.
Will people be able to pee up there?
I certainly hope so. And I do hope there are no buckets or bags involved.