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Mission to 'Mars': Can Pilots Help Get Us to the Red Planet?

posted Jan 8, 2014, 9:13 PM by Michael Stoltz   [ updated Jan 8, 2014, 9:14 PM ]

By Jim Moore, AOPA Magazine, 12.19.13

Loaded near maximum weight, a flight of two Quest Kodiaks cruised in the Arctic summer sky over vast swaths of barren tundra and sea ice fraught with history. The steady thrum of their Pratt & Whitney turboprops was reassuring, although the pilots were inspired more than once to speculate whether the sea ice below could hold 7,000 pounds of airplane. 

If it ever came to that, a safe landing would only mark the beginning of a struggle to survive in a land that has seen many fail.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin set sail in command of two British warships to chart the Northwest Passage winding through Canada’s Arctic islands. They never returned. Rescue attempts began three years later, and lasted for years. In August 1852, HMS Resolute launched her second such voyage, now the flagship of five ships looking for Franklin and his crew—they found graves, and a note, but little else—and also hoping to find two of the other ships previously sent in search of Franklin.

A year later, in August 1853, an unexpected summer cold front locked Resolute in drifting sea ice, and the crew hunkered down for winter. The ice did not relent the following spring; Capt. Henry Kellett draped a British flag over his wardroom chair and led his crew on a successful hard march across the ice to Beechey Island. It is a desolate spit of snowy rock just off the shore of the much larger (and equally desolate) Devon Island, roughly twice the size of Maryland, and remains uninhabited in the present day.

Resolute was not lost forever: an American whaling ship found the three-masted barque drifting, as shipshape as she had been left, in 1855, and Resolute was returned to Britain. (By way of thanks, the British government had timbers from Resolute made into three massive desks, one of which sits today in the Oval Office.)

This past July, a month shy of 160 years after Resolute was snared by ice, two American pilots and a small crew seeking to simulate a mission to Mars departed Idaho, bound for Devon Island—a course that would take the aircraft within a few miles of Beechey Island.

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[Image: J.Moore/AOPA]