Science

Report Details How NASA Is Preparing Astronauts For Future Mars Missions

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To the average person, launching a crewed Mars mission may not seem like anything different from what space agencies have done in the past when sending people to outer space. But there are so many additional things to consider when sending humans to Mars, some of which were focused on in a recent report from CBC News.

While it is true that a lot of the above considerations are related to the technological elements of Mars travel, the CBC News report stressed that NASA, in particular, is taking the psychological aspects of a mission to the Red Planet into account. To this end, the space agency and the University of Hawaii are supporting a project where participants are sent to a simulated version of Mars located in a remote area near Mauna Loa.

Sun and surf are two things most people immediately associate with Hawaii, but in the NASA/University of Hawaii “biodome,” participants are subjected to difficult situations that are designed to mimic the challenges humans might face in a Mars mission. CBC News noted that volunteers are isolated in the area for eight months, with no visitors, living inside a 36-foot-wide (11 meters) habitat. Should they step out of the dome to do some exploration, participants are required to wear mock versions of the spacesuits worn by NASA astronauts, all in the name of realism.

Isolation and cramped living conditions aren’t the only challenges volunteers go through in the domed habitat. Time delays in communications are also taken into account, similar to what might happen when astronauts on Mars are sending and receiving messages to and from Earth. Such messages could take a maximum of 24 minutes each way to reach their target recipient, which could lead to some “frustrating” conversations. Furthermore, participants are required to grow their own food, make their own repairs, and perform their own science experiments, with supplies only arriving “occasionally.”

Speaking to CBC News, volunteer Brian Ramos succinctly summarized his experience with the Mars mission simulation and the challenges he and his fellow volunteers encountered.

“The whole thing is an exercise in patience and humility.”

Similar to the domed habitat and ersatz Martian terrain near Mauna Loa, the Johnson Space Center in Houston is conducting its own experiment to help NASA understand the psychological impact a trip to Mars may have on humans. Participants are asked to stay in an even smaller mock spaceship for 45 days, with no windows and no option to step out for some fresh air. This experiment, CBC News wrote, is designed to gauge how monotonous activities in a cramped spaceship en route to Mars could affect astronauts going on such a long trip.

“We also know that not everyone can tolerate [monotony] at the same level,” said Tom Williams, a behavioral health scientist at NASA.

“It’s very important for us to understand what are those characteristics that allow someone to be successful at this.”

While the two experiments offer an interesting look at how NASA is getting ready for Mars missions that may take place in the future, it might be several more years before the first such mission is ready. Under the leadership of then-Administrator Charles Bolden, NASA set a target timeframe of the 2030s for its plans to send humans to Mars, though recent months have seen the space agency, per a directive from the Trump administration, switch its focus to launching another moon mission within the next few years.

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