Flying towards the base of the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP), the first impression is that of a vast desert below. The reddish expanse of dirt and rock appears featureless and gloomy, but actually holds many surprises for the uninitiated.
Chief among these is the fact that it is a polar desert. While an island within 15 degrees of the north pole is expected to be icy and covered in snow, there are only tiny patches of either here – they have melted, leaving small ponds and streams dotting the landscape. One of these ponds is our main source of water, where we drive every other day to replenish our supply.
Otherwise, the terrain is one of rolling, reddish hills; broad rocky plains cut by freeze-thaw features, some forming polygons (as seen near the Mars Phoenix lander); and the occasional fault, mound or terrace. The view wouldn’t be completely out of place in parts of Utah or Arizona, except there would be plants in those places – brush, cacti, and sometimes stunted trees. There would also be wildlife – birds, rabbits and coyotes. Here, there is none of that; the only obvious plant life is sparse patches of lichen and bits of slimy moss in the rare stream, and although there were birds, rabbits and polar bears in Devon we saw none ; the only life we encountered was lichen and creek silt, probably algal mats, which we sampled for examination. It’s easy to believe you’ve been transported to Percival Lowell’s Mars of the 1890s, one in which you can breathe the air and endure the cold without a pressure suit.
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This is precisely why Pascal Lee, planetary scientist at the Mars Institute, chose it as the site for his Haughton-Mars Project Base in 1997, beginning construction in 2000. As the 22-year existence continues in the he harsh environment has taken its toll – the tent buildings are worn and the wood is chipping in places – it is in remarkably good condition considering the modest budget and minimal labor available for primary maintenance.
The fact that the HMP exists is an act of pure will on Pascal’s part. He first came up with the idea of setting up an analog Mars base here as his first project after graduate school. The site was selected for its general resemblance to Mars, but primarily because of its proximity to the Haughton impact crater, a feature formed by a massive asteroid or comet that struck around 23 million years ago.
So, in addition to being arid, devoid of noticeable plant life, rocky, sandy, and reddish in hue, the region has one of the most pristine impact craters on Earth – a landform that Mars does not not miss. And beyond the crater, there are also strikingly Mars-like ravines, valleys, and canyons. It was the perfect place to put a Mars analog base.
Rod Pyle is a space historian and author who created and delivered executive leadership and innovation training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Rod received endorsements and recognition from NASA’s outgoing Deputy Director, Johnson Space Center’s Director of Knowledge for his work.
You’ve probably seen other such installations – small groups of people encased in a fabric dome or fiberglass cylinder who don simulated space suits each time they wish to leave the habitat, simulate a cycle of depressurization in a simulated airlock, then traverse a rock plain in Utah, Hawaii, or even here, communicating with “Earth” via a simulated radio delay. While these experiential simulations have some value, that’s not why Pascal created the HMP. Rather, this facility was created in association with NASA and a number of corporate sponsors to study approaches to Mars exploration.
Collins Aerospace sent engineering models of spacesuits for testing here. NASA’s Ames Research Center has tested robotic drills, rovers and helicopters for Mars here, and NASA’s Langley Research Center has flown a winged vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) Mars prototype. NASA’s Johnson Space Center has conducted studies of pressurized rover space travel and spacewalks on the Moon and Mars using HMP’s specially modified Humvees with their exterior suit ports, airocks that attach directly to space suits and could one day allow astronauts to engage in extra-vehicular activities with agility and speed.
But setting up a research center on an Arctic island is no small feat. It can cost as much to get the materials here as it does to buy them, and providing a crew to build the facility was a big undertaking in itself. Pascal’s main partner in the venture is the aforementioned John Schutt, a longtime veteran of other Arctic and Antarctic ventures.
Pascal’s life has been eclectic. Born in Hong Kong in 1964, he went to France to attend boarding school near Paris when he was just eight years old. A graduate of the Sorbonne with an undergraduate degree in physics and a postgraduate degree in engineering geology and geophysics, he performed his French national service in Antarctica at the Dumont d’Urville base, staying there for more than 400 days and carrying out geophysical research.
Before leaving for his assignment in Antarctica, Lee applied to Cornell University for a graduate program in astronomy and space science – Carl Sagan was teaching there at the time, as was Joe Veverka, who was deeply involved in space science. planetary imagery on nearly every NASA mission through the solar system. Pascal worked extensively with Veverka and was Sagan’s last teaching assistant. His acceptance to Cornell was telexed to him while he was in Antarctica.
Pascal’s fascination with the Haughton region began while he was still at university, searching for the best possible analogue of Mars on Earth, which he thought must be found in the polar regions of our planet. After landing a postdoctoral position at NASA Ames and a first visit to Haughton Crater in 1997, he decided to build a base nearby, affiliated with NASA and intended for serious scientific work. In its most recent form, the base had nine structures and hosted scientific work every summer (and occasionally winter), but COVID has caused a hiatus in occupancy due to regional travel restrictions, and the harsh elements have damaged two buildings.
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But Lee is fearless and, with the help of Schutt and others, intends to keep improving the HMP. It is rare to meet someone so driven who is not motivated by financial gain, but by a genuine thirst for exploration and discovery. “It really is Mars on Earth,” he says, surveying the beautiful hills and valleys around us. “There is no better place on Earth to test Mars exploration systems and strategies, and that is what I hope we will continue to do here with NASA, the SETI Institute and all our other partners. In fact, Collins Aerospace, the company selected to manufacture new EVA suit systems for NASA’s Artemis program, will soon be sending new spacesuits for testing here.
And with that he smiles like a person who has found and committed his deepest purpose in life and is turning away from the sublime to tend to the mundane – helping to cook dinner for our group of seekers and others visiting” March” for the next three weeks.
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