A Year and a Day in a Mars Simulator: Reflections at the Halfway Mark

Mars' Silver Island. Photo courtesy of the European Space Agency. CCBY

At Aeon, Sheyna Gifford, mission physician for NASA’s HI-SEAS IV space exploration analogue, reflects on six months in a Mars simulator. When the six-person crew emerges on August 28th, 2016 — after a year and a day “off-planet” — they’ll have completed the longest NASA-funded Mars simulation in history.

Life on sMars, like on Mars itself, is elemental. Our chief concerns revolve around sun, air, water and rock — specifically, what we can and can’t do with those four basics in the right combinations. The Sun creates our energy. We, in turn, transform that energy into artificial light, in colours of the spectrum that most please our plants. The plants take up water, and set their roots in rocks that we’ve gathered from the surface. Their stems reach up towards the light, and our hopes grow with them: exhaled by the green leaves, born in the flowers that will bloom into fruit.

We brought along seeds, soil, and a special kind of bacteria. Cyanobacteria, as the name suggests, are green. In the bottle, they look thin and luminescent, like jello before it congeals. These versatile little creatures can convert carbon dioxide into breathable air. They can purify water. They can feed off the sparse Martian menu, using nitrogen from the air and minerals from the ground, or they can consume urine and break down our waste. Purely by living, breathing, eating and excreting, these little bacteria turn soil that’s been dried and fried under the pink Martian sky into a useful growing medium, and in the process make everything from biofuel to proteins — proteins by the ton, potentially — for future Martian colonists.

Collaboration is one of the key motivations behind the sMars project: to find out what people need to live, work and survive together on other planets, and how to give it to them. The idea sounds simple in principle, but is difficult in practice. To work together effectively, people need more than just food, water and energy. Shared mission goals help, but they still aren’t enough to keep people happy for months on end. So what is enough? The belief — the hope — is that there’s a recipe for making it work: that the right people, given the right tools, can live together in a small space under stressful circumstances for years and continue to perform at near-peak levels, the way that astronauts do when in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station. Our jobs as simulated astronauts is to test out potential ingredients for that recipe.

In the future we’re trying to build, we will have to learn how not to fear the various deprivations. We’ll have to learn to embrace them instead, beginning with our own, very real, human limitations.

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