As global interest in Mars exploration gains momentum, researchers are simulating what life would be like on the Red Planet. One such simulation has just taken place in the USA.
"I would fly to Mars if I had that chance, but not on a one-way ticket," says Filip Koubek, photographer, health and safety officer and back-up crew engineer at the Mars Desert Research Station. Two weeks after we moved into a simulated Martian station in the Utah desert, US, our crew of five was reflecting on the experience and preparing to head back to 'Earth'.
At the Mars Desert Research Station, run by the Mars Society - a non-profit space advocacy and research organisation, founded in 1998 by aerospace engineer and Mars exploration enthusiast Robert Zubrin - we gained a brief insight of a mission to Mars.
For two weeks, our living space was a cramped, two-storey, 8m-high cylindrical capsule, with noisy air-conditioning and an even noisier water pump. Each of us occupied a single 'bedroom' the size of a cupboard with a small single wooden bunk.
Our stay was part of an ongoing research project to gather as much information as possible for a future manned mission to 'Mars. Even the annoying water pump noise played a role, for real-life astronauts will have to deal with the constant hum of the station's engineering systems.
For those two weeks we agreed to pretend there was no breathable air in Utah; whenever we ventured out to explore 'Mars', we had to wear a mock space suit, full-head bubble helmet and an air-supply backpack. On both exit and entry, we had to spend five minutes in a simulated air-lock to limit pressure changes inside the habitat.
Since air was a precious resource on the simulated Mars, we could only leave the capsule for a couple of hours at a time and only for reasons of research. Also, all extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) had to be pre-approved by the 'Earth-based' mission control centre.
A sustainable habitat
Our commander, extreme environments architect Ondrej Doule from the Florida Institute of Technology, was interested in how to expand and improve the station's design to make it crew-friendly.
The hab, as the Mars Society fondly calls it, had been standing in the middle of the Mars-like red bentonite desert in the San Rafael Swell area since the early 2000s. Doule says: "I expected the hab to be a bit more self-sustainable. We had to check indoor temperatures constantly as well as water, fuel and propane levels. That ate up quite a lot of our time, which we could have otherwise spent on research. But now I can suggest some improvements to reduce the demands placed on the crew when it comes to running and maintaining the station."
Doule had been working closely with Lucie Poulet, an aerospace engineer turned space gardener and PhD researcher at the German Aerospace Centre. Among other duties, Poulet tended plants in a greenhouse adjacent to the hab: transplanting carrots and lettuces, fertilising them and experimenting with artificial lighting to improve growing conditions.
"There are many problems with the greenhouse," says Poulet. "First of all the temperature at night drops really low, which hinders the plants' growth. Also, as we are in a desert, the humidity is extremely low and there are no systems to make up for that. Thirdly, due to external environmental conditions, the greenhouse needs to be really sturdy to survive sandstorms. The thick material used to build the greenhouse, though transparent, is quite opaque and filters out a lot of light."
A greenhouse on Mars is not an extravagance, but a matter of life and death. "If people go to Mars one day, it wouldn't be feasible to carry all their food with them - it would be too costly to launch and take up too much space," explains Poulet. "The idea is to have a greenhouse on Mars to grow vegetables and to rely on a totally vegetarian diet to sustain the crew."
Scientists have already selected the most suitable plants to cultivate on Mars: lettuce, carrots, strawberries, wheat, beetroot, tomatoes, potatoes and soy beans.
"A realistic Martian greenhouse would have to be much bigger than this - you need between 30 and 50 square metres to sustain one astronaut on a 100 per cent vegetarian diet," says Poulet.
The greenhouse should also be fully automated, with a computer-based programme guiding watering, lights and fertiliser distribution, so that future Martian gardeners do not get their hands dirty.
The crew scientist, Strathclyde University engineering PhD researcher Elif Oguz analysed the station's various engineering subsystems. "The most critical system at the Mars Desert Research Station is the electricity generator, as we need electricity to power all the other subsystems of the habitat," says Oguz.
Our crew experienced the fragile technical equilibrium one morning after an overnight breakdown of the diesel-powered electricity generator. We were unable to start the back-up generator without permission from mission control, but our communication channels were not working. We eventually decided to break the rules and power up the back-up source, which we were reprimanded for afterwards by Mars Desert Research Station director Shannon Ruppert.
Oguz also took up the role of main chef, managing to make our survival on freeze-dried food bearable. Crews on Mars will be able to cook thanks to gravity, which, although only a third of that on Earth, is still enough to keep utensils and ingredients in place during preparation.
To help recovery upon landing, artificial gravity could be used during the interplanetary cruise to stop the astronauts getting immobilised after months in weightlessness.
From concept to reality
The Mars Desert Research Station is the brainchild of US aerospace engineer and Mars exploration preacher Robert Zubrin. In the 1990s, he and his Nasa colleague David Baker put together a cost-effective plan for a human mission to Mars, known as the Mars Direct.
They proposed a double-launch mission: firstly delivering an Earth-Return Vehicle to the Red Planet, followed by a tuna-can-shaped habitat that fits into a rocket's payload shroud. This later served as the basis for the Mars Desert Research Station concept.
"The design of the hab has the correct diameter to be launched into space, yet can accommodate six people," says Zubrin. "It is rigid and can be landed ready for use."
Based on Zubrin's proposal, Nasa created the Design Reference Mission concept 3.0. However, it never moved beyond the proposal stage and Zubrin eventually left to embark on his own journey.
"People have been talking about building simulated Martian stations since the 1960s, but no one had ever done it. In the 1980s, I was a part of a team which designed an Arctic Mars station for Nasa but it was never funded and it never happened," Zurbin says.
In 1998, he founded the Mars Society, which three years later deployed the tuna-can hab in Utah. "First, we built a station on the Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic and ran several missions there. But it proved to be too expensive to operate and basically impossible to use outside summer months. That's when we decided to build a second station in Utah," Zubrin says.
Already in its 12th research season, the Mars Desert Research Station project has seen over 130 crews. Nearly 800 people from all over the world have experienced this snapshot of living and working on Mars, while Zubrin has been carefully observing each mission and collecting data to refine his ideas.
"We have done some pretty revealing studies on areas such as water use," Zubrin says. "We had crews that were trying to use the smallest possible amount of water and got to as little as two gallons a day per crewmember.
"That's very important because even if you have a very effective water recycling system, let's say 90 per cent effective, which would cut the total amount of water you need to take by a factor of ten, you would still need at least 20 tonnes of water for a 1,000-day mission. That would weigh more than the whole structure of the hab," he says.
One big, happy family...
The most important thing, Zubrin believes, is the in-depth insight into the psychological aspects of being a crew member. There is, of course, a risk that crew members, confined in a tiny capsule, could start getting on each other's nerves.
"When it comes to selecting astronauts, experts usually try to pick the best individuals and guess about how they would function in a crew," says Zubrin. "But we have learned that group chemistry is not just a function of individual characters. We had people serving on several crews, and in some they were excellent members, while in others there were problems. You won't be able to see this unless you put the people together in a simulated environment."
During two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, our crew had experienced first-hand the unpredictable effects of confinement and extreme environment on human psychology. Halfway through the mission and without many warning signs, one crew member decided to leave the simulation and return to civilisation.
Even one week on 'Mars' could be too long for some.