NASA completes first mission simulating astronaut life on Mars

A NASA mission designed to test how tough life on Mars would be for a human crew ended Saturday with four volunteers spending more than a year in a 1,600-square-foot (159-square-meter) building.

Kelly Haston, Ross Brockwell, Anca Selariu and Nathan Jones began their journey on June 25, 2023, and spent the next 378 days in a 3D-printed habitat called Mars Dune Alpha, which is a replica of what life on Mars might be like. NASA monitored their health and performance to learn how they would support a crew during long missions and what risks there might be for humans, especially with limited nutrition.

They also performed tasks that astronauts would do on a real trip to Mars, such as maintaining the habitat, collecting samples, and robotic operations.

“I feel humbled that being away for a year on a Mars analog has brought me closer to the people I was with and the people I left behind at home,” said Haston, a researcher and enrolled member of the Mohawk Nation of the Six Nations of the Grand River in Canada. “To everyone, especially my family, I am so sorry I wasn’t there for you this year, and I thank you all so much.”

NASA is developing technology to send astronauts to the Red Planet as early as the 2030s. The simulated trip was the first of three planned trips to the habitat as part of NASA’s Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog, or CHAPEA, missions.

As the volunteers left the habitat, they were greeted by an applauding audience.

“Hello. It’s just so great to be able to greet you all,” said Haston, the CHAPEA commander, with a laugh.

The mission sought to see how the group would handle the various challenges humans would face on Mars. The crew faced environmental stressors, communication delays, and limited resources. They ate nonperishable foods and vegetables they grew while living in isolation.

Brockwell, CHAPEA’s flight engineer, civil engineer and public works manager, said the mission offered a perspective on sustainability.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to live by the idea that we should not use resources faster than they can be replenished, and that we should not produce waste faster than we can turn it back into resources,” he said.

Crew members of the first CHAPEA mission emerge from a year-long mission at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, on July 6.Josh Valcarcel / NASA / CHAPEA

“We cannot live, dream, create, or explore for any significant period of time if we do not adhere to these principles. But if we do, we can achieve and sustain amazing, inspiring things, like exploring other worlds,” Brockwell added.

Mars Dune Alpha is located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The habitat includes a sandbox full of red sand where participants perform simulated “Mars walks.” The habitat has private bedrooms, a kitchen and two bathrooms. It also has areas for medical treatment, recreation, fitness and work activities, NASA said.

The second CHAPEA mission will begin in 2025 and the third in 2026.

“I’ve often been asked, why the obsession with Mars?” said Selariu, a science officer for CHAPEA and a microbiologist in the U.S. Navy. “Because it’s possible. Because space can unite us and bring out the best in us. Because it’s a defining step that Earthlings will take to light the way for the next centuries.”

“To everyone who watches, dreams and cheers for space exploration: thank you,” Selariu said.

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