The NASA Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) mission will lock four volunteers in a simulated habitat on Mars for a year. This is the first of three planned simulations that will help scientists understand and confront the physical and mental challenges astronauts will face before flying to the Red Planet.
The CHAPEA crew will consist of a microbiologist, a doctor, a flight engineer, a medical officer, a research scientist and a commander. They will all live in a 158-square-meter simulated Mars Dune Alpha habitat, where they will face limited resources, communication delays and simulated equipment failures. Throughout the year, the crew will conduct a variety of activities, including simulated walks outside the habitat and scientific research.
Such simulations are critical to testing solutions to the complex needs of life on the Martian surface. Grace Douglas, NASA’s lead scientist, notes that they will help scientists better understand and overcome the physical and mental challenges the astronauts will face during a mission to Mars.
However, previous attempts to model long-term life on another planet have been controversial. The SIRIUS and Mars-500 projects have shown that as communication delays increase, crews become more autonomous. This may be a positive aspect, as astronauts on Mars will have to perform duties alone. However, there are concerns about a possible break in communications between the crew and the flight control center on Earth.
Dmitry Shved of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Moscow Aviation Institute notes that the downside of crew autonomy is that the mission control center loses the ability to understand the astronauts’ needs and concerns, making it difficult for mission control to provide support.
A more catastrophic simulation of life inside an “autonomous” biosphere has also shown real problems related to food and oxygen shortages. This underscores the importance of conducting such simulations and finding optimal solutions to provide life support for crews on Mars.