This post is adapted from a blog I originally wrote for the UK's National Space Centre to celebrate their Apollo 9 SpaceLates event.
We are going to Mars.
It is likely that the first humans to step foot on our planetary neighbour have already been born. One of them may even be reading this article.
By the end of the 2030s, NASA and other space agencies hope to land humans on the Red Planet for the first time. But the environment of Mars is much more extreme, much further away, and much more dangerous than anywhere we’ve ever sent humans before.
To prepare for humanity’s next giant leap, scientists and engineers around the world are already working on the technologies that our astronauts will need in order to stay happy, healthy, and productive during their mission.
Thanks to many simulations run here on Earth and on board the International Space Station (ISS), we already know that future astronauts heading into deep space will have to follow three key rules in order to thrive, not just survive, on Mars.
Take it from me – as a space systems engineer I recently trained for a Mars simulation mission and had the chance to personally experience the challenges of long-duration space journeys.
The trip to Mars is a long one – on average, the distance between the Earth and Mars is 150 million miles! This means that the voyage to the Red Planet will take between 6-9 months. We know from ISS missions that spending this long in microgravity can have severe effects on the human body.
Without gravity weighing down their bodies, astronauts’ muscles diminish, their bones become brittle, their immune systems weaken, and their spines can stretch by up to 2 inches! Living in space for long periods of time is similar to ageing, but at a very rapid rate!
In order to combat all of these negative effects, it is very important that astronauts on board the ISS exercise for 2 hours every day. On Mars, the gravity is three times weaker than that of Earth. It’s expected that prolonged stays on Mars will have similar effects on the body as spending time on a space station, so it is crucial that future Martians exercise regularly!
2. Eat well
We all know a balanced diet is important, but astronauts on Mars won’t be able to bring all of their food and water from Earth because it is too expensive to launch and difficult to keep fresh. Therefore, the ability to grow food on the Red Planet will mean the difference between surviving and thriving.
But how can humans grow food on a desolate planet? In a move that was perhaps inspired by The Martian’s Mark Watney, the German Aerospace Agency (DLR) has investigated this question by setting up a greenhouse in the middle of a lifeless, icy desert – Antarctica!
This project, called EDEN ISS saw a German scientist live in the Antarctic for a full year to tend to vegetables. During that time this Antarctic gardener grew a total of 77kg of lettuce, 67kg of cucumbers and 46kg of tomatoes without soil or sunlight!
[Read more: To learn more about the history of plants in space, check out our blog.]
3. Get creative!
I once asked retired NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson what the biggest challenge of going to Mars would be for future astronauts. His answer? Boredom!
The first crews to Mars will likely involve just four to six people, who will be alone together through a mission which will last up to 900 days! This means that the crew will have to get extremely creative in order to stave off boredom over this prolonged period.
Other major problems that these future space explorers will face are isolation and stress. Due to the vast distance between the Earth and Mars it takes an email about 20 minutes to make it back home! This means that for the 18-month stay on the Martian surface, the crew will have no communication with Earth except through 40-minute round-trip delayed email messages.
The psychological effects of this type of isolation on ‘astronaut-like’ candidates has been tested at the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. Situated at 8,200ft high on the Mauna Loa volcano, the area surrounding the habitat facility is reminiscent of Mars. Completely desolate, there are no signs of life at this altitude which adds to the psychological pressure for the participants as they simulate a long-duration stay on the Martian surface.
Through studies like HI-SEAS and Mars500, NASA and ESA psychologists have discovered that creativity can play a big role in staying healthy and focused in isolated, confined and extreme environments.
Simple activities such as playing games, exercising, eating together, and even escaping into virtual reality can help avoid a dreaded ‘crew-ground disconnect’ – a psychological effect whereby the crew begins to feel mentally isolated from their support team which can have terrible consequences for a mission.
Similar to any frontier lifestyle, there is no doubt that life on Mars will be extremely difficult for the first crew members who make the voyage.
But through the determination and ingenuity of countless scientists, engineers and doctors around the world we are getting ever closer to seeing humans on Mars become a reality.
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