In April this year, NASA selected four participants from the general public to embark on the agency's first one-year analog mission in the 3D-printed habitat. These include Kelly Haston, Commander; Ross Brockwell, Flight Engineer; Nathan Jones, Medical Officer; and Alyssa Shannon, Science Officer.
This summer, the four volunteers will begin the year-long Mars mission in the ground-based simulated habitat, built by ICON, helping NASA prepare for human exploration of Mars. The mission is the first of three planned in NASA’s CHAPEA habitat, or Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog, located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
CHAPEA is a series of analog missions that will simulate year-long stays on the surface of Mars. Each mission will consist of four crew members living in Mars Dune Alpha, an isolated 3D-printed 1,700 square foot habitat. The 3D-printed habitat will include private crew quarters, a kitchen, and dedicated areas for medical, recreation, fitness, work, and crop growth activities, as well as a technical work area and two bathrooms.
During the first of three, one-year missions, the four-person crew of individuals, selected from the general public, will carry out different types of mission activities in CHAPEA. These activities include simulated spacewalks or “Marswalks” outside the habitat — some using virtual reality technology — and robotics operations, along with other activities such as habitat maintenance, personal hygiene, exercise, and crop growth.
“We’re really looking at how the crew performance and health changes based on realistic Mars restrictions and lifestyle of the crew members,” said Raina MacLeod, CHAPEA Deputy Project Manager at JSC. “So, the lifestyle is what we’re trying to simulate by setting up a realistic environment and workload for the CHAPEA crew.”
The simulated traverses will be conducted in pairs in the “sandbox” portion of the habitat, which is filled with red sand to simulate the Martian landscape. The sandbox contains equipment such as a treadmill for the virtual reality walks to allow crew to simulate longer traverses beyond the physical confines of the 1,200-square-foot sandbox. Mars has about a third of the gravity Earth does, which will present unique challenges for eventual human missions on the Red Planet.
The objective of each traverse will vary throughout the mission. For example, during some of the simulated spacewalks, the crew will focus on field geology work by locating and identifying rocks of interest, communicating unique characteristics to the crew inside the habitat to enter in a database, taking photographs for documentation, and retrieving a sample from the rock and bringing it into the habitat for analysis. During others, the crew will focus on evaluating sites for simulated construction activities.
Some of the virtual reality traverses will also include simulated science and maintenance activities, such as setting up experiment packages or performing dust mitigation steps to optimize solar panel functionality.
“We thought through a few different types of spacewalks that we thought would be realistic to what astronauts would do on the surface of Mars,” MacLeod said. “We would have them do geology work, and then they probably would do some building tasks, and then also exploration. So, those are the three categories we are looking at for CHAPEA — geology, building, and exploration.”
In addition to the simulated traverses, crew members will spend time remotely operating robotic elements, which will likely be necessary for real crews on Mars to extend their exploration capabilities.
During the CHAPEA robotic operations, crew members will be responsible for controlling a helicopter-like drone and a roving robot. The crew will work in pairs inside the habitat to operate the drone and robot to survey remote areas, identify and retrieve rock samples, and document geological information.
“The robotics element is a very interesting activity that we are including for our crew. It’s always good to have really stimulating tasks, especially on a long-duration analog study to keep the crew excited,” MacLeod said. “But these activities could also be very realistic in that future Mars astronauts could utilize remote piloting drones and rovers to expand the reconnaissance radius.”
NASA is leading a return to the Moon for long-term exploration. Through the Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. Lessons learned on and around the Moon will prepare NASA for the next giant leap: sending astronauts to Mars.
To obtain the most accurate data during the analog, the habitat will be as Mars-realistic as feasible, which may include environmental stressors such as resource limitations, isolation, equipment failure, and significant workloads. The results of CHAPEA and the knowledge gained from the analogs could impact future NASA missions including those to the surface of Mars.
“The simulation will allow us to collect cognitive and physical performance data to give us more insight into the potential impacts of long-duration missions to Mars on crew health and performance,” said Grace Douglas, CHAPEA Principal Investigator.
“Ultimately, this information will help NASA make informed decisions to design and plan for a successful human mission to Mars,” Douglas said.
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