NASA is currently focused on the next two Artemis missions, the second of which will put humans back on the lunar surface for the first time in 50 years.
The missions will pave the way for a permanent lunar base that will act as a stop-off point for crewed missions to Mars, the first of which could take place in the 2030s.
NASA already knows it can land rovers on the red planet, but getting humans there — and back again — is another challenge entirely.
With a crewed mission possibly lasting several years (just getting there will take around nine months), NASA needs to be sure any crew can exist together safely and harmoniously in a unique environment far from home.
To learn more about how humans deal with off-Earth conditions over a long period of time, NASA will put four volunteers inside a specially designed simulated Mars habitat for an entire year from this summer.
Installed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and shown off to the press this week, the CHAPEA (Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog) habitat comprises a 1700-square-foot space with around nine rooms, including private bedrooms, a shared bathroom and toilet, and a common space.
The facility was built using large 3D printers, also part of research to see if similar construction methods can be used on Mars.
During their stay, the four volunteers — each of whom has a science background but is not a trained astronaut — will live and work as a team, carrying out tasks similar to ones astronauts will carry out on the red planet.
These will include growing salad for food, conducting scientific research, going on “Marswalks,” and operating an array of robotic machinery over the course of their 12-month stay.
To ensure the experience is as realistic as possible, the volunteers will also be forced to deal with environmental demands such as isolation, resource limitations, and equipment failure, NASA said. Indeed, the monitoring of each person’s physical and mental state is an important part of the exercise.
The inhabitants will be able to keep in touch with family and friends, but communications will face a 20-minute delay just like they do between Earth and Mars. That means regular calls are out of the question, with video messages and emails likely to offer the best way of staying in touch.
“We’re going to be very limited, more limited than on the International Space Station, significantly so,” NASA principal investigator Dr. Grace Douglas said in a TV news report (below).
If any of the inhabitants find they’re unable to handle the extreme conditions for a whole 12 months, they’ll be allowed to leave the facility, and NASA has a couple of back-up members who can step in. However, any future Mars inhabitants who start to feel the strain will face a bigger challenge if they, too, want to abandon their mission.