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The following article appeared in the Spring 1997 edition of the Windstar Vision.

Roadmap to Mars

Captain Robert "Rio" Hahn describes the journey via the Amazon and Coral Reefs


-- Sherryl R. Stalinski

The evening we met Rio and Teresa they had just stepped out of the four-hour long, newly released film production of Hamlet. Even after a delightful Thai dinner with mutual friends, Rio still seemed submerged in the movie. Some metaphoric superlatives might describe how visible was the impact of the Shakespearean classic on the man, but it was just as obvious to me that this impact was not only powerful, but very personal.

A chat later in the quiet of our friend's breakfast nook made me even more aware of how committed this soft-spoken, warm gentleman was to soaking up every experience life held on its platter.

Captain Robert (Rio) Hahn is no stranger to potent life experiences, having earned the sobriquet Rio from his adventures in the Amazon. His life as an explorer offers a story of epic proportions of what can be accomplished by pursuing the innate human drive toward discovery. As President and Chairman of Tropic Seas Research, Inc., the company which owns the Research Vessel Heraclitus, Rio described his odyssey, beginning in 1974 with the building of the ship, an 82-foot, three-masted vessel fashioned after a traditional Chinese junk. The ship is one of the largest private research vessels sailing today.

"Our associate company, the Institute of Ecotechnics, which is registered as an Institute doing original research in Great Britain, was born out of the premise that there was no discipline by which humans related to our environment. For instance, if a scientist looked at a diseased gall bladder, he or she would comment that the organ was diseased, name the disease and the properties contained by that diseased organ. The discipline of medicine, on the other hand, would look at the diseased gall bladder and state the order of treatment necessary to address the disease. Discipline focuses on the practical application of science." From that company, Tropic Seas Research was formed to carry out a plethora of marine and cultural research.

To date, the Heraclitus has logged nearly 200,000 miles in its twenty-odd years. From 1980-81, the ship sailed 2200 miles up the Amazon River performing ethnopharmaco-logical research. "Later, our Around The Tropic World expedition brought us back to the tropics to focus on cultures there," explains Hahn, "What we found in the Amazon was that the demise of culture, as much as physical progress, was threatening the possibility of discovering and utilizing pharmacological plants. Many Amazon tribes and cultures have long oral traditions, handed down through the generations of how to utilize many of the plant species found there. But younger generations are leaving these tribes and communities before the tradition can be passed down. When a wise elder passes away without sharing that knowledge, it's lost forever."

From 1983 to 1986, the ship completed its first "around the world" expedition exploring and researching cultures of the tropics, studying how many of these cultures live so harmoniously with their ecosystems. From this expedition, the film series Journeys to Other Worlds was created to share the knowledge the researchers had gained. Also, as part of the circumnavigational project, the Heraclitus and its crew collected marine microorganisms for preliminary studies for the Biosphere II project in Arizona. "We discovered that while the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea may have different microorganisms, they perform similar functions. It was a significant boost for the Biosphere II project, as we were able to add to the design a wide range of microorganisms to perform these necessary metabolic functions."

The Heraclitus also served as a training and proving grounds to the scientists who would eventually stay in Biosphere II. Nearly all of the Biospherians spent time on the ship involved in leadership and management skills training, focusing on group dynamics in task group situations.

Tropic Seas Research, Inc. has now donated the use of the Heraclitus to the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation, (PCRF) headed by former Biospherian Abigail Alling. The organization has just begun a 5 year study of coral reefs, mainly in the Indian Ocean. "The goal is to participate in the completion of the first ever global survey of coral reefs in conjunction with designing and eventually launching a satellite which will circumnavigate the planet in equatorial orbit looking at coral reefs."

"There's never been a global mapping of coral reefs. Today, if reefs are charted, it's usually because at some point a ship has bumped into them." PCRF is approaching its research with two methods: first, using videography, divers are recording the corals by their color, which indicates their health; second, core samples are being gathered and sent to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University for further study. "In essence, we are ground-truthing the corals through these two methods in order to compare them to the satellite images. By creating algorithms between these two, we will eventually be able to monitor the state of the coral reefs on a global scale from the satellite imagery. You can appreciate how much easier it will be to use satellite images vs. the slow, tedious process of physically diving and recording the reefs themselves."

The possibilities for this research are far reaching, but the necessity is sobering. "Our coral reefs protect 60,000 miles of coastline around the globe, and much like the caged canary in a coal mine, the coral reefs are the indicator species for the ocean. The health and condition of the reefs are directly reflective of the health and vitality of all of the marine ecosystems--including the health of marine mammals and the health of our coasts. The coral reefs have often been called `the rain forest of the sea', and like the rain forests, they are one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and they are threatened on a global scale." Only small amounts of preliminary research have been performed on the coral reefs, which like the rain forests, hold the promise of vast amounts of chemical treasures, and like the rain forests, are disappearing at an alarming rate.

The day before we met, Rio had been notified that The Explorer's Club, with headquarters in New York City, and of which Hahn chairs the San Diego Chapter, had approved his proposal to produce a conference on a manned mission to Mars. He explained the evolution of his, and his ship's, earlier expeditions as the catalyst for his next project. "Ecotechnics held a series of conferences beginning in the early '70s focusing on biomes around the planet, which culminated in the Planet Earth Conference in 1984. That conference initiated the Biosphere II project. Ecotechnics formed a separate company, Space Biospheres Ventures, with the agreement to purchase their research for the long-term goal of taking humans into space.

"Biosphere II had a two-fold mission: to learn more about biospheres, and in part to gain insight into Biosphere I--which, of course is planet Earth. The second part of the mission was to give us deeper understanding of the basic systems needed to go into space on a long term mission. Space travel has two requirements: astronomics, which gets us there, and biological life support systems which will enable the mission to be manned."

For Hahn, who has already been around the planet a few times, space is the next logical place to explore. Biosphere II was a necessary ingredient in this direction, but he admits that in the 1980s, progress slowed if not even came to a complete halt. The Challenger tragedy and the dissolution of the Soviet Union both played a role in this result. Hahn also noted that NASA's missions provided little more than robotic explorations--necessary, but not complete.

"I came to the realization that explorers, not scientists, should provide the impetus for manned space travel."

"The idea of the Conference," he explains, "is that it will bring together people who are serious about making this expedition a reality, and taking it from an explorer's viewpoint. Obviously, scientists will come up with all sorts of reasons why we should explore space, and why a manned mission to Mars is important, but explorers take a different approach.

"Mars will be for the next millennium what the discovery of the New World was for the last. Exploration is what makes us human. If we stop exploring--stop pushing the potentiality of humanity--;we stop evolving. If you stop and think about it, until humanity has different cells, different bases of ongoing sustainable community, we are doomed--maybe not in our lifetime, or even our children's lifetimes, but eventually. Sometimes, even an unconscious sense of this can breed feelings of hopelessness.

"Exploration is a natural drive. The explorer's spirit is the impetus which has always propelled humanity forward, and in this point in history, it should be the impetus to move humans out into space. Mars is the first real step to that end."

The Conference, scheduled tentatively for sometime in 1999, will be a practically-oriented gathering which will address both a popular and a scientific audience. "This event promises to capture the fire and imagination of people--our children are the ones who carry on the exploration of space, but we have to start the process for them now."

see: Planetary Coral Reef Foundation



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