Could You Handle a Trip to Mars?

Tips for a successful mission to Mars: keep the crew in touch with family and friends, make sure the video games are good, and pack better food and drink.

Especially the drink. It seems the wine was a little too dry. But then, it was powdered.

“As a Frenchman, I’m sorry to say … it was just not wine,” said Romain Charles, who spent 520 days, or more than 17 months, cooped up in close quarters with five other men on a simulated space mission to Mars.

The goal of the Russian-led Mars 500 project was to see how well a crew could hold up in the long-term isolation inherent with any future manned exploration of the Red Planet.

Credit: Shutterstock/Enrico Agnosti

In February, barely three months after the crew walked away from their “spacecraft” – built at a facility in Moscow that also featured a simulated Mars surface – Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Space Federal Agency Roscosmos, announced Russia may try to repeat the experiment on the International Space Station.

And late last month, NASA announced it, too, was considering an endurance mission on the ISS, which for years has been the site of experiments designed to deal with the potential roadblocks to long-term human exploration of space.

Mars 500

The Mars 500 project included 106 separate experiments proposed by an international array of scientists, agencies and research organizations, including Canada, the United States and the European Space Agency and RSC Energia.

The crew included three Russians, including the mission commander, a surgeon and a physiologist/researcher, a flight engineer from France, an electronics engineer from Italy, and a cosmonaut training specialist from China.

Once a week the crew was given a daily timeline of chores that included training for specific experiments, as well as the usual routine of exercise, meals, personal time and sleep. The crew interacted with a “ground” crew of controllers, and could exchange e-mail and other messages with family and friends.

The mission included a period of time for travel to Mars, the simulation of landing and operating on a mock Mars’ surface in space suits, and then departure and return to Earth. Food on the trip out was prepackaged and reheatable, while food on the return trip was dehydrated and needed water added.

To mix things up, researchers threw in a couple of what were called “off-nominal situations” to test the crew’s reaction. One, near the end of the first leg of the trip, simulated a short circuit and fire in a central control panel that supplied power to the medical-technical facility.

The second simulated an electromagnetic storm that cut all communications back to Earth. It was conducted on the return phase of the trip, in a time when there was no longer the anticipation of arrival on a “new” planet and the monotony of the daily routine (and perhaps the rehydrated menu) was growing.

Project researchers happily reported that the crew performed well during both situations.

Typical problems

In the end, some problems highlighted what could be expected during any long journey with unfamiliar people. There was jealousy among the crew when some received more messages from family and friends than others, or when some were given more work than others to do.

Cultural differences had to be worked out, particularly in the beginning, although language was not a significant problem (English and Russian were primarily used.) The library of movies and television shows was good, but video games proved popular, for the most part because they took up more time.

And the food – well, there’s only so much you can expect from prepackaged and dehydrated offerings.

But Canadian and U.S. space agency experts are working in conjunction with Cornell University and the University of Hawaii to improve that aspect of space travel. They are reviewing applications now, looking for six volunteers for a four-month isolation experiment to battle “menu fatigue” by finding new and different ways to prepare food in space.

And that’s a challenge, given limits on what foods can grow and be handled in microgravity, restrictions on water storage and use, and using only ingredients that may need to have a shelf-life of three to five years.

The participants will be selected for their sense of smell, cooking skills and willingness to eat a wide variety of foods, among other things.

One of the perks is participants will get to go to Hawaii. (No, more applications will not be accepted.)

With luck, they’ll also receive the undying gratitude of future astronauts. After all, dried ice cream holds its allure for only so long.

AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.

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