A foretaste of life on Mars

With the success of the movie ‘The Martian‘ in mind, I was intrigued to read this article by the doctor of NASA’s current Hi-Seas IV Mars simulation mission on Hawaii.  Here’s an excerpt.

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.

What this means is that life up here is eclectic, experimental, and occasionally unpredictable. There are scheduled tasks, unscheduled time for play and rest, experimental communication methods, virtual-reality trips to beaches and forests on Earth, and a lot of negotiation among the crew. Moving into the dome is a bit like suddenly having five spouses. You rapidly discover that what’s clean, polite, or acceptable to you won’t necessarily be clean, polite, or acceptable to someone else. Since we’re all here for the long haul – breaking up is not an option during a space mission – we’ve each had to adapt in five different directions at once as quickly as possible, while also doing our jobs.

Learning how to do that has been the most challenging part of the adventure.

There’s much more at the link.

I was particularly struck by the fact that, for all the hi-tech nature of the mission, the distance from Earth will cut off those involved from almost any possibility of assistance.  Even communication will be delayed for twenty minutes in each direction due to light speed lag.  The astronauts will essentially be forced to rely on their own devices.  For example, if someone develops a medical problem that requires major surgery, they’ll have to be able to do it themselves . . . or watch their colleague die.  There’s no backup, no alternative solution.



  1. At the closest distance, the comm lag will be three minutes. At the furthest distance, it'll be a skosh over 22 minutes. Still too far for conversations other than by e-mail/text.

  2. They need to talk to some Submariners, especially SSBN sailors. We go out for months at a time and are totally isolated from the world, NO outbound messages for months at a time…

  3. Food quality will be a major morale problem. I cannot see how they will be able to produce a non-boring menu under greenhouse conditions. You can argue otherwise but I'll say you are an unrealistic optimist. There just isn't that much you can grow in a greenhouse – tomatoes, lettuce, herbs. Just being able to meet their basic dietary requirements will be an amazing accomplishment. Adequate variety in the form of spices, meats etc. will be impossible.

  4. @Richard Tengdin
    You are right, the SSBN experience is relevant, however there is a BIG difference to a SSBN: the crew size. The Mars mission will not be able to accommodate a crew of some 150 astronauts, which makes them being as self-sufficient as possible a VERY hard proposition. The crew will probably not exceed 10, which is still a huge complement for such a mission.
    It's also going to take a huge psychological effort to succeed considering the pressure of their isolation and the KNOWLEDGE of the distance from home…

  5. SSBNs may stay under for a patrol, but they don't have to. Even in the much ballyhooed "round the world, submerged" of the USS Triton, she did come up and medevac'ed off a sailor. Which will, obviously, not be possible from Acidalia Planitia Station.

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