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Mock Mission to Mars Tests Psychological Rigors of Long-Distance Space Travel

July 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
As astronauts and scientists are getting set for the end of the space shuttle era in the United States, science correspondent Miles O'Brien looks at how the Russians have been preparing for the rigors of future flights to Mars with a simulated mission here on Earth. But can space travel's stresses really be faked?
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, as astronauts and scientists are getting set for the end of the space shuttle era in the United States, NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien looks at how the Russians have been preparing for the rigors of future flights to Mars.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s a long journey into time, not space, a mission to Mars and back that never got off the ground, by design.

MAN: My family, I miss them a lot, and my friends. Well, in general, I miss a lot the randomness of the world.

MILES O’BRIEN: Six men are now on their way back home, virtually, more than a year after they virtually launched, six months after they landed on Mars, also virtually.

MAN: Well, after one year inside our house, I am feeling good. We have had a lot of fun together. But we also went though some long period of monotony. And even through those periods, we always kept a good spirit together.

MILES O’BRIEN: Welcome to the Mars500 isolation experiment, where they are simulating many of the psychological aspects of a real mission to the red planet five miles from Red Square.

Three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese, all volunteers, stepped into a windowless, hermetically sealed mock spacecraft at the Institute of Biomedical Problems on June 3 of 2010, hoping not to break the seal for 520 days. That matches the six-month flight to and from Mars, plus a month to explore the surface.

ELENA FEICHTINGER, Mars500: The main task for us is to create a team who is really able to come through this long mission to Mars and, what is more important, to come back.

MILES O’BRIEN: Living in tight quarters with tight rations and limited water, they have conducted experiments, maintained systems, exercised, grappled with simulated power and communication outages, a fall while two of them walked in bulky suits on a mock Mars, and, in between, tried to stave off boredom in some creative ways.

ELENA FEICHTINGER: I have for you today a very nice message.

MILES O’BRIEN: Communication is not in real time — the farther the distance from Earth, the longer the delay. So, to interview them, I had to submit questions and then wait.

What’s the most important attribute in a person who would go on a mission to Mars?

ROMAIN CHARLES, ESA/Mars500: I think that the two necessary attributes would be tolerance and open-mindedness, because we are an international crew and environment. So we need to be able to understand and cope with all the others’ traditions.

MILES O’BRIEN: The Russians first began simulating long space missions in 1968, but also have lots of experience with the real thing on the Salyut, Mir and International space stations.

So, why bother with this cross between space camp and a reality show? Former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao logged 190 days aboard the International Space Station starting in 2004. He says there is scientific value in this odd mission.

So, it’s not space camp on steroids?

LEROY CHIAO, former NASA astronaut: No, I don’t think this is any fun.

(LAUGHTER)

LEROY CHIAO: This is a — I mean, it’s a serious study. You’re basically going away for over a year, and you didn’t even knock off a convenience store or anything.

(LAUGHTER)

MILES O’BRIEN: Chiao trained in Russia and went to the station on a Russian rocket with a Russian cosmonaut crewmate. He says, over the years, the Russians have learned a lot about selecting compatible crews.

Are the Russians better at this right now, simply because they have more experience?

LEROY CHIAO: I think so. I think so. I think we’re — we have learned to listen to them and take this — make — know that this is important and take it into consideration.

But because they have been doing it longer, and they do a lot more psychological evaluation, if you will, a lot of it which is pooh-poohed by — or was at least in my time — was pooh-poohed by NASA medical folks as kind of hocus-pocus and unnecessary.

MILES O’BRIEN: Indeed, when NASA first put its toe in the long-duration space pool with Skylab in 1973, crew selection wasn’t a science at all.

Owen Garriott spent 60 days aboard Skylab and got along famously with his crewmates, not necessarily by design.

How much time was spent thinking about the psychological rigors in advance?

OWEN GARRIOTT, Skylab astronaut: Interesting question. We had a psychiatrist assigned to us. And I remember a telephone I got after the flight, which was my first conversation with the psychiatrist. And so, yes, there was one. But I would say there was minimal, minimal interaction.

MILES O’BRIEN: But those were different days. The astronauts were a homogeneous lot.

OWEN GARRIOTT: They were all test pilots. They flew together. They had trained together. They all had similar backgrounds, so there was no problem.

