There are a thousand and one places to go on this planet, and each dictates its own set of preparations for a successful trip. Even so, terrestrial destinations all have some similarity when compared to leaving this planet entirely and heading for another. That kind of excursion will require a good bit of time cooped up in a tin can as you sail through space enroute, an experience that calls for training and temperament that is critical in its own right. For that, it’s relatively easy to simulate the isolation and tight quarters of a space capsule. Getting prepared for a mission or a new life on another world is another whole ballgame.
We have a pretty good idea of what Mars looks like from a wheels-on-the-ground perspective. All the rovers that have chugged over miles of red terrain and shot innumerable pictures of the Martian surface have clued us in as to the dry, dusty, unvegetated conditions. Fortunately for accurate training purposes, Earth does do some pretty good Mars imitations at various locations around the globe. NASA and a few private companies and groups have sought out such landscapes and set up exercises and training stations in these usually remote locales to at least “play Mars,” even if the real thing will be decidedly different. At an installation near Hanksville, Utah, the Mars Society runs the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS). Travel to Mars has inspired more private interest than any previous space venture, but the MDRS is legitimate enough to have had coordination with NASA itself. Modules simulating a Mars settlement have been constructed, and since 2001, at least 1,000 people have participated, a few at a time, as crew members.
Training programs seek to simulate everything they can about actually being on Mars. Of course, the diminished gravity and the periodicity of sols versus Earth days can’t be convincingly portrayed, so a bit of suspended disbelief is required. Hanksville’s landscape, though, is a good approximation, with red soil and a rocky, dry surface of gently undulating terrain. All excursions outside the modules are done strictly inside of space suits, which would be a challenge in Utah’s heat. With that in mind, training sessions run during the eight coolest months of the year. Two-week periods introduce or further train as many as seven prospective astronauts at a time in the practical operation of an off-Earth habitat, including the production of plants for food. Six buildings contain living space, two observatories, hydroponic and other plant-growing research facilities, and a repair and maintenance area. Microbiology and geology labs on the lower deck of the living space hone skills needed to perform scientific research on the red planet. Most of these facilities are connected by enclosed above-ground passageways referred to as tunnels. Every effort is made to reinforce the illusion that life at the station is actually on Mars. It’s pretend, but it’s an invaluable exercise.
Another place that mimics Mars enough to provide training is Mauna Ulu on the Big Island of Hawaii. At that location, there is no built habitat simulation, but “astronauts” do geologic research for NASA and relay it back to a “mission control,” where it is processed. Those in the field are dressed for Hawaii rather than Mars, but their work hours are curtailed to match the limitations that planetary explorers will encounter. The barren volcanic landscape approximates areas on Mars as they were billions of years in the past. At that time volcanoes were active, and Mars had a more robust atmosphere. The analytic instrumentation carried into the field is what future astronauts will use, and actual research is being done to better understand rock type and the microbes that interact with them, in the hopes that clues to possible past life will be detectable on Mars. Spoken communications and data about mineral samples that go between the field team and “mission control” are on a 15-minute delay, because that’s how long it takes for messages to transit between Mars and Earth. Working alongside these teams involved in the simulated scenario are analysts looking for the human dynamics in such an exploration. How are team members interacting? What could be done more efficiently? Is human nature getting in the way of mission success? While the actual geologic research that is going on there could be much more easily done without the Mars-mission constraints, NASA gets double value out of the project by combining the two studies.
NASA has also based another Big Island team on Mauna Loa for a much longer period—a whole year in isolation. A crew of six participating in HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) stayed mainly in a small, white, geodesic dome tent, doing research and going outside in space suits only occasionally. The experience was challenging, but it was only half as long as true travellers to Mars might have to spend as they work and wait for the proper planetary alignment for a return trip. And that would be in addition to the transit time each way, around six months. The difficulties of working in unusual and stressful conditions must be layered on top of the incessant interaction with a small handful of people. The study is therefore greatly psychological in focus, as a dysfunctional family in space and on a distant planet is not a recipe for success. The mundane mechanical obstacles are also ever present, and the designers made sure to challenge the participants with simulated disasters to hone their inventiveness and flexibility.
These and other locations chosen by other countries’ space programs are doing their best to test human performance under conditions no one has ever actually faced. All these simulations introduce a myriad of constraints that are known to exist. But the weightlessness, the constant darkness of space, the different day length, the palpable danger, the genuine stress, the excitement of living the dream, and the effects of outer space over the long term are not within the realm of simulation. NASA can only do so much to model what future explorers will face. The rest is….the Final Frontier.
Even Maps.com doesn’t have a road map of Mars yet, but we do offer this stunning depiction of the Martian surface, with place names, made by National Geographic. It’s great for planning your biggest trip ever.
caption: The Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, including international students who were competing in a Mars rover competition. Next best thing to being there.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Mars Society (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: Home Sweet Home, MDRS. This unit houses Mars astronauts, a workshop, and labs.
source: Wikimedia Commons: McKay Salisbury (CC by 2.5 Generic)
caption: Another one of Elons’s projects—the Musk Observatory at MDRS.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Mike Borden (CC by 3.0 Unported)
caption: NASA astronauts test an extravehicular geotechnical procedure in California’s Mars-like Mojave Desert.
source: SServi: NASA (Public domain)
caption: Scientists use the rough landscape of Kilauea lava fields in Hawai’i to simulate a Mars research activity.
source: Flickr: NASA (CC by 2.0)