Life on Mars? NASA is studying how people would handle living on a space base

Four scientists are about to embark on a yearlong mission simulating life on our neighboring planet.

By Michael Marks and Alexandra HartApril 25, 2023 3:28 pm,

Would you spend a year in a 3000 square foot hangar with three strangers, subsisting on freeze dried food, with limited contact with the outside world? 

What sounds it could be like the premise for a new reality TV show is actually NASA’s latest experiment to prepare humans for upcoming Mars exploration missions. 

The experiment, called the Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA), is set to begin in June. Researchers will study how four people respond to the physical and mental challenges of living in the kind of environment those living on a Mars base would experience. 

Suzanne Bell, lead for NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance Laboratory at Johnson Space Center, spoke with the Standard about how the study will work, and what researchers hope to gain. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us more about this project. How will it work and what will be required of the participants? 

Suzanne Bell: Well, CHAPEA is a set of three one year analog missions, and what we’re trying to do is simulate a Mars surface mission. So while we’re starting to learn about space and look towards the future of Mars with our space objectives, it’s really important for us to understand what will happen to the health and performance of the crew under Mars-realistic conditions.

So describe for us, if you can, the physical space for this yearlong mission. How do you go about replicating a base on Mars and what went into creating it? 

Well, that’s a great question. So it’s 1700 square feet and a fun fact is that was 3D-printed, which might be one of the ways we would print a habitat on the Mars surface. And what we did was we got groups of experts together in different areas – whether it’s habitability or related to extravehicular activities – to advise us on what a Mars-realistic habitat might look like. So it has separate areas for living and working, private crew quarters are small, dedicated workstations, dedicated medical station, common lounge areas, and a gallery and areas for growing food.

NASA/Bill Stafford, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The CHAPEA crews will live and work in a 1700 square foot, 3D-printed habitat located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The habitat includes four individual living quarters for the volunteer crew.

I see. What about entertainment? You have any sofas and a TV there or no?

There are some nice cushy seats as well as a television. However, part of this is to, you know, keep them separated from real time communication with the Earth. So none of the, you know, Netflix or Amazon Prime or streaming services that the rest of us might access. They won’t get real time communication with the Earth. And so there will be movies and other entertainment that they, you know, take with them ahead of time, but we’re not giving them access to the outside world on a regular basis.

That’s fascinating. Now, you mentioned 1700 square feet. I said 3000 to begin with. Has the size gone down or did I just get my numbers wrong or what? 

Well, you might be also including an outside area. So all of CHAPEA is in a dome – has a dome area beside it, which includes a 1200 square feet red sandbox where we simulate the Martian landscape. This is really important for us because the crews will go through an airlock from the habitat to access the sandbox. And it has equipment such as a treadmill for virtual reality space walks and even activities that they might be doing within the confines of that 1200 square foot sandbox. So it’s really a nice way to have them “explore” Mars while in there. And that’s a big part of the project.

So what kind of information will you and other researchers be gathering in? What exactly are you hoping to learn from this? 

Anything related to the crew’s health and performance. So whether it’s behavioral health, such as how stressful certain things are or how they’re able to maintain a connection with their family and friends with the significant time delay and restricted communication, how well the crew’s able to work autonomously on their own… So we’ll be collecting performance metrics both for activities they do inside the habitat, as well as those spacewalks that I just talked about. All sorts of data insights.

Why we need that data is when looking at something like a mission to Mars, there’s always limitations on what we’ll be able to send. What food will we have to send ahead of time so that the crew has access to a food system that can sustain them? What else do they need to access? There’s always priorities and choices that have to be made. And so this data is critical for letting us know how to make trades in those different resources and what we send to Mars.

Now, I want to understand what comes next, because this gets underway, as I understand it, this summer. So after that year is over, what comes next? Do you have more of these scheduled? 

We do have more scheduled. There’s going to be a total of three missions. So this is the first crew that will be starting in June. But we’ll be putting out a call for future crews later in the summer. So if anyone here listens to this and think that it’s a good idea to spend an entire year in 1700 square feet to help science, please submit your resume.

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