Four people have been selected to inhabit an experimental facility named Mars Dune Alpha – here’s what they’ll be getting up to, and how it will help future missions to the Red Planet
Right now, it might seem like a majority of international space exploration efforts are centred on putting humans back on the moon. As the European Space Agency’s Bernhard Hufenbach told Dazed last month, however, this is essentially just a stepping stone for a broader push to populate our first alien planet, Mars. “The Mars mission is still the holy grail of human spaceflight.”
Putting humans on Mars is still a significant way off, of course (although, if Hufenbach’s predictions prove true, we could see trips to the Red Planet become normalised within the next 50 years). Nevertheless, researchers are already formulating experiments to figure out how we could be affected by long-term trips to the Martian surface, where early settlements are likely to be rudimentary, cramped, and reserved for small teams of trained experts.
Back in 2021, NASA issued a recruitment call for one such experiment: a year-long “analogue” mission that strands researchers in the desert to simulate life on Mars. “The analogue is critical for testing solutions to meet the complex needs of living on the Martian surface,” said Grace Douglas, lead scientist for NASA’s Advanced Food Technology research effort, at the time. “Simulations on Earth will help us understand and counter the physical and mental challenges astronauts will face before they go.”
Now, the four successful candidates have been announced. If all goes to plan, they will begin their first 12-month mission in June, moving into a specially-designed habitat at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Who are they? What will they get up to while they’re there? How do you simulate Mars, anyway? Below, we’ve gathered everything you need to know.
Say hello to NASA's (simulated) Martians! 👋— NASA_SLS (@NASA_SLS) April 18, 2023
Four participants will embark on the agency’s first one-year analog mission in a habitat to simulate living on @NASAMars. Meet the crew members and their backups selected for this ground-based mission: https://t.co/1yhrl5rgi6
WHAT IS AN ‘ANALOGUE’ MISSION?
In NASA’s own words: “Analogue missions are field tests in locations that have physical similarities to extreme space environments.” Basically, space is a very dangerous and unforgiving place, and getting there is very expensive, so it’s much less costly to run tests in environments on Earth beforehand. These environments can’t simulate every aspect of space, of course (and moon bases will provide a closer comparison to Mars in years to come) but they can be used to gather some vital information before blasting off to distant planets, asteroids, and moons.
HOW WILL NASA SIMULATE LIFE ON MARS?
To approximate the less-than-cosy living conditions that the first Mars explorers might have to face, NASA has constructed a 3D-printed habitat, named Mars Dune Alpha, at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Measuring just 158 square metres (1,700 square feet), the habitat is designed by the architecture studio ICON, and includes nothing more than private crew quarters, a kitchen, living areas, workspaces, and two bathrooms.
If that doesn’t sound too bad, then remember that the crew will have to live almost solely inside this environment for a full year. When they are allowed outside, it will be to enter an artificial “external environment” made up of red sand and Mars murals.
WHO HAS BEEN CHOSEN TO LIVE IN NASA’S FAKE MARS BASE?
Obviously, there were a few requirements for applicants wanting to undertake the 12-month experiment. For one, they needed to hold a degree in at least one STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) field, and to have experience in that field, or training as a pilot or military personnel. To make sure they were right for the experiment, they also had to pass the kind of physical and psychological tests that are required of astronaut candidates.
In the end, the four people selected for the analogue were Kelly Haston, a research scientist studying disease, Ross Brockwell, a structural engineer, Nathan Jones, an emergency medicine physician, and Alyssa Shannon, an advanced practice nurse. Respectively, they will perform the roles of commander, flight engineer, medical officer, and science officer.
WHAT WILL THEY BE DOING?
During their time in the “Mars base”, the crew will undertake some of the general tasks that might be required on a real Mars colony, from cooking, exercising, and cleaning, to maintaining the habitat, growing crops, and undertaking scientific research. Out in the external environment, they will also partake in simulated spacewalks, with the help of virtual reality tech. Despite remaining on their home planet, they will also encounter the kind of problems that humans might experience on Mars, including equipment failures, resource limitations, and communication issues, to recreate the associated stresses of living in the unforgiving Martian environment.
WHAT’S THE POINT OF THE EXPERIMENT?
The technical name for NASA’s long-duration analogue is the Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA), which gives a good clue about the general aims – namely, examining the effects of living in the close-quarters habitat on the crew’s physical and psychological health.
CHAPEA principal investigator Grace Douglas expands on this in a recent statement published by NASA, saying: “The simulation will allow us to collect 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. Ultimately, this information will help NASA make informed decisions to design and plan for a successful human mission to Mars."
The long-term nature of the experiment at Mars Dune Alpha is also necessary because any future astronauts who make the trip to the Red Planet will have to stay for a long time – likely even longer than 12 months – in order to make the journey worth it, and for the right conditions to circle back around for their return to Earth.