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This NASA crew survived Mars for six months – sort of

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Halfway through a simulated expedition to Mars, two men and two women living together in isolation lost a crucial piece of equipment.

“I may have accidentally murdered one of our robots,” said Dr. Nathan Jones, the crew’s doctor, who described the incident as a “traumatic death.”

Anca Selariu, the science officer, joked that they would need Operation Phoenix to bring their rover back from the ashes. Ross Brockwell, the flight engineer, assured Jones that they would be able to repair it.

“We have a lot of tape,” Brockwell said.

The conversation took place in the middle of a recorded update from NASA’s Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog, or CHAPEA, study. Four ordinary individuals volunteered to live for a year in a 3D-printed Martian habitat, as a dress rehearsal for life on the Red Planet. Rather than traveling to Earth 140 million miles away in space, the crew is actually much closer, in a 1,700-square-foot home at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Outside the habitat, dubbed Mars Dune Alpha, is a domed facility designed to resemble the surface of Mars, filled with red dirt and craggy vistas. They call this area where they perform simulated Marswalks the “sandbox.”

As people around the world prepare to celebrate New Year’s Eve, the CHAPEA crew – Jones, Selariu, Brockwell and Commander Kelly Haston – will also celebrate the halfway point of their 378-day isolation, which began on the 25th. June 2023. This is the first of at least three groups that will participate in Mars-style isolation studies for human research.

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Communication delays between Mars and Earth

Details are essential to mimic the real challenges of life on Mars. To simulate the communication delay astronauts would have with Earth, the crew can only communicate with friends and family via email. Sending a message one way takes at least 20 minutes, sometimes longer, depending on file size.

Even interviews should be personalized based on unique communication constraints. The crew’s updates are based on questions written by the US space agency, which then asked them to record their answers as audio files. Some recordings can be heard on NASA podcasts, such as “Houston, We Have a Podcast.”

“We have a lot of tape.”

CHAPEA crew posing for portrait

From left, Anca Selariu, Ross Brockwell, Kelly Haston and Dr. Nathan Jones are NASA CHAPEA crew members.
Credit: NASA

It is unclear whether Jones broke the rover or whether NASA intended to break it as part of the experiment. During the simulation, the crew participates in different mission activities, such as Mars exploration, habitat maintenance, crop cultivation, exercise, and robot operation. Part of the study also involves intentionally subjecting the crew to stressful conditions, such as limiting their food resources and making them work despite equipment failures.

The CHAPEA scientific team will eventually publish research articles containing findings on crew health and performance.

Crushable speed of light

“We’re really looking at how crew performance and health change based on realistic Mars restrictions and crew member lifestyles,” said Raina MacLeod, CHAPEA deputy project director, in a statement. communicated before the mission. “So we try to simulate the lifestyle by creating a realistic environment and workload for the CHAPEA team.”

Marswalk simulations assisted by virtual reality

When the crew leaves their quarters, they don a spacesuit, just like astronauts would when going out into the sandbox. Many of their Marswalks incorporate virtual reality headsets. An outdoor treadmill allows them to walk longer and further than the area can afford for these activities. Sometimes they sample rocks, while other times they look for potential construction sites. From inside the habitat, they can pilot a drone and a helicopter-like robot to explore remote areas.

The habitat also includes a “window” that uses a television monitor with a video feed. The view changes depending on the time of day, revealing a Martian sunrise, the sun above us, the habitat’s shadow cast on the ground, and eventually the stars at night.

In a recent crew update, Haston, who is an ultra runner, said that virtual reality experiences outside of the habitat have satisfied her wanderlust.

“The funny thing is, I really love being on Mars,” she said.

Chapea crew simulates a Marswalk

Dr. Nathan Jones performs a Marswalk simulation outside the habitat.
Credit: NASA

But during the six months spent away from home and family, the crew members begin to miss certain earthly comforts. For Haston, it’s chips and red wine. For Jones, it wasn’t about being with his wife on their 15th anniversary. Brockwell, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., said he misses the ocean.

“I really miss driving,” Selariu said. “I miss seeing the trees, seeing the green. I miss the colors, the seasons. I miss everything about the Earth.”

“I miss seeing the trees, seeing the green. I miss the colors, the seasons. I miss everything about the Earth.”

CHAPEA crew reaches midpoint of 378-day study

NASA has a schedule as busy as that of the astronauts on the International Space Station. But when they have free time, the crew plays board games, Texas Hold’em and a PS4 video game system in the habitat. Jones brought a Fender guitar and Haston a traveling ukulele.

It’s not yet known if they formed a group, but the team started a book club to read and discuss the books they took with them. And, as a group, they enjoyed watching movies and TV shows from a limited database, like Apple’s sci-fi show. For all humanity.

“We are the best film critics on Mars,” Jones said. “Top four, of course.”

The Chapea team carries out scientific studies

Anca Selariu, the science officer, works with Ross Brockwell, the flight engineer, to analyze some geological samples.
Credit: NASA

Although there was no champagne in the habitat to ring in 2024, the crew had other special dishes to celebrate the holiday. They drank cups of hot chocolate on their first night together at Mars Dune Alpha, and they baked and decorated sponge cakes for birthdays.

Haston noted that some of their crops should be ready to harvest around the new year.

“We’ll toast with tomatoes from the garden,” she said.



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