Arctic training feels like Mars


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Most people spend summer vacations at the beach, campground or amusement park. But Kristine Ferrone went to Mars.

The planet, not the borough.

OK, all right, she didn't actually blast off into outer space and land on the Red Planet. But where she did go was forbidding space that's definitely outer and certainly looks extraplanetary.

Ms. Ferrone spent July on Devon Island, the world's largest uninhabited island in distant northern Canada, well inside the Arctic Circle.

Devon Island arguably is the closest thing on Earth to a Martian environment with its barren terrain and lack of plant life. Just across the Baffin Sea from Greenland, the large Arctic island is remote, cold and dangerous. As with Mars, once on Devon Island, there's no easy return home if something goes awry.

A Hampton native and graduate of Hampton High School and Carnegie Mellon University, Ms. Ferrone, 26, participated in a Mars Society expedition to do science and study human adaptive behavior in difficult environments, which will be necessary during missions to other planets.

Six "astronauts," including three men and three women, paid their own travel expenses or raised money from sponsors to travel to Resolute, an Inuit town of 229 people with an average annual temperature of minus 16 degrees.

Resolute is the final destination in the high Arctic for commercial flights. Ms. Ferrone spent three days there awaiting decent weather before flying on a small Twin Otter plane 200 miles to her final destination on neighboring Devon Island.

Since 2001, the nonprofit Mars Society has sponsored simulated Mars missions on Devon Island and later at a desert location in southern Utah, where would-be astronauts practice survival skills in harsh climates and barren terrain.

The society, with its Web site at www.marssociety.org, encourages exploration and settlement of the Red Planet through an outreach campaign and support of aggressive government funding for Mars exploration programs worldwide. The society has focused on how interpersonal relationships can make or break a mission to Mars.

Yes, Devon Island has air, but Mars doesn't have polar bears.

"It was an amazing adventure and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for space exploration in general," said Ms. Ferrone, who aspires to be an astronaut. "This was a great eye-opener. Can I cut it? For me the answer was a resounding yes. I can do this."

The astrophysics major at CMU, with a master's degree in sports medicine from the United States Sports Academy and a masters of business administration from University of Florida, signed up for the expedition to test her exploratory mettle. Astronauts had to wear spacesuits and helmets for scheduled excursions -- a total of 40 pounds extra weight -- a heavier load than on Mars, which has only one-third the gravity of Earth.

The crew lived in the Mars Society's space-age cylindrical habitat and performed the same procedures that will be necessary on Mars, including entering a simulated airlock before leaving the habitat.

During expeditions, the astronauts performed surveys and experiments much the way they'd do on Mars. Ms. Ferrone, a flight controller for NASA in Mission Control, Houston, tested a commercial laser device whose heat is designed to reduce muscle tension and heal wounds.

For one month, the crew lived on a limited water supply and diet in confined space and took turns cooking and cleaning.

"This was a very good mission. We had a very strong crew," said Robert Zubrin, Mars Society president, quoting the mission price tag of $75,000. "What we're really trying to do is to get NASA to embrace this."

Practice missions on Earth would be an alternative to sending astronauts to the moon to prepare for a trip to Mars. It would cost a small fraction of training on the moon, he said.

"We are demonstrating a method used to learn pretty much everything NASA hopes to learn with a lunar base," Dr. Zubrin said. "When you do a play, you do rehearsals, and the dress rehearsal helps a lot in figuring out what to do on stage."

While Ms. Ferrone summed up the mission as a terrific experience, all was not perfect. The crew had to repair all five all-terrain vehicles and experienced debate over the majority decision to restrict each crew member to one brief shower a week.

"There were disagreements among people stuffed together in a tuna can," Ms. Ferrone said.

The cylindrical habitat is situated on the rim of a 25-kilometer-wide meteor crater in a cold region without snow cover in the summer, making it similar to Martian terrain.

"Nothing on Earth is as extreme as Mars, but Devon Island is a cold desert and there are not many cold deserts on Earth," Ms. Ferrone said. "Psychologically your mind is set that you are on your own. That's the way it will be on Mars. It's important to be isolated."

Ms. Ferrone took a month of vacation time to take the "great, crazy adventure."

For the first 10 days, the crew prepared the site for human habitation, including digging a sump for waste water with a block-wall lining to meet Canadian environmental requirements. The crew took 16 space walks covering 40 kilometers and performed geological experiments, including collecting gypsum 6 miles from the habitat for use in extracting water from the mineral.

During the expedition, Ms. Ferrone realized she lacked the necessary fix-it skills anyone might need on another planet. But she said she had no problems adapting to life's restraints, although showering only once a week was unpleasant.

Dr. Zubrin said the expedition proved that Ms. Ferrone is a worthy astronaut.

"In addition to being technically skilled and very intelligent, she had the one quality we need -- the ability to laugh," Dr. Zubrin said. "On a mission to Mars, if you lose your sense of humor, you are finished."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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