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Man on Mars

Brian Shiro is a man on a mission that's out of this world.


by Robbie Levin (J12)

Video: A Man on a Mission — Northwestern alumnus Brian Shiro discusses life on Mars — and living on Earth's most Mars-like analog, Devon Island in Canada's northern Nunavut Territory. See more videos from Northwestern magazine.

Brian Shiro is a man on a mission — a mission to Mars.

Last July, Shiro (WCAS00), who attended Northwestern under the name Brian White, took part in a monthlong mock mission to Mars along with five crew mates at the Mars Society's Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island, a large island in Nunavut Territory off the northern coast of Canada.

The station is one of several habitats worldwide where simulated missions take place in Mars-like conditions. The missions help to develop knowledge needed to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. "Devon Island is a good Mars analog," Shiro explains. "The geology and terrain are really similar to what you would expect on Mars."

The largest uninhabited island on Earth, Devon Island is barren. The island's most Mars-like feature is the Haughton Crater, created when a meteorite crashed into the area more than 20 million years ago. The island's low temperatures and precipitation, combined with the sterilized soil in the impact crater area, create an atmosphere similar to the Mars surface.

During their time at FMARS, crew members lived in "the Hab" — a roughly 25-foot-by-25-foot cylindrical building that is meant to replicate the size of a habitat that could fit in a Mars rocket.

Throughout the mission, the crew maintained FMARS Twitter, Facebook, Picasa and YouTube accounts. The crew also conducted several live video discussions with students around the country.

"One of the most important goals of the Mars Society's work at the FMARS stations is to excite the public about Mars exploration," Shiro says. "All these social media outlets let people experience the expedition in ways they couldn't previously."

Shiro led two undertakings on Devon Island. The first was an electromagnetic project with the goal of finding groundwater. Water is rare on Mars, and any life on the planet would likely be located near water sources. Shiro's second task was to install a seismic station on Devon Island — what Shiro believes is the first to be installed under simulated Mars conditions.

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An avid runner and blogger, Shiro has an insatiable curiosity about the unknown and a sense of fearlessness in exploring the world from every vantage point. He is an open-water-certified scuba diver, and he was flying airplanes with his father before he could drive a car.

After graduating from Northwestern with majors in integrated science, geology and physics, Shiro entered graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. Afterward he took geophysics jobs around the world. Now he works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, about 10 miles west of Honolulu. There, Shiro and his co-workers monitor the globe for earthquakes that could produce tsunamis.

Shiro was on the job Sept. 29 when an undersea earthquake rocked the South Pacific and created a tsunami that devastated coastal villages in Samoa and American Samoa.

"It can be a lot of pressure at first," Shiro recently told CNN.com about working at the tsunami warning center. "You do have a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. You have to act quickly and sometimes you have to issue your very first initial message based on incomplete information, because one of the most important factors in warning people of a tsunami is time."

When he is not scanning the globe for earthquakes, Shiro develops seismic software and performs fieldwork around Hawaii. Shiro, who hails from Arkansas, moved to Ewa Beach in 2005 with his wife, the former Holli DeLine (WCAS00). After marrying at Northwestern's Alice Millar Chapel in 2003, the couple changed their last name to Shiro as a way to honor Holli's Japanese heritage — "shiro" is the Japanese word for Brian's family name, "white."

As a child, Shiro was fascinated by outer space, and he even attended a Mission to Mars summer camp when he was 13. He was named mission commander by his fellow campers and remembers the mock press conference they held in anticipation of their trip. Seventeen years later, with his FMARS expedition, Shiro's dream of reaching Mars is one step closer to reality.

There is no clear time frame for a real voyage to Mars. The planet is relatively close to Earth — usually between 35 million and 250 million miles away, depending on where the two planets are in their orbits. By comparison, the Moon is only 240,000 miles from Earth. While Apollo astronauts could reach the moon in three days, the transit to Mars will take about six months using conventional rocket technology. Astronauts would then remain on the surface for 30 or 550 days, depending on which return launch window they use.

Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, has estimated that with the right support, humans are only 10 years away from reaching the planet. He estimates the journey could be funded with $20 billion to $50 billion.

Nevertheless, most experts agree that a Mars mission is 20 to 40 years away, given current political and economic realities. On the science side, researchers must figure out how to survive the radiation exposure on the journey to Mars.

According to Jill Hanna Prince (WCAS99), an aerospace engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center, one of the biggest roadblocks for humans is the entry, descent and landing of a spacecraft on Mars. "We don't have the technology right now to send large objects to the surface," says Prince. "There is a risk of radiation in getting there, but there is also the risk of crash-landing the large payload on the surface."

If humans do make the journey to the Red Planet in the near future, Shiro hopes to be part of the crew. One of more than 3,500 applicants to NASA's latest call for astronauts, Shiro completed his astronaut application in May 2008 and advanced to the "highly qualified" stage (roughly the top 3 to 13 percent of all applicants) before getting cut earlier this year.

However, Shiro's dream of a mission to Mars is still alive. "I'm very close to a lot of people who work in the space industry," he says. "When the next call for astronauts goes out, I'll be the first to apply."

Robbie Levin of Glenview, Ill., is a Medill School of Journalism sophomore.

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Brian Shiro cleans Hab
Shiro cleans the window on “the Hab,” the 25-by-25 cylindrical building where the FMARS crew lived on Devon Island in northern Canada.
 
Brian Shiro searches for groundwater
Shiro searches for subsurface groundwater.
 
Brian Shiro installs seismic station
Brian Shiro, left, and Christy Garvin set up the FMARS seismic station on Devon Island’s Haughton Crater. Shiro installed the seismic station as part of his research.