I’m an astronaut. This is what I can tell you about what you will experience in the Mars simulator for a year

By | February 23, 2024

NASA has put out a call for applicants to sign up as test subjects for an upcoming human space exploration of Mars, which will last a full Earth year. Is this something you would like to do?

It’s a compensated job, but what is a year of your life worth? That should be your first question. And there are many more details to sort out before you disappear for a year.

Leroy Chiao-CNN

Leroy Chiao-CNN

I know something about being deployed for months on a NASA ship. For my longest mission on the International Space Station (ISS), I was away for 193 days, from October 2004 to April 2005. That doesn’t count the two months I spent in Russia completing my pre-launch training, and the two weeks after returning to Earth before I could finally return home to the US.

This upcoming Mars simulator mission doesn’t require you to be astronaut-ready. In fact, the requirements are quite broad: you must be an able-bodied, non-smoking U.S. citizen or permanent resident between the ages of 30 and 55 and proficient in English. You must also meet certain STEM requirements, have the required military experience or have more than 1,000 hours of flight time as a pilot.

One thing you should consider before participating in simulating your stay on the Red Planet is what happens to your belongings at home as an Earthling. Who will take care of your things? Who will help you pay your bills? NASA doesn’t really help solve these kinds of life problems.

During my months-long space mission, I was able to put everything on autopay on my credit cards or through my credit union. The grass at my house was mowed by a lawn mower; I paid them an average amount every month and settled things with them after my return. It was all manageable.

Another thing is what you can and cannot take with you.

We were allowed to take a few personal items into the room, such as photos. On the ISS I wore my own personal wristwatch, which I carried with me on every mission. However, you cannot bring your own phone, or even your own camera. And when you’re on the ISS, NASA wants every photo you take!

The four test subjects who will be part of the year-long Mars simulator experiment will live and work in a 1,700-square-foot 3D-printed habitat at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for this Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) study.

However, this will not be the first attempt. One study currently underway will end in June after 378 days. The participants simulated many aspects of a real Mars mission, including nominal operations, cases of malfunctions and failures, adventures outside the habitat for simulated spacewalks.

One of the main goals of these missions is to study individual and crew dynamics, and to see how they perform under stress. Space may seem like a calm and peaceful environment, but conducting a busy schedule of experiments in small spaces can indeed be stressful. And understanding how a crew responds to the challenges of a deep space mission is largely the point of this exercise.

What if you get halfway through the experience and can’t take it anymore? This is another question you’ll want answered before you sign up. The answer would be simple if you really went to Mars, or even the space station. Once you’re on board, there’s no turning back.

One thing that kept us going during long missions on the ISS was having regular contact with friends and family on the ground. When I was there, even before live internet access was available on board, we still got email syncs about three times over a 24 hour period.

There was and still is a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone, a technology that allows you to make calls on board the ISS using broadband internet instead of an analog phone line, so astronauts can make short phone calls with people on the ground when the antenna is pointed at one of the satellites.

In a Mars simulation (or any future Mars mission for that matter) there would be a communication delay of about three to twenty minutes due to distance, so real-time communication would not be practical.

I also doubt there will be internet connectivity during the year, so don’t count on surfing the internet. The ground crew can still send things to you, and you can send things back, but it won’t be like sitting at home in front of your laptop.

One more thing: on board the ISS, our favorite thing to do when we had free time was to look out the windows and take pictures of our beautiful home planet. Although there will be windows on a Mars spacecraft, Earth will turn into a star quite quickly and you won’t be able to see much because the sunlight – which you will always be in – washes out the starlight and everything you see around you. is black.

On the simulator there are probably no windows at all, to make it more insulating. Are you the type who can stay in a room without windows for a long time? I guess you would at least have movies and photos on your laptop. That would help, but obviously it wouldn’t be the same.

How did I manage to live in close confinement with a handful of other people for an extended period of time? Well, the ISS is bigger than the Mars simulator. But once you set your expectations about the limited space you have and the long period of time you’ll be away, you’ll probably be fine. And as for homesickness, you may not have time for that. After all, most days you’ll be very busy – and that’s a good thing. In fact, it would be terrible to have too much free time!

How would this experience change you? Spaceflight – especially long-duration spaceflight – has an effect on all astronauts, and it is generally a positive change. Many of us are undergoing a recalibration of perspective and taking a “bigger picture” of life. But some astronauts do have reentry issues to work through.

For example, some astronauts need time to readjust to being busy or even dealing with their own small children. These are generally short-term issues, but they are still something to think about.

Finally, in your year aboard the Mars simulator, you will most likely miss some of the things I missed most. Besides family and friends, with whom I had fairly good contact, especially via email, I missed nature. I missed feeling the wind on my face, watching birds flying, squirrels running around.

As soon as the spacecraft hatch opened after landing from my ISS mission, I smelled grass. It was a wonderful smell and it brought back a flood of memories. I knew I was back on earth. I knew I was home.

If you still decide to apply and get selected, you may feel the same after your long mission even if you never get off the ground. And if you are selected and decide to participate in this simulation: good luck!

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