Science Interviews


Mon, 19th Oct 2015

Simulating life on Mars

Ashley Dove-Jay, University of Bristol

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Could we ever Colonise Mars?

Once a settlement is established, and safe, what would people actually be doing on Mars? How would people cope with the cramped conditions and isolation? Ashley Dove-Jay is from Bristol University, and took part in a Mars simulation in the Utah Desert as part of a drive to examine some of these questions before we actually get there, as he explained to Kat Arney...

Ashley - So yeah, I was part of an astronauts on mars simulation study in collaboration with NASA, the European Space Agency, and about two dozen other entities. This study was conducted at the Mars Desert Research Station in the high altitude desert of Utah, a place chosen for its likeness to mars. I was actually the crew commander in a team of 7 scientists and engineers. Whilst being subjected to psychological and protocol studies, we conducted a wide range of experiments, all very relevant to pushing forward to the frontier in an effort to get people to mars.

Kat - Was it really an accurate reflection of what life would be like on mars? Did you have any contact with the outside world? How did it work?

Ashley - We tried to make it as accurate as possible. We really were isolated. Communications between us and mission support were delayed by between 3 and 21 minutes, depending on where Earth and mars are in their orbits. There's quite a significant time lag. So, we really had to be independent. Whenever we stepped outside to do field work, we had to get a spacesuit on. We were outside for limited periods of time with the limited oxygen supply we had. We took it as far as we could really, even the food we were eating was the kind of stuff you'd eat on mars - dehydrated powder, nothing more than that really. You don’t realise how much you missed chewing food.

Kat - Having done these programmes for three weeks, I am not cut out to go and be a Martian. Tell me again. How long were you there for?

Ashley - So, it was a two-week simulation. We conducted probably about two dozen experiments. everything from psychological studies to astrobiology work, rover testing, protocol testing, a whole range of things.

Kat - Did you have to cope with any emergencies? Were there any sort of simulations of things you might have to repair or unexpected situations to deal with?

Ashley - Yeah. This is the thing. Those people on mars, because of that time lag, need to be a lot more independent. So, if something goes wrong, they don’t have mission support to immediately lean on. They need to figure out their own way out of a problem. Now, what if you're out doing field work and your radio stops working? What if somebody out doing fieldwork sprains their ankle? How do you even pick up somebody that’s injured in a spacesuit in a safe way? How do you get them back to the habitat module? What if something more subtle has occurred to somebody and nobody really knows what to do? How do you communicate with mission support in the most efficient way to resolve that issue? There are thousands of questions like these that need to be addressed now before we go. That was one major aspect of what we were doing.

Kat - When we did the first in this series, we looked at the sort of the, what does it take to be an astronaut and the psychological side of it. I have to say, how was it being in that situation with people because I personally, I would be ready to kill if I was stuck in a small thing with the same people for two weeks?

Ashley - Well, that's the thing. Personal space is something you completely lose, if you're not within eye shot of someone, you're definitely within ear shot. The thing is, you're always in each other’s faces and if there's any disagreements, any arguments, the option to walk away is simply not there. You can't just step outside. You need to be able to diffuse these sorts of situations before they happen. For a mars mission, the one trait more than any for an astronaut to have is they have to have a cool head. They need to be slow to anger. In my opinion, psychology really is the single biggest risk factor when it comes to sending people to mars. We can't predict how people are going to behave in such a prolonged and intense environment. Almost every system around you is mission critical. If it fails, you die. How do people react to that over the long term?

Kat - In terms of an actual Martian mission, how much of it would be experiments, how much of it would be – would it actually be quite humdrum do you think? Did you get that feeling over the two weeks of the simulation?

Ashley - Well, in reality, you're on a trip to and from mars and one way, it’s about 6 months and most of that is going to be automated. So, you really are going to be sitting there twiddling your thumbs. How do you overcome that boredom? I am not quite sure. Read books, watch movies, who knows?

Kat - Having done that simulation, do you think you would actually go to mars if the opportunity came up? Would you go like, “Yeah, I'm going to sign up. I'm going to sign on the line.”?

Ashley - Personally, sure. But the senior management, my wife, I don’t think she’d allow that to happen.

Kat - In terms of more generally the kind of simulations that are going on around the world at the moment, do you think that they are really going to equip people to do this? I guess there's going to be things when we get up there, we just don’t know what's going to happen.

Ashley - Yeah. Well, we’re doing the best we can. There are more subtle things that we’re just not going to be able to figure out until we go there. As mentioned before, the lower gravity, what sort of effect is that going to have on the human body? Mars has a gravity that’s 38 per cent that of the Earth’s. Now, we’ve has astronauts in the International Space Station doing long term studies on what microgravity does to them, but we don’t know what 38 per cent gravity does to the human body. There's no real way of figuring that out until we go there.


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