The first crewed mission to Mars is still years away, but preparations have been underway for a long time. And part of getting ready means knowing what astronauts need to do to survive when they get there. That's why NASA launched the CHAPEA, or Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog, mission this summer.
The space agency locked a four-person crew inside a simulated Mars habitat at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in late June. It's the first of three similar missions. The crew will carry out different activities and experiments. Scripps News Live got an exclusive update on how the astronauts are handling life inside the mock habitat three months into their year-plus mission.
"The crew will go inside of this 3-D-printed habitat, 1,700 square feet that they will have to bond together for 378 days," Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche declared, just before the door closed on the Dune Alpha Base habitat on June 25.
Ninety days later, how hard is it for the crew to pretend they're actually on Mars? We were able to ask CHAPEA flight engineer Ross Brockwell questions, which he recorded and sent to us. He told us he had to shorten his answers because of bandwidth restrictions, similar to how future communications from the red planet will work.
"There are moments you have to use your imagination to keep you on Mars," Brockwell told Scripps News Live.
"There are certain things that can't be made realistic," he said. "You know, we are on Earth. So, Mars' gravity can't really be simulated. It's about a third of Earth's."
And some environmental factors are very different. The CHAPEA crew isn't exposed to the radiation levels they would face on Mars, for example.
"Otherwise, I think it's pretty high-fidelity. I mean we are using a lot of some of the real systems, at least, and the others are pretty good approximations of real systems," Brockwell said.
"So, the tasks we are assigned to do are made as realistic as possible. I think our day-to-day living in this habitat is not too far off from what it would really be," he added.
Crew tasks include activities such as testing out food systems, experimenting with growing some kinds of crops, simulated walks on the Mars surface, maintaining the habitat, and other exercises that test the crews' endurance and the impact of isolation. They are the same conditions a future group of astronauts will eventually face when traveling the 142 million miles to the fourth planet from the sun and living in close quarters together for possibly years at a stretch.
One of the biggest challenges so far, Brockwell said, is the use of resources inside the simulation. The crew has to be strategic about how they use their supplies.
"For the most part, a lot of the things you're going to have on Mars are not resuppliable. So, you have what you have," he said.
And the planning around supplies is an integral part of their daily work.
"Our typical day involves all the things that we need to do here. So, habitat maintenance, obviously food preparations and meals, personal hygiene, exercise, biological testing, sampling science, the EVAs, the extravehicular activities, which are our trips outside," Brockwell explained.
As Johnson Space Center director Wyche mentioned, "they will have to bond together for 378 days." How is that going three months in? We've all seen those sci-fi movies where infighting among the crew is the downfall of the mission. Not true for CHAPEA. Brockwell told Scripps News Live the crew is getting along great and that members are open with each other about issues or tensions. Plus, he said the mission is fun.
What's not so much fun, though, is missing their families. The crew is in frequent communication with loved ones, mostly through email. But there are other things they miss, too.
"I do already miss the natural systems that support life on earth. I miss fresh air and sunshine and the ocean and weather. I miss animals and sounds of nature and those things."
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