Simulating Survival in Space

Cabin Fever – the phrase evokes grisly stories of claustrophobia and backwoods murder. If close confinement tends to provoke intense emotions and even violence over time, then how will humans cope on a long voyage to Mars?


Exploring alien landscapes will be exciting and inspirational, but also extremely stressful. Are humans up to the task?
Photo Credit: The Mars Society

While it’s obvious that the future explorers of Mars will need protection from the stress of space travel and the harsh martian environment, they also may need protection from each other. The astronauts will have to spend a very long time in very close quarters. The trip to Mars takes six months, and a human mission will likely stay for at least 500 days on the planet’s surface before making the long trek back home. The spacecraft and habitat in which the astronauts will pass much of their time will be small due to restrictions of transporting mass from one planet to another. There’s no point in sending them out, however, if they kill each other before they set foot on Mars.

A Russian experiment conducted nearly ten years ago points to the potential for catastrophe. In 1999, the Russian Institute of Medical and Biological Problems isolated people for 110 days to study group dynamics during space voyages. The experiment began in the summer, with four Russians confined to three rooms connected by tunnels just large enough to crawl through. In December they were joined by another Russian, men from Japan and Austria, and 32-year-old Judith Lapierre from Canada.

Tensions quickly rose – not only were eight people living in extremely cramped conditions, but they had bad food, no hot water, and invasions of cockroaches and head lice. Two of the Russians fought so violently that blood splattered on the walls. Lapierre was twice forcibly French-kissed by the Russian team commander. When Lapierre and the other foreigners complained to their sponsoring agencies, they were told to leave the project if they couldn’t put up with it. The Russians shrugged off the troubles as the result of cultural differences. In the end, Lapierre decided the experiment had been a waste of time. "This was a chaotic field study, not a scientific experiment," Lapierre told MSNBC’s James Oberg.

Despite the legacy of the Russian experiment, the Mars Society, a non-profit educational and scientific organization headed by Robert Zubrin, conducted its own test to see how people behave during a simulated space mission. From April to August 2007, a science crew of seven camped out at the “Flashline” Mars Arctic Research Station (F-MARS) on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic.

The “Flashline” Mars Arctic Research Station (F-MARS) on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic.
Photo Credit: The Mars Society

The total time spent in Mars simulation was 101 days. All went extremely well, according to Kim Binsted, Melissa Battler, and Kathryn Bywaters, three of the participants. In addition to living in close confinement, they conducted research in the field, donning space suits for each expedition outdoors, just as a real Mars crew would.

Battler, now a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario, was the group commander. She says the team – which was composed of four men and three women — consulted with each other in a cooperative style, rather than following a strict military-style hierarchy of command.

It also helped that four of the team members came from Canada. “If you had people from all over the world with different attitudes and standards and expectations, then you might need a social structure that is a bit more ‘top down,’” says Binsted, a lead team member at the University of Hawaii-NASA Astrobiology Institute who acted as chief scientist for this experiment.

“Some cultures would not respond to having a female leader, either,” adds Battler. “There’s still much to be learned about cultural differences for long-duration simulations.”

Cultural differences may cause problems, but the most compatible, even-tempered people confined together for several months will have conflicts. So before their arrival in Devon Island, the scientists spent two weeks at a Mars Society station in Utah to try to iron out any potential problems. They continued this focus on conflict resolution throughout the experiment on Devon Island, starting each day with a meeting to address issues.

Returning to the habitation after a day exploring on “Mars.”
Photo Credit: The Mars Society

“We were in simulation, so if you have a problem with someone, you can’t just step outside and grab a breath of fresh air,” says Bywaters, the team biologist and an undergraduate biochemistry student at California State University San Marcos. “You really do have to notice problems early on and deal with them immediately.”

A major source of stress was the thin walls of the habitat. There was no sound insulation, and the smallest noise – even a tissue being pulled out of its box – echoed throughout the chamber. While this feature of the habitat was universally despised at the time, Binsted says that in retrospect, the thin walls led to better group cohesion.

“The fact there was no possibility for private conversation may have been a good thing,” says Binsted. “There’s no opportunity for back fighting, there are no cliques or gossip. The only time you could talk about someone was when they were out on a sortie, but even then that’s only dividing the group in two.”

The team spent most of their time working together on science projects in the field, but they were also objects of study. Their daily activities, from how well they were sleeping to how much food and water they consumed, were recorded for scientific scrutiny.

The sleep study tracked circadian rhythm as well as the amount of sleep everyone was getting each night. Binsted says that sleep is a major concern for human space missions.