But that’s not the kind of crew you’re going to have for an international flight to Mars. You have got to have all of the disciplines, all of the genders and perspective and ages and so forth. You need to take some extra time that we didn’t have to do at the very beginning of the space program.

MILES O’BRIEN: But how best to know who will get along?

Norm Thagard spent 115 days on the Russian space station Mir in 1995. Count him a Mars500 skeptic.

Tell me about this idea of trying to simulate these missions, the Mars500. Is that useful?

NORM THAGARD, former NASA astronaut: I’m not a fan of the simulations. To me, it’s like practicing pain. You can never duplicate the fact that the real crew would be on a mission with a specific purpose, and these folks are just trying to live through a long-duration simulation.

MILES O’BRIEN: NASA is not participating directly in Mars500. Believe it not, a nuclear non-proliferation law prohibits it. But the agency has conducted similar isolation studies in the past. And NASA experts on human physiology and psychology in space are watching the Mars500 effort closely.

Dr. John Charles is among them.

DR. JOHN CHARLES, NASA Johnson Space Center: I don’t think anybody knows the answer for what the right formula is for the composition of a crew, except that they’re going to have to be obviously brave, daring, self-reliant and capable of responding to any kind of unanticipated — unanticipated situation.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, there’s no manual for this?

DR. JOHN CHARLES: Not at the moment. Hopefully, by 2029, there will be.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re writing the manual.

DR. JOHN CHARLES: Yes. We’re doing the research that will go into the manual.

MILES O’BRIEN: NASA is eying the International Space Station as a site for interplanetary mission simulations.

BILL GERSTENMAIER, NASA Space Operations: So, what we think we can do is, we can use the station to demonstrate a portion of that 180-day transit to Mars.

MILES O’BRIEN: Bill Gerstenmaier is head of space operations for NASA. Starting next summer, he hopes to simulate Mars mission on the space station by limiting communication, shutting the window blinds, and reducing the size of astronaut quarters.

BILL GERSTENMAIER: The thing that we can learn is how do you really prepare the astronauts for that autonomy? And there may actually be some benefit to the autonomy. We have gotten in this mode where they can call down and ask. But maybe there’s some advantage for some research activities where they’re better off doing their own research.

MILES O’BRIEN: In a simpler, more shoestring, campy kind of way, that is what this simulation is all about. An advocacy group called the Mars Society stages mock missions to the red planet on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic and in the Utah desert.

Volunteers live in a small habitat, limit their food and water intake, and only step outside in pretend space suits to try and see what challenges astronauts might encounter doing field work on Mars.

Aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin is the founder of the Mars Society.

ROBERT ZUBRIN, Mars Society: People can take isolation. But what the mission is about is field exploration.

Here, we have a wet chemistry lab.

MILES O’BRIEN: Zubrin is the leading proponent of a relatively inexpensive, bold, risky piloted mission to the red planet that he details in a book titled “The Case for Mars.”

He says humans can reach Mars with three launches of a heavy-lift rocket that is on the drawing board at California-based Space Exploration Technologies. There would be two staging missions, and a third launch which would carry two astronauts to the surface.

If a president stood up today and said, we choose to go to Mars, could NASA do it?

ROBERT ZUBRIN: I think we could do it within 10 years. I think the technological challenges are significantly less than those involved in going to the moon were in the 1960s, relative to our current level of space technology and technology in general.

MILES O’BRIEN: But NASA believes Mars direct is way too risky. And, besides, there is no Mars program, only vague hints that the agency is headed in that direction, now that the space shuttle era is over.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.

(APPLAUSE)

MILES O’BRIEN: Not exactly a “We choose the moon” rallying cry.

So, for space enthusiasts who would like to see humans on Mars, simulations and animations may be all there is for many years to come.

So, how do you respond to those who say this simulation is inherently flawed because you know in the back of your mind that, if something should go wrong, you’re still on Earth?

DIEGO URBINA, ESA/Mars500: We do the best that we can with the tools we have on hand. And there is — it is known for a fact that isolation itself is — is a very big — very big issue. And it produces — it has a lot of consequences on your body and on your mind.

MILES O’BRIEN: And no matter how much they learn about those consequences, without the mandate and the money to go explore for real, it will remain a mission to nowhere.