NASA’s Mars isolation experiment hits half-year mark

Halfway into a simulated Mars expedition, two men and two women living together in isolation have lost a crucial piece of equipment.

“I may have accidentally murdered one of our robots,” said Dr. Nathan Jones, the medical officer for the crew, who described the incident as a “traumatic death.”

Anca Selariu, the science officer, joked they would need Operation Phoenix to bring their rover back from the ashes. Ross Brockwell, the flight engineer, assured Jones they’d be able to fix it.

“We’ve got plenty of duct tape,” Brockwell said.

The conversation came amid a recorded update from NASA‘s Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog study, or CHAPEA. Four ordinary individuals volunteered to live in a 3D-printed Mars habitat for a year as a dress rehearsal for life on the Red Planet. Rather than reporting to Earth from 140 million miles away in space, though, the crew is actually much closer, in a 1,700 square-foot home at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Outside the habitat, dubbed Mars Dune Alpha, is a domed facility designed to look like the surface of Mars, replete with red dirt and craggy vistas. They call this area where they conduct mock Marswalks the “sandbox.”

As people around the world prepare to celebrate New Year’s Eve, the CHAPEA crew — Jones, Selariu, Brockwell, and Commander Kelly Haston — will also celebrate the halfway point in their 378-day isolation, which had began on June 25, 2023. They’re the first of at least three groups that will participate in Mars-like isolation studies for human research.


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Communication delays between Mars and Earth

The details are key to mimicking the real challenges of life on Mars. To simulate the communication delay astronauts would have with Earth, the crew can only communicate with friends and family by email. Sending a message one way takes at least 20 minutes — sometimes longer — depending on the file sizes.

Even interviews have to be customized for the unique communication constraints. The updates from the crew are based on questions the U.S. space agency wrote, then asked them to record their answers as audio files. Some of the recordings can be heard on NASA podcasts, such as “Houston, We Have a Podcast.”

“We’ve got plenty of duct tape.”

CHAPEA crew posing for portrait

From left, Anca Selariu, Ross Brockwell, Kelly Haston, and Dr. Nathan Jones are the members of NASA’s CHAPEA crew.
Credit: NASA

It’s unclear whether Jones broke the rover or NASA intended it to break as part of the experiment. During the simulation, the crew is experiencing different mission activities, such as exploring Mars, maintaining the habitat, growing crops, exercising, and operating robots. Part of the study also involves intentionally putting the crew under stressful conditions, like limiting their food resources and having them work through equipment failures.

The CHAPEA science team will eventually publish research papers with findings about crew health and performance.

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“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, in a statement prior to the mission. “So the lifestyle is what we’re trying to simulate by setting up a realistic environment and workload for the CHAPEA crew.”

Marswalk simulations assisted with virtual reality

When the crew leaves their quarters, they don spacesuits — just like astronauts would to exit to the sandbox. Many of their Marswalks incorporate virtual reality headsets. A treadmill outside allows them to walk longer and farther than the area can afford for these activities. Sometimes they’re sampling rocks, while other times they’re looking for potential construction sites. From inside the habitat, they can operate a helicopter-like drone and robot to explore remote areas.

The habitat also includes a “window” that uses a TV monitor with a video feed. The view changes with the time of day, revealing a Martian sunrise, the sun overhead, the shadow of the habitat cast onto the ground, and eventually, stars at night.

In a recent update from the crew, Haston, who is an ultra runner, said the VR experiences outside the habitat have satisfied her wanderlust.

“My fun fact is that I actually apparently really love being on Mars,” she said.

Chapea crew simulating a Marswalk

Dr. Nathan Jones performs a simulated Marswalk outside the habitat.
Credit: NASA

But over the six months they’ve been away from their homes and families, crew members are starting to miss some Earthly comforts. For Haston, it’s potato chips and red wine. For Jones, it was not being with his wife on their 15th anniversary. Brockwell, who calls Virginia Beach, Virginia, home, said he misses the ocean.

“I really miss driving,” Selariu said. “I miss seeing trees, I miss seeing green. I miss the colors, the seasons. I miss everything about Earth.”

“I miss seeing trees, I miss seeing green. I miss the colors, the seasons. I miss everything about Earth.”

CHAPEA crew reaches midpoint in 378-day study

NASA keeps their schedules as busy as those for the astronauts on the International Space Station. But when they do have down time, the crew play board games, Texas Hold’em, and a PS4 video game system in the habitat. Jones brought a Fender guitar, and Haston brought a travel-size ukulele.

No word yet on whether they’ve formed a band, but the crew have started a book club for reading and discussing books they’ve toted with them. And, as a group, they have enjoyed watching films and TV shows from a limited database, such as Apple’s sci-fi show For All Mankind.

“We’re the greatest movie critics on Mars,” Jones said. “Top four, for sure.”

Chapea crew performing science studies

Anca Selariu, the science officer, works with Ross Brockwell, the flight engineer, on analyzing some geology samples.
Credit: NASA

Though there’s no champagne in the habitat to ring in 2024, the crew have had other special foods for celebrating holidays. They clinked mugs of hot chocolate on their first night together at Mars Dune Alpha, and they’ve made and decorated sponge cakes for birthdays.

Haston noted that some of their crops should be ready to harvest around the new year.

“We’ll be toasting with the tomatoes from the garden,” she said.