“About a quarter of the astronauts suffer debilitating sleep disruption,” says Binsted. “We had two crew members who had quite severe sleep disruption to the point of affecting performance, but everyone suffered some.”

Mars Society’s 2007 FMARS science team: Back row, starting from the left: Kathryn Bywaters, James Harris, Emily Colvin, Simon Auclair, Paul Graham, Matt Bamsey. Front row, from the left: Ryan Kobrick, Melissa Battler, Kim Binsted.
Photo Credit: The Mars Society

A day on Mars lasts for 24 hours and 39 minutes. Because the sun does not set in summer above the Arctic Circle, the crew determined the length of their days by covering up the windows in the habitat when their clocks indicated that night should have fallen. Once the team went on Mars time, some of the team members slept better and experienced more “spontaneous waking” (when you wake up in the morning without the aid of an alarm). This may be the result of having that 39 extra minutes each day to get more sleep.

In keeping track of the water used for bathing, drinking, and other uses, the team was surprised to discover they could get by on very little. On average over four months, they each used about 12 liters of water per day. Of course, says Bywaters, part of the reason they used so little is because they had to carry all their water up stairs.

“When you personally have to transport it, you get really conservative,” she says.

They only took a shower once a week, and it had to be a quick one. Like researchers in Antarctica, they used a lot of baby wipes to keep clean (and they kept track of that as well, averaging five per person per day).

They ate freeze-dried food as well as other foods that had a shelf life of a year or more. “Basically the assumption was if it can last for a year, it can last for three years,” says Binsted, referring to the projected length of a mission to Mars. “So we had canned food, dried food, and textured vegetable product, the lovely TVP, which was our main protein source.”

Eating together helps build camaraderie, and provides another opportunity for research.
Photo Credit: The Mars Society

Unlike astronauts on the International Space Station, the crew did have a kitchen. But they had to be careful about using appliances, because every watt of power had to be accounted for. The generator that supplied energy to the habitat could only take so much of a load.

Escaping the F-MARS habitat required a lot of preparation. They were supposed to be on Mars, after all, and couldn’t just step outside without first putting on a space suit.

“At one point we were going out twice a day, which just eats a phenomenal amount of time,” says Bywaters. “You have to put on the suit and make sure you’re thermally comfortable, and then you also have to prepare all the equipment that you’re going to use, and make sure you didn’t forget anything so you don’t have to come back.”

“On top of the individual time of preparation, we had crew briefings and de-briefings before every single EVA so everyone knew exactly where each other person was going to be in case of emergency,” adds Battler.

Even though this protocol was intense, it was probably a lot less than what a real Mars mission would experience, says Binsted. And while they did have to be wary of polar bears, they didn’t have to be concerned with planetary protection issues. Avoiding contaminating Mars sites with microbes from Earth will add even more procedures to the task of exploration.

Simon and Kim explore the local geology.
Photo Credit: The Mars Society

They didn’t have martian dust storms to contend with either, but they did endure Arctic blizzards, as well as a period when the ground became a field of impassable mud. These events pointed out the importance of flexibility while exploring. Creativity is important as well, because inevitably an experiment would not work, and they had to figure out how to solve the problem using limited equipment.

“You have to find versatile tests that can work with those sorts of constraints,” says Bywaters. “I think that was one of our biggest challenges in the pre-planning — asking what we can do the most of with the minimal amount of equipment. And science equipment is heavy and fragile, so you have to be selective.”

Mars mission planners envision future explorers roaming the planet in large RVs. Not only will these large vehicles protect the astronauts and help them cart around equipment, but being away from base camp for an extended time will allow them to explore more of the planet.

Battler says the Mars Society hopes to conduct more Mars simulations in the future, increasing the duration and intensity of the experience each time. To do so, they will need the help of volunteers – not only those participating in the actual simulation but also people to help plan, organize, and pay for it. The 2007 mission was supported by NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and many other groups. In the end, Binsted thinks all the effort is not only worth it, but necessary if we ever hope to send humans to Mars.

Teamwork is important while collecting a core sample on Mars.
Photo Credit: The Mars Society

“You end up with a very different dynamic if people are pretending the whole time,” she says. “We were pretending to be on Mars too, but we were really doing field research, really having to put on the suits, really having to eat the food. There was no suspension of disbelief.”

“One of the overriding themes of the mission was that while there are things you can tolerate in the short term, no one could tolerate them in the long term,” she adds. “So things like food, living quarters, the work that we were doing, our daily schedule, and the amount of sleep we were getting had to be sustainable over time. You can tolerate bad sleep for a month, maybe two. You can’t do it for four months.”






Simulating a Martian Colony in the Arctic
Living on Mars on Earth
Mars Society FMARS 2007
Russian experiment