‘I don’t actually miss outside yet’: Notes from NASA’s Mars simulation mission

ByNatasha Rego
Sep 16, 2023 08:10 PM IST

What builds cohesiveness, in a team operating in a vacuum? How can that become a liability? A look at lessons from the newest test, and ones that came before.

Since June, four Americans — two men and two women — have been locked into a 1,700-sq-ft space, as part of a Mars surface simulation mission being conducted by NASA, the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

A rendering of Mars Dune Alpha, the CHAPEA habitat built in a hangar in Houston. Crew can step out in spacesuits to walk in a lifeless, red landscape. (ICON / NASA) PREMIUM
A rendering of Mars Dune Alpha, the CHAPEA habitat built in a hangar in Houston. Crew can step out in spacesuits to walk in a lifeless, red landscape. (ICON / NASA)

When they look “outside”, they see a lifeless landscape of red sand. They can go out for a few walks each week, wearing spacesuits. Communication with “mission control” comes with a 20-minute delay.

NASA is calling it the CHAPEA (Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog) mission. The crew — commander and biomedical researcher Kelly Haston; flight engineer Ross Brockwell, medical officer Nathan Jones and science officer and microbiologist Anca Selariu — will aim to spend a year in their artificial habitat, living on rationed food and water, and working to keep their bubble functional.

Set up in a large NASA hangar in Houston, this is the first of three such missions planned as part of the agency’s larger programme to land humans on the red planet by 2030. (Read on for more on how the crew have been faring so far.)

The CHAPEA crew of Anca Selariu, Ross Brockwell, Nathan Jones and Kelly Haston. (NASA)
The CHAPEA crew of Anca Selariu, Ross Brockwell, Nathan Jones and Kelly Haston. (NASA)

Each such experiment is expected to yield “cognitive and physical performance data to give us more insight into the potential impacts of long-duration missions to Mars on crew health and performance,” CHAPEA principal investigator Grace Douglas said in a statement in April, after the crew was selected.

This is crucial, because the furthest that humans have gone so far, of course, is the moon, which is less than 400,000 km from Earth. Mars is 55 million km away at its closest. While it takes up to three days to get to the moon, NASA estimates it would take at least 21 months for a quick round trip to Mars: nine months to get there, a minimum three-month wait before Earth and Mars align again, and nine months to get back.

So far, 14 months is the longest a human has stayed in space, a record set by Russia’s Valeri Polyakov on the Mir space station in 1994-95.

But of course, that was quite different. There is a radically reduced level of risk on a space station; it’s a short trip back; and one is always within sight of home.

Which is why there have been experiments, through decades, to try and decipher what it would take to enable humans to endure deep-space travel and perhaps even a life away from Earth. Take a look at three such experiments, and the lessons they yielded.

1991: Biosphere 2

In 1991, four women and four men were locked into a three-acre, self-sustaining ecological system enclosed in glass panels in Arizona.

The reserve was meant to recycle oxygen, water and waste. There was a tiny forest in the dome, and a desert, pig and chicken farms, hummingbirds, honeybees, even a tiny coral reef, in a large tank.

The reserve was a pseudo-scientific experiment backed by the Texas oil tycoon Edward Bass.

The eight-member crew included a biomedical researcher, a metallurgist, an ecologist, a botanist, a marine biologist and systems designer.

The glass-enclosed Biosphere 2 in Arizona. (Adobe Stock)
The glass-enclosed Biosphere 2 in Arizona. (Adobe Stock)

A few weeks in, the troubles began. Food production declined. The eight subjects lost weight and became lethargic, partly as a result of not eating enough (they were tired of the beetroot and sweet potato that was all they could produce) and partly because they had begun to run low on oxygen too.

A few months in, two opposing groups had formed, one demanding that outside supplies be allowed in, the other wanting the experiment to run its course.

Eventually, the experimental seal, as it were, was broken, and vitamins, food, and oxygen were shipped in. Carbon-dioxide scrubbers were installed. Still, honeybees and hummingbirds continued to die, crops went unpollinated, pests unmanaged. Roaches began to roam free. The crew lasted out the two years, but only with significant external assistance.

Biosphere 2 was eventually taken over by the University of Arizona, and is now used to experiment with elements of the Earth’s biomes.

2017, 2019: SIRIUS

The Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station (SIRIUS) project was a series of two experiments — one lasting 17 days in 2017, and the other lasting four months in 2019 — that aimed to simulate the journey from Earth to the moon, with certain challenges thrown in.

In each of the experiments, six international space crew members were locked into a simulation at the Nazemnyy Eksperimental’nyy Kompleks or Nazemnyy Experimental Complex (NEK) in Russia. They faced hurdles such as sleep deprivation, communication delays and systems emergencies. The objective of the project was to test for the effects of these on body and mind, health and behaviour, over days in isolation and confinement.

Interestingly, it turned out that the stressors brought people together. When real-time communication was cut off, the crew began to rely more on themselves and each other. Communication with mission control declined over time, but group cohesion improved, with people collaborating in ways that indicated trust in a common goal.

2010-11: Mars500

This psychosocial isolation experiment was conducted by the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBP), to assess how long-term space travel may impact mood and communication styles.

A crew of six — three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese person, all trained astronauts specialising in fields such as medicine, engineering and biology — was sealed into an isolation chamber measuring less than 6,000 sq ft, in 2010, for a period of 520 days (about 17 months). This remains the longest simulated space experiment ever conducted.

Through simulated travel to Mars, a simulated landing and transfer to a “Martian” surface, the crew had to work through emergency situations, equipment failures and naturally occurring ill health.

The Mars500 simulation, like the SIRIUS project, found that as time went on, the crew became more cohesive but also more autonomous. An increase in independent decision-making and decrease in communication with the mission’s control centre were observed, not in itself a good thing.

Mars500 crew members take a walk in spacesuits. (ESA)
Mars500 crew members take a walk in spacesuits. (ESA)

“Such a ‘detachment’ may lead to resistance of crew members to the recommendations of the mission control,” states a research paper co-authored by Natalia Supolkina of IBP, published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology in 2021.

Another concerning development: over time, the crew’s activity levels dipped. They spent more time sleeping or sitting idle, dulled by the lack of stimulation. On a real inter-planetary journey, such idleness could affect bone and muscle density, disrupt sleep cycles and impact alertness, and prove deeply damaging to the individual and the mission.

Back to the current experiment, as it unfolds, a NASA podcast is airing excerpts from the crew’s audio logs. The first such episode features notes sent in July, as the eight adjusted to their lodgings and took note of the facilities.

There is general excitement among the crew, so far. There has even been positive talk about the food (showing just how far space meals have come, since the pureed-meat packets of the past).

“The surprising thing for me is that I don’t actually miss outside yet,” Haston says in her log. “Going outside the habitat into the Mars space has actually been really satisfying.”

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