Mars on Earth: NASA researchers will spend a year living in a simulated habitat

Four volunteers will spend a year in a 3D-printed Mars base in Texas as part of the CHAPEA mission.

Mars on Earth: NASA researchers will spend a year living in a simulated habitat


The road to Mars can be long and dangerous. The first challenge is to get humans to Mars; the second is to ensure that they can manage their lives once they arrive.

NASA's latest simulated Mars mission, CHAPEA – Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog – will isolate four people in a mock-Mars Base in Texas for approximately 378 days – the same amount of time a manned Mars mission would spend on its surface.

They will then follow a set schedule, taking part in science experiments and simulated activities, eating astronautically, dealing with equipment and maintenance failures and undergoing psychological and physical testing.

The first simulation, known as an analog, will start in June. Two more simulations will follow, with each crew having the same conditions.

Scott M. Smith is a co-investigator at CHAPEA. Participants will experience the same 22-minute delay as astronauts on Mars. Speakers will play ambient noise to ensure that participants cannot hear outside sounds.

Smith says that a habitat could be built on Mars if the goal of fidelity is met. The base is called Mars Dune Alpha and was designed by Bjarke Ingels Group in collaboration with 3D printing company ICON. It is located inside a Johnson Space Center hangar in Houston, Texas. The base was printed in one month using ICON's concrete formulation dubbed "Lavacrete" on Mars.

ICON CEO Jason Ballard explains that NASA has evaluated many options for the construction of off-world habitats - including repurposed rockets, landers, inflatables, and assembled buildings. They've now come to the same conclusion as we have: robotic construction with local materials is by far the best solution from a safety, financial and flexibility perspective.

The base layout includes a working area, living and kitchen areas, bedrooms, bathrooms, medical center, communications center, exercise room, airlock, and an 'outside area' that mimics the Martian surface.

Smith said that the separation between the living and work areas was deliberate. 'This was one of the comments (the designers heard) from International Space Station crews... When you're living in an office, having the physical ability to separate was very important.

Over the next 12 months, Kelly Haston and Ross Brockwell will share this 1,700-square-foot space with Nathan Jones, Alysss Shannon and Alyssa shann, a mix of scientists and engineers.

Filling in knowledge gaps

NASA is trying to close what it calls the 'Strategic Knowledge Gaps', which make a manned Mars Mission too risky.

There are currently four 'red risks,' says Smith: 'radiation; SANS (Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome, a swelling of the eyeball that affects the majority of astronauts during long periods in microgravity); crew behavior and performance; and food and nutrition.'

He explains, "Those are risks which, in my opinion, represent things we, if we were to have a vehicle on a launchpad today, to go to Mars would advise against the journey."

CHAPEA is primarily concerned with assessing the health and performance of humans. Although the analog will not be able test the effects on radiation or reduced gravity on Mars (which is 38% less than on Earth), CHAPEA is primarily focused on assessing the human body. This includes testing the effects of a Martian-style diet for an extended period.

If you look back in history, it is clear that food and nutrition were the deciding factor for many exploration trips. If you don't have a good plan for nutrition then it doesn't work well.

It is estimated that the journey to Mars will take between six to nine months. The food for a manned Mars mission is going to be shipped in advance of the humans. This means that it needs a long shelf life. Smith says that the last food we will eat is about five years from when we launch it. If you pack your pantry with enough food to last you for the next five year, it's quite a challenge.

The crew of the Mars habitat will eat rations that are similar to those currently served on the ISS. However, they won't be able to select a portion of the menu, as is the case with current astronauts. (Smith states that the selection of the crew for a Mars mission may not take place until after the provisions have arrived at the planet). Participants will grow vegetables in a hydroponics system, which is both a nutritional and psychological boost.

Crew members will be tested for blood, urine and feces, while their behavior and physical performance are also monitored. The crew's body composition and mass, their immune system, cognitive function, and microbiome, will be assessed.

After the analog, participants will undergo weeks of medical testing at the Johnson Space Center.

Smith continues, 'It requires a commitment to spend an entire year with us.' Not everyone is cut out for the mission.

The world of analogs

NASA and other space agencies have been building up a patchwork knowledge base that will hopefully cover an entire Mars mission.

Bjarke Ingels Group designed the 3D-printed building as part of a project to help develop technology in preparation for a future Mars mission.

The Mars Desert Research Station, in Utah, is operated by the non-profit The Mars Society. It's populated by volunteers who have successfully simulated seven and a quarter years on Mars.

Mars-500 is perhaps the most commonly cited analogy today. It was developed by the European Space Agency in collaboration with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems. Three simulations were conducted in Moscow between 2007 and 2011 and culminated in a 2010-2011 520-day Mars mission. This included the journey from Earth to Mars, as well as landing and descent.

SIRIUS, a series in Moscow of analogs of isolation and confinement to study the dynamics of multi-cultural crews, was developed by the same Russian institute with NASA. HERA (Human Exploration Research Analog) has, meanwhile conducted six confinement missions and isolation inside a mock space module measuring 650 square feet.

NASA uses Antarctica and Concordia – a research station more isolated than ISS – as an analogy for the hostile space environment.

NASA is also looking to Artemis, the program that aims to send humans back to the moon. This will provide information on areas such as radiation, the "red risk" which may be the biggest obstacle to Mars due to its tendency to cause cancers.

Smith says that 'on the Artemis missions, they will be exposed more to radiation. So there may be lessons learned even though these will be shorter in duration - at the beginning -'

Thankfully, the crew that will enter CHAPEA this June won't have to worry about this potentially fatal element of a Mars Mission. CHAPEA's data may be useful despite its limitations. As Smith points out, research is being conducted on the effects of diet and nutrition in cancer incidence.

He says that the idea of ever being able to reduce risk to zero is an unlikely one. "But we will do what we can."