Iron Range lessons from Mars

Screenshot from Ridley Scott's "The Martian" starring Matt Damon based on the novel by Andy Weir.

Screenshot from Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” starring Matt Damon based on the novel by Andy Weir.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Every time NASA beams down new pictures from Mars we are reminded how much this desolate planet resembles an Iron Range taconite mine. The red landscape. Pits like craters. Dumps like dunes.

Yet, every time commodities prices tumble in topsy-turvy global trade we are also reminded that economic survival here can seem just as difficult as literal survival on the Red Planet. Distance from sources of power. Cold. Alone in our struggles.

In Northern Minnesota, we have a temperate climate, rich soil, clean water, food and, well, breathable air. All big advantages. But there’s no denying the fascination of Mars, a planet that new research portrays as a former Earth in which something bad happened long, long ago.

Over my winter break I read the Andy Weir novel “The Martian.” You might have seen the recent Matt Damon movie that was based on this book. “The Martian” is a work of science fiction, but reads very much like “science plausible.” In the story, astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars after his crew mates flee the planet during a dust storm. The story describes how he deploys wits, engineering skills and tenacity to survive in an environment that wants him dead.

“The Martian” was a compelling read, and I am moved to suggest lessons for surviving on Mars that could also apply to us and our Iron Range economy.

Not Mars

This looks a little like Mars but is, in fact, Hibbing Taconite.

Use What You Have
Watney is a scientist and mechanical engineer. The instant he realizes he’s stuck on Mars alone without any hope of escaping on his own, he begins to formulate plans. First for survival, then for communication with Earth, then for a rendezvous with the next scheduled mission to Mars.

A habitat tent designed for 31 days of use suddenly becomes a permanent home. Space-age canvas is repurposed with the help of standard-issue duct tape. A handful of Thanksgiving potatoes from Earth become the seeds for a year’s worth of food. No dirt? He’ll make some with whatever he’s got. It ain’t pretty, but it works.

Minnesota’s Iron Range has great institutions: five community colleges, schools with rich history and available space, libraries and downtowns. We know what they were built to do. But what can they do now, based our new needs? Can we connect with “Earth,” an outside world that might not know us yet.

Learn From Mistakes
Changing plans and purpose isn’t easy and you’re bound to make mistakes. Watney sure does. But he also keeps detailed logs about what went wrong and why. He doesn’t dwell on the what-ifs or why-nots, only on how the past can inform the future.

Leaders on the Iron Range have made scores of mistakes over several decades. You could swap these leaders out for new ones, and they’d make mistakes, too. The issue isn’t mistakes. The issue that economic development on the Iron Range often fails to learn from mistakes, or misinterprets the lesson.

What are the proper lessons from Essar Steel? From the $250 million Highway 53 rerouting project? From reliance on new mining projects to hire workers from old mining projects? Why are investors spending on Duluth, but not the Range? No, really. What can we learn?

Set New Goals
Lots of bad things happen to astronaut Mark Watney on Mars. He’s impaled by an antenna. He’s knocked out by a couple explosions. He rolls a Mars rover. Each time, his well-laid plans are destroyed. Rather than try to recreate the original plans, he and the flight team back on Earth constantly adjust.

Just 10 years ago Iron Rangers were speaking in earnest about how there might be too many jobs and too little housing when mining was surging. That world has been torn asunder. The ideal outcome of an old plan may disappear, but we may still create an ideal new outcome.

Never Lose Sight of the Big Picture
Mark Watney’s quest is simple. He wants to get back to Earth. Our Iron Range quest should be equally simple. We want a diverse, sustainable local economy. A big goal isn’t something you do all at once. There are thousands and thousands of steps that must come first. The best time to start is now.

Iron Rangers would like Mark Watney. He curses a lot and doesn’t like to be told what to do. He’d fit right in. And maybe we could learn a few things from him, too.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Our Range-scape looks like Mars because we are mining such low-grade ores. We used up our natural ores in WWII and getting everyone into a car on a highway after the war. Now taconite is having a difficult time competing with natural ores being mined elsewhere in a global marketplace.
    Copper-nickel sulfide mining will be the same. The sulfide ores found here are not only low-grade, but highly disseminated. This means digging up 99% (acid generating) waste rock over a very large area–imagine what that landscape will look like.
    Could we come up with a Range of new ideas, and turn the money that is being used to subsidize mining into building a new landscape with clean water, edible fish, lots of wild rice, attractive towns with small business opportunities and healthy families? We’d have to let go of some old expectations though….

  2. Independent says

    If you want there is plenty of wild rice that goes unharvested just downstream of some old mining sites on the east range. There is also some great fishing for trout in the crystal clear mine pit lakes just a couple miles upstream from the rice. I can use the rice and trout to subsidize my $8.00 job on the golf course waiting on metro area tourists… Yeah

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.