NASA locks down four volunteers on a year-long mission to a simulated Martian habitat

On June 25, 2023, a crew of four volunteers entered a simulated Martian habitat, from which they will not emerge for over a year. Their mission: to learn more about the logistics and human psychology of living long-term on another planet, without ever getting off the ground.

The mission is called CHAPEA (Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog) and is the first of three simulations planned between now and 2026, each of which will progressively teach scientists more about what is needed for successful long-duration human spaceflight .

CHAPEA is headquartered at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The habitat, called Mars Dune Alpha, is a 1700 square foot 3D printed living space, where the crew will live, work, exercise, sleep and perform experiments.

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Through the magic of virtual reality, the mission will also involve Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA), in which crew members will briefly leave their habitat to enter an adjacent enclosure complete with red sand. They will have to wear spacesuits for these simulated spacewalks.

The four-member crew has a stellar collective track record, including Kelly Haston (a biologist), Ross Brockwell (a structural engineer), Nathan Jones (a physician), and Anca Selariu (a Navy microbiologist). They had to pass the same tests as astronaut candidates before being approved for a mission.

The knowledge we gain here will enable us to send humans to Mars and bring them home safely, CHAPEA Principal Investigator Grace Douglas said shortly before the volunteers entered their habitat.

The entry ceremony on June 25, 2023, as the four CHAPEA crew members enter Mars Dune Alpha for their one-year mission.

There is more to the mission than just melee combat. The crew will only be able to communicate with the outside world after a while. On Mars, messages can take up to 22 minutes to reach Earth and that restriction applies to CHAPEA (i.e. 44 minutes round trip) The crew will also eat a diet of freeze-dried foods, similar to what astronauts will have Martians eat and maintain an activity schedule similar to a real mission.

They are about to embark on an analogue mission that includes operations, logistics and research to live and work on Mars. The importance of this study cannot be overstated, says Judith Hayes, Chief Science Officer, Human Health and Performance Directorate. NASA scientists will learn critical insights into the physical and behavioral aspects of a mission to Mars.

Even the habitat itself was designed with space missions in mind. Bringing everything you need to Mars from Earth is cost-prohibitive, so their habitat was 3D printed to test in situ resource-use technologies. The habitat includes features such as airlocks, hatches, and a medical station. While the crew can depart for medical emergencies, they hope to be able to deal with minor health issues on their own.

Obviously CHAPEA can’t simulate everything. The crew, for example, won’t have to contend with Martian gravity. But there will be surprise challenges, such as equipment failures or water shortages.

Ultimately, the idea of ​​CHAPEA is to learn what human behavioral challenges might arise in an extended mission. By practicing here on Earth, NASA can be better prepared for future Mars-bound astronauts to actually do it.

The CHAPEA1 crew will emerge from its isolation in July 2024.

Learn more:

“A Year of Mars” Houston we have a podcast.

Featured Image: The simulated Martian exterior that the CHAPEA crew will explore during “EVA”. Credit: NASA.

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