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Wilmington to Mars: One small sail, one (potentially) large leap for space exploration

Wilmington to Mars: One small sail, one (potentially) large leap for space exploration

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WILMINGTON — The comparisons between the exploration of oceans and space are endless. But Reid Stowe still says he is met with disbelief about how long-term sea voyages can be useful and necessary when it comes to planning missions to Mars, for example.

Stowe, long-time captain of the 70-foot Schooner Anne, has a history of adventuring at sea and fascination about humans traveling to other planets.

He holds a record for the longest sea voyage at 1,152 days, or more than three years with no stops or re-supplies, which he began as a way to better understand how people could prepare for and survive such long-term isolation and self-reliance.

"If you don't think I can do this," Stowe said, "how do you think a group of astronauts can live this same amount of time on a mission to Mars?"

Now, 10 years later, he is adapting that belief into a Mars Ocean Analogs program, in partnership with The Mars Society, founded by aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin.

The first such voyage leaves from Wilmington to begin 2021 with a small crew aboard his "starship schooner." They will have to work together for three weeks in potentially life-threatening circumstances on their way to Boca Chica in Texas, the SpaceX launch site.

"This is the test run, the proof of concept," said John Wolfe, a Wilmington-based writer who is also a captain and part of Anne's crew for these analogs.

Stowe, Wolfe, Eric Goss, Andrew West, Cole Andur and Oliver Parody are among the crew of analog astronauts. Also with them is Soanya Ahmad, who accompanied Stowe for 10 months of his record-setting voyage until she became pregnant, and the couple's son Darshen.

Such analog programs aren't new. NASA, for example, studies isolation and confinement, conducts bedrest analogs to simulate weightlessness, and studies radiation at the NASA Space Radiation Lab. Other analogs test technology or space suits.

The Mars Society conducts desert training in Utah, for example. In fact, Atila Maszaros, from Peru, will be the ninth analog astronaut on this inaugural voyage. He's both participated in and managed short-term, small-group exercises through the Society and is looking forward to doing the next one with this crew.

"It's the psychology of people onboard, what can happen during long duration sea voyages," Stowe said.

Scientists can study small group dynamics, but on the sea people have to work together to achieve a common goal while there is also always a risk of danger and loss of life.

That can be difficult to replicate on land.

Years ago, Stowe first heard about what a Mars mission would likely look like, a multinational crew of men and women. He was reminded of his voyage to Antarctica with a crew of eight from five different countries. While there is a focus on the technology and science of space missions, the human element is important but largely unknown.

"Every day is different," Ahmad said.

Early in their record-setting voyage, a freighter hit the Anne and they began weeks of intensive repairs made on the go — essentially adrift.

"Calm days are such a blessing," she said. "There's less stress on your body when you aren't in continuous crisis mode."

That's when they could prepare more food stores. When it rained, they collected water.

Stowe learned other important coping strategies on the trip. He brought earth and sand along with him, so he could occasionally place his feet in it to feel grounded. The fresh food in their diets came from sprouts they could grow onboard. And he continually turned to art (the schooner is detailed with Stowe's wood carvings).

But mostly, his success was because of mental preparation — and mental attitude.

"Absolutely the most important thing is the realization that we are all one," Stowe said.

Even though he spent so much time alone, he learned to tap into a collective appreciation for all of humankind, the sea and the schooner.

At space conferences, he talks about what it is like traveling under a dome of stars.

Stowe dislikes descriptions of his voyage as challenges or endurance feats. Instead, he sees it as an evolution, a step that people must take to make it to other planets. And he believes that everyone can accomplish this, provided they have an open mind.

But each person deals with the situation a bit differently, Maszaros said. The situation adds complexity in a group of six or seven.

"Place one different person and the crew dynamics change," he said.

Through his work with the Mars Society, he's learned that roles emerge. Not ones that are assigned, but those that are more innate like leadership, morale, or communications.

"They are the roles that will pop out," he said. "Good and bad."

It will undoubtedly happen again aboard the Anne. Repairs and preparations have been underway since January, and began to take on more urgency in October. Now, all of the fuel, water (1,500 gallons worth), and enough pasta, oats, beans, dried fruits and other light-weight foods are onboard to sustain the crew for the duration.

Until they leave (possibly on Sunday), Stowe said they will be running drills to practice the tasks they'll have to complete at sea.

Other Mars Ocean Analogs are in the planning stages, and could test equipment, or simulate EVAs (extravehicular activity) through dives, for example. They will also allow for individuals and small groups to test their mettle in such circumstances.

To see if they can develop the reverence, appreciation of isolation, and mental fortitude to make it.

"That's how you're going to survive getting to Mars," Stowe said. "That's how you're going to survive getting to Earth."

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