Here’s how it feels to experience the Mars life on Earth
Kate Greene’s new book throws light on Mars ‘analog missions’ — and how scientists are trying to solve problems to design safe missions to the red planet
Speaking to The Guardian’s Hannah Devlin in a recent episode of the Science Weekly podcast, former astronaut Kathryn Sullivan said the next big frontier in space exploration has to be Mars. “The goal should be Mars because it is that much more demanding. It should be Mars with people because that pushes a whole raft of scientific knowledge and technologies that, I am entirely confident, would pay huge dividends in healthcare and medicine here on Earth," said Sullivan, who was part of an iconic space mission that deployed the Hubble space telescope in 1990.
The three latest Mars missions, all in July, drive home the difficulties that lie in store. Reaching the planet will take no less than seven months. Now, try to imagine how difficult it could be to survive there. In 2013, American writer and former laser physicist Kate Greene spent four months in a Mars-like environment that was createdin the form of an “analog mission". Such missions are habitats designed to simulate the possible psychological and physical challenges astronauts might face in a Mars exploration mission. The data collected from these studies is used to plan safer manned space missions.
Greene was part of a six-member crew that lived in isolation in a large geodesic dome at 8,000ft on the Hawaiian volcano of Mauna Loa—the location for the first HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) project, funded by US space agency Nasa, which aimed to answer some psychological- and food- related questions for the time astronauts are able to land on Mars.
In her book Once Upon A Time I Lived On Mars, launched just last month,Greene recalls how the crew made various “Martian concessions"—using wet wipes instead of bathing, forgoing social media, and doing without fresh fruits and vegetables. Their sole method of contact with the outside world was through email. To factor in the extreme distance between the two planets—“photons can fly only so fast"—the crew’s email transmissions were also delayed by 20 minutes each way to “mimic the actual communication lag" that Martian explorers would experience. “It wasn’t your typical Hawaiian vacation," she writes.
Apart from dozens of other experiments, like testing antimicrobial socks and behavioural surveys, the key objective for HI-SEAS-1 was to figure out the challenges of, and solutions to, “menu fatigue" in space. The moot question: Would it make sense for astronauts to cook their own food once they landed on Mars?
Space food has always been a complex issue. As Greene explains, we have gone from dog food for Laika—the first animal in space, in 1957, and the first food in space—to Salisbury steak, peanut butter and tortillas sealed in pouches. She offers the example of International Space Station (ISS) missions where “astronauts are also allowed to send up a personal food treat for their mission, something that reminds them of home".
None of this, however, may be possible on a journey to Mars. “Few things in Nasa’s pantry are designed for the length of such a journey. Nutrients degrade over time, and since the food is prepared well in advance of the mission, it needs to be fortified and palatable for up to seven years," she writes.
So what could make the cut when a manned mission is attempted? Unfortunately, early Mars expeditions will have to make do with pouched food, says Greene, who spoke to Grace Douglas, the lead scientist for Nasa’s Advanced Food Technology research effort, after her mission ended.
Apart from meal-replacement bars, astronauts may be able to rely on plants and gardens on Mars, given that they have grown everything from lettuce to Chinese cabbage on the ISS in recent years.
Keeping in mind specific elements of the habitat, Greene weaves a personal account that is perfectly balanced with the science of the mission. Mars has changed everything we know about the universe. It left Greene with plenty of questions on what drives our quest for interplanetary travel. “I didn’t know it at the time but over the years, I have come to realize this: Mars changed me."
- FINDING LIFE IN THE RED DUST
In The Sirens Of Mars, planetary scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson explains that the story of Mars is also the story of Earth. Tracking recent efforts to reach the red planet, Johnson, who developed an interest in Mars as a child, presents the natural history of a place where no human has been before. In her own words, the book offers an account of human exploration of Mars since the dawn of the Space Age.
‘The Sirens Of Mars: Searching For Life On Another World’, by Sarah Stewart Johnson, Crown, 288 pages, ₹2,563.
- FROM ‘VIKING 1’ TO ‘PERSEVERANCE’
With Earth’s fascination for Mars at an all-time high, journalists Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth look at the Viking programme and explore the findings from the ongoing Curiosity rover mission. They also delve into the just launched Perseverance rover mission that will look for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars.
‘The Search For Life On Mars: The Greatest Scientific Detective Story Of All Time’, by Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth, Arcade Publishing, 424 pages, ₹2,404.
- Once Upon A Time I Lived On Mars—Space, Exploration And Life On Earth: By Kate Greene, St Martin’s Press, 240 pages, ₹2,239.