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
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