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Miles goes to Mars -- on Earth

July 16, 2001 Posted: 5:59 p.m. EDT

Miles O'Brien  

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- You would think after all the trouble NASA had with Apollo 13, they would not even consider launching a space shuttle on the day triskaidekaphobics dread. But as quick as you can say "baker's dozen," the agency made it clear it would have lighted the candles on Atlantis on the 13th if the weather had not cooperated in the wee hours Thursday.

What's good enough for the real rocket scientists is OK for us "analog-astronauts," who are ready to launch a journey to the Arctic Circle, and a simulated Mars encampment. Hearty researchers and explorers are already there, deep in the midst of their summer (which is to say, brief) campaign to learn more about staging a mission to the real planet some day.

We are headed about 450 miles above the Arctic Circle to Devon Island, in the Canadian province of Nunavut. It is the world's largest uninhabited island and is certainly a semi-finalist in the contest for "most bleak." Postcards from this muddy rock pile would look a lot like Pathfinder images (just add sepia) and, as it turns out, the similarities to Mars run more than rock deep. It is cold, dry and seemingly lifeless -- about as close to the fourth rock from the sun as you'll find on the third.

There are actually two camps sharing the putty-colored tundra. On the edge of a huge asteroid impact crater sits a mock spaceship that serves as home base for the Mars Analog Research Station (MARS). Staged by the Mars Society, the project focuses on how future martian explorers might live and work in such harsh surroundings. For example, before crew members leave the "ship", they don bulky spacesuits.

A few hundred yards away lies the tent city of the Haughton Mars Project, an encampment funded by NASA and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI). Researchers there are testing ideas for experiments on Mars aimed at finding signs of life.

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More on the exploration and science later. First, let's go shopping.

If you plan to go to MARS, you'd better bring your credit card, and make sure you've got some credit to spare.

Pascal Lee, a wiry, intense scientist based at NASA-Ames, and a member of the SETI project, sent us a long list of things to buy in order to be true to the Boy Scout motto. I'd re-print it here, but the list carries a stern warning that it is copyrighted and not to be "distributed or disseminated in part or in full, without prior written permission." These are clearly the trade secrets of Mars explorers and thus are guarded jealously.

Lee ranks the items according to their importance -- "required," "recommended" or "optional".

Things like 15-degree sleeping bags and four-season tents fall into the first category; backpacks, tarps and Band-Aids are in the second; and eye shades, solar panels and GPS receivers are considered gravy.

Producer Linda Saether and I went through the camping emporium like Sherman through Atlanta, filling two shopping carts, and the tent salesman, with envy.

In addition to some serious shopping, we endured a crash course in television engineering. This would be a lean, mean trip -- no photographers, no technicians, just the two of us. We brought an array of digital video cameras; a Macintosh G4 laptop with digital editing software; three Inmarsat satellite phones; a pair of iPIX 360-degree cameras, still and video; and a "7E Videophone", a TOKO "store-and-forward" device designed to transmit full-motion television pictures, but with a serious lag (it takes about an hour to feed one minute of video).

The end result is a collection of complex, sometimes quirky devices that would make Rube Goldberg, and Al Franken, proud. But this is the Brave New World of TV journalism. So, onward, digital soldiers!

By the time we packed everything, we had 16 pieces of luggage to check -- some steep excess baggage bills -- and 3,000 miles of northward flying ahead of us, on an ASA Canadair regional jet to Ottawa, a First Air 737 to the dirt runway at Resolute Bay and a chartered Otter to Devon. Although we were loath to admit it, when First Air cancelled its Saturday morning flight, we breathed a sigh of relief that our odyssey would not begin under a cloud of superstition.

SATURDAY, JULY 14, RESOLUTE, Nunavut -- Enter the polar time warp. The flight to Resolute left Ottawa at 9 p.m. The later it got, the longer we flew, and the lighter it got. Welcome to the Arctic in summer -- the sun would not set on this trip. It was overcast, drizzly, windy and cold when we kicked up dust on the Resolute runway at about 3:30 a.m. local time.

As the conveyor belt spun-up, our innkeeper and greeter -- Aziz (pronounced Ozzie) -- told us to stack the gear in a corner and leave it behind. There are 280 people in Resolute (about 300 in the summer) and Aziz said he could attest to everyone's honesty. I believed him.

We motored to his "South Camp Inn," although it is not "south" of much, with just enough gear to pull off a live shot. Our goal was a report from the hotel for the Sunday broadcast at 8 a.m., but the gear did not cooperate. After a flurry of calls to our Atlanta brain trust, I ended up calling the CEO of "7E," the company that manufactures the videophone in Great Britain. He was attending an air show, ogling at passing Spitfires and Hurricanes. When I finally got him to focus on my crisis on the other side of the world, he offered an instant diagnosis -- a five-pin connector had come loose in transit.

After a brief hunt for Resolute's only Allen wrench, I benched the gear and, sure enough, the connector was loose. Suddenly, I am feeling like a wire-head.

By the time we had made repairs, we were past our window of opportunity for a live report and working on a serious sleep deficit as we awaited word that the weather was good enough for the 112-mile Otter hop to Devon. It was nap time, even tough our circadian rhythms were all out of whack from the relentless daylight. It's easy to forget the time of day or night, but sleep insists on being remembered.

The phone awakened us about three hours later. The weather was not great, but good enough, and we were told to come to the airport immediately -- we were on our way to Mars.

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