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starship-design: Someone asked about a Mars base on Earth....

"Planet Earth's best source for online space news"

Feb. 10, 1999
Laying the groundwork: Space buffs push idea for Mars-like base on Earth
First of a two-part series on NASA's plans to explore Mars
By Robyn Suriano
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - A giant space rock, maybe as big as a 30-story
building, fell from the sky more than 20 million years ago and created a
place that reminds Pascal Lee of Mars.

The asteroid or comet, no one is sure which, punched a 15-mile wide hole
called Haughton Crater in the Canadian Arctic. Still scarred by the ancient
impact, today the land is dry and barren.

It is covered with rocks and deep valleys. The winds are fierce, and the
temperature is almost always below freezing. It's hardly a vacation spot -
unless you're interested in going to the Red Planet.

"The similarity is astonishing," said Lee, a planetary scientist at NASA's
Ames Research Center near Mountain View, Calif. "We were struck at once by
the amazing resemblance to Mars."

That similarity is prompting NASA and a private space advocacy group called
the Mars Society to consider the site as a training ground for astronauts
and researchers who might someday go to Mars.

Perhaps as early as next year, supporters want to begin building a $1.5
million Martian-like base that would be set up in the crater.

The effort is led by an engineer and Mars Society space buff named Robert
Zubrin of Colorado, who has written a book called The Case for Mars: The
Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.

"We are going to make this happen," said Zubrin. "Before you can get to
Mars, you really need to try these things out on the ground and this would
be the place to do it."

NASA currently has no plan to send humans to the Martian surface. Instead,
it is spending its political capital and money - at least $50 billion - to
build and operate the International Space Station during the next 15 years.

Mars exploration, however, is going on in a big way.

The agency recently launched two more robot probes to the planet to study
the weather and hunt for water, which could be used to support a human
expedition sometime after 2020.

Scientists at places such as Ames also are busy sketching out ideas on how
to make the journey work.

The process would start with launching supplies, equipment and a return
spaceship with robots to begin assembling a Martian base.

The missions would begin two years before humans would be sent to Mars
inside a multi-storied spaceship. The trip would take one year.

Once there, their ship would form the backbone of the base, which would
include small garages for vehicles, greenhouses for growing vegetables, and
a small nuclear power facility to generate electricy.

The crews could live on the surface for six months to a year, collecting
rocks, studying the Martian atmosphere and searching for signs of past or
even present microbial life.

The challenges to pulling off such a mission are enormous, and there would
be no room for error.

With people living a year away from home, they couldn't just hop in their
ship and fly back to Earth if things started to go bad.

That's where the arctic base comes in - it could be invaluable in
trouble-shooting all kinds of problems a crew would face.

As Zubin put it, "You'd much rather find out what kinds of problems you
might have in the arctic then wait and discover things on Mars."

Already under design, the Haughton Crater base would be a three-story
structure with a domed roof. Standing 30 feet tall and 27 feet wide, the
building could hold six people.

After it was built, it would be flown by plane and helicopter to the site.
It would rest on its six legs, much like a spaceship would land on Mars.

Each floor of the structure would have a specific purpose, Lee said.

The bottom would serve as a basement, where astronauts would enter and exit,
store dusty spacesuits and keep tools for cutting rocks or repairing

This would be the dirtiest part of the building, the place where residents
would try to confine the grime that inevitably will be tracked indoors from

Stairs would take crew members to a pristine second floor that would hold a
laboratory, kitchen and small dining area.

The top floor would serve as the crew's quarters. It could hold six sleeping
cubicles, which Lee calls "staterooms" because each would have its own

The top floor would also boast a living room for reading and socializing.

At its base, the structure would be connected via enclosed walkways to
garages where robot explorers and vehicles could be kept.

Two large solar panels would be unfurled on the ground, serving as a back-up
if the electrical generators failed.

The arctic base would run on battery power from the generators, but a real
Martian base would draw its energy from a small amount of nuclear fuel.

Experts say solar power is not practical for a Mars base because it would
require the crew to haul too much gear to construct a workable system.

Mars also receives less light than Earth because it is further from the sun,
and huge dust storms often cloud the atmosphere and block sunlight.

If the plan works, the aim would be to use the Haughton Crater to replicate
as closely as possible an actual Mars outpost.

That means astronauts would live and work there for months at a time.
Systems to recycle water and generators to supply oxygen also could be put
through their paces.

What's more, Lee said, astronauts could learn the thousands of little things
that need to be worked out before humans ever could be sent to Mars.

"When you're working in that kind of environment, you have to do a lot of
things that you would also have to do on Mars," Lee said.

"Going out in pairs, never alone; limiting the amount of rocks you could
collect; staying outside for short lengths of time. These things may sound
simple, but they have to be looked at."

NASA officials agree they could uncover valuable information that might make
a Mars mission successful.

"Much like the way football players practice playing football and pilots
practice flying planes, astronauts are going to have to practice for living
on Mars so when they have to do it for real, they will be prepared as best
they can," said Stephen Hoffman, an engineer at the Johnson Space Center in
Houston and co-author of a NASA study on the human exploration of Mars.

"We'll want to do the best we can with what we have on Earth."

Zubrin thinks the arctic site fills that need, which is why he's confident
that contributors will open their wallets.

The society already has collected $130,000 toward the project, and Zubrin
said a major fund-raising campaign will begin soon with corporate sponsors
as the targets.

"This is within our means," Zubrin said. "We already have a team working on
the design and logistics, and I'm confident this $1 million cost is not
beyond our capabilities to raise."

NASA officials say they haven't learned enough about the project to devote
funding to it, but remain interested, said Doug Cooke, manager of the
agency's exploration office at the Johnson Space Center.

"It's certainly the kind of thing we'll need to do," said Cooke, whose
office is in charge of planning human trips to Mars.

"But there is a range of testing that will need to be done. Some of it can
be done in laboratories, some of it can be done on (the International Space
Station), and we're also looking at the moon as a place to test (equipment.)

"But, of course, we'll want to do as much as we can on Earth, so this kind
of thing would be possible."

Beyond practice for a human mission to the Red Planet, Zubrin sees another
use for the arctic base - inspiration.

Once people see an actual Mars-base structure with astronauts living aboard,
Zubrin thinks it could spur greater public interest - and therefore
tax-payer support - for a trip to Mars.

Lee agrees.

"For the first time, we get the sense of gearing up," said Lee, who also is
a member of the Mars Society. "We've talked about human missions to Mars
forever, but here you are...building things in a purposeful way to study how
to get there.

"An experiment like this can stimulate a lot of public support to make it

Tomorrow: Terraforming on Mars


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