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8/1/2014
09:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Geekend: 2 Steps Closer To Mars

A successful experiment on the side of a volcano and an artificial leaf that makes oxygen have gotten us closer to sending people to Mars.

Long-time readers of this Geekend column know I'm psyched about the idea of putting a person on Mars. I think it should be one of humanity's top goals, not only because of the stunning achievement, but also because the attempt would yield technology we could use to improve life here on Earth. (Here's a list of what NASA has already done for us.) We took two steps closer to that goal this week with the end of a live experiment on what we'd need to put people on Mars for 120 days, and with a new invention that promises to provide astronauts with precious oxygen.

The live experiment, called the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (Hi-Seas) sponsored by NASA and conducted at the University of Hawaii, was a 120-day mission on the side of a volcano in Hawaii designed to test eating (among other things) during long-term space flights. A team of three men and three women lived in a simulated Mars base in an effort to see what types of living conditions and food supplies would be necessary to survive on the Red Planet for four months. The crew lived in a dome, with a little over 1,200 square feet of living space, that housed all of the living quarters as well as a kitchen, lab, and other essentials. When crew members left the dome, they had to do so in a space suit, just like they'd have to do on Mars.

That's right, they spent four months in Hawaii and never once got out to surf. They spent the whole time inside their "colony" or in a spacesuit on the side of a volcano that looks like the rocky and desolate landscape of Mars. The only communication they had with "Earth" was on calls with a 20-minute delay to simulate the delay on a real mission. They even ate freeze-dried "astronaut food" as a part of the experiment.

They couldn't simulate the lower gravity on Mars or the lack of oxygen. They also didn't simulate the nine-month trip to and from Mars, which clearly would have made the whole thing more realistic. Why skip those steps? Well, they'll probably try that on future missions, for which NASA and Hi-Seas are already looking for crews.

One of the missions under the first two Hi-Seas experiments was just to figure out how to eat for an extended time with limited supplies. Remember, every pound of food crew members take with them to Mars adds to the size of the spaceship needed, the fuel to get it there, and the size of the rocket just to get it off the planet (twice, once on Earth and again for the return trip).

Here's a look at the habitat and space cooking. They even made sushi:

No doubt future missions will be longer and include more food growth and other strategies. A series of 2011 experiments called Mars500 asked a crew to stay isolated in a spaceship-size building for 520 days to simulate the flight and return to Mars. One of the experiments literally ended in a fist fight. The second attempt showed that the crew got more sedentary and surly as the mission went on.

So the recent 120-day mission, reporting none of these sorts of problems while mixing in better food strategies (the fight on Mars500 was caused by a vodka "treat"), is a good sign. Hi-Seas placed more emphasis than previous experiments on maintaining morale and on keeping crew members active.

Of course, it takes more than sushi to keep an astronaut going for 120 or more days on Mars. The absolute first need is oxygen.

For the most part, astronauts need to have air and water delivered to them. They can make some of their own oxygen by converting water into oxygen via electrolysis. Spaceships recycle a lot of used water -- even astronaut urine and sweat are re-used -- but they still must have some delivered or they must

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Moderator
8/27/2014 | 2:39:41 PM
leaf uses
I'm imagining a layer of artifical leaveson every high way median strip and factory roofs as a way of cleansing the air pollution befre it gets to the atmosphere, plus it's the one thing I could keep 'alive' in my house and still get the o2 and filtration benefits of a houseplant. I hope this helps in getting us to Mars as we pepper the place with them making it a 'green' planet.
Michelle
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Michelle,
User Rank: Strategist
8/17/2014 | 7:54:37 PM
Re: Cruel planet; no vacancy
@Dave yes, it's sad. I'm glad there have been no manditory trips to outer space for anyone.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
8/7/2014 | 7:03:17 AM
Re: Mars
I would like to think that we are better than that but we had an issue with a bear that attacked someone in their garage.  I think when it was all said and done local authorities killed 5 bears and still didn't know for sure if they got the one that perpetrated the attack.  We like to think we're above the obliterate them all mentality but we really aren't.  Look at how the war in the Middle East went in the 90's  I can't tell you how many times I heard the term glass parking lot.  To that point we're the ones creating these AIs, how can we expect them to behave any better?
Rich Krajewski
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Rich Krajewski,
User Rank: Ninja
8/6/2014 | 6:34:39 PM
Re: Mars
"Humans, for the most part, don't go into a building infested with monkeys and wipe them all out."

Okay, congratulations making a living saying this.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/6/2014 | 1:45:49 PM
Re: Mars
@David Wagner, have you ever walked into a building infested with roaches?  Arguably we are the superior race and what is our first reaction?  Obliterate them all...  I'm not saying our robot overlords will see us the same way but I could see that kind train of thought going.  


Oooh....nice argument, SaneIt. I guess i meant superior to us. As in the best parts of us. 

But there's also a difference in life form level.

Humans, for the most part, don't go into a building infested with monkeys and wipe them all out. We wouldn't find a lake full of dolphins and take them down so we could swim in it. We recognize animals that are more intelligent or more similar to us and we are nicer to them.

Since we're creating the artificial intelligence, i would assume it would think of us like a monkey-- a less smart verison of us.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/6/2014 | 1:41:21 PM
Re: Cruel planet; no vacancy
@Michelle- Sadly, I think we can guarantee someone will die. The loss of life to get to the moon was tragic, but probably unavoidable. We still have plane crashes so doing something as crazy as going to Mars is going to mean some loses. I guess that's why driving, flying, and space travel is all-volunteer.
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
8/6/2014 | 9:28:36 AM
Re: Mars
@David, that's a good point. If solar energy is cheaper and closer to home -- going to a far off planet, moon or asteroid would not be feasible. Since solar panels have been dropping in prices at 7 percent a year, solar panels seem like the best option going forward. Helium 3 came to my mind because a few have actually speculated that it might be feasible to mine helium 3 for energy usages. Maybe in the future, some other types of rare earth metals are mined from space to meet the demand for technology or healthcare, etc.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
8/6/2014 | 7:19:56 AM
Re: Mars
@Gary_EL, it may not be a big problem for the next few generations but now is the time that AI is taking root.  Planning smartly now could help avoid crazy situations in the future.  Watson is a good example.  We have built a trivia AI that everyone is looking at for novel new projects.  
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
8/6/2014 | 7:17:06 AM
Re: Mars
@David Wagner, have you ever walked into a building infested with roaches?  Arguably we are the superior race and what is our first reaction?  Obliterate them all...  I'm not saying our robot overlords will see us the same way but I could see that kind train of thought going.  We do quite a bit of mess making and a race that likes things a bit cleaner might see fit to squash us rather than try and train us.
Michelle
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Michelle,
User Rank: Strategist
8/5/2014 | 10:49:43 PM
Re: Cruel planet; no vacancy
@Dave good point. I have no answers. I really don't want people dying on the way to Mars.
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