Mock and Real Mars habitats on Earth


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On January 31, 2020 the Mars Society issued a press release touting its newest mock Mars habitat mission to its Mars research station in the high desert of Utah.

During this mission, one crew is operating at MDRS, while a second crew works out of the MAU habitat, which consists of a series of interlocking geometric tents that house crew quarters and a research area. The crew is made up of medical professionals who are testing how two teams on the same planet would collaborate on emergency medical procedures.

Located in southern Utah, MDRS serves as a home base for crews participating in Mars surface simulation testing and training. Depending on the individual crew’s specialization, its scientific focus ranges from geology to engineering, communications to human factors, robotics to microbiology. A wide variety of scientific and engineering research and educational outreach are typically conducted by crews at MDRS.

The newly-arrived MAU participants (designated as Crew 220) have set up their temporary second habitat close to MDRS, with part of the crew staying at the MDRS facility, while an additional crew is housed in the MAU-developed habitat out of sight of the main station. Halfway through the mission, the crews will rotate stations, thereby allowing each team an opportunity to experience both operational habitats.

While this simulated mission will certainly learn a few things about long term isolation by small crews, it does not appear to me to be a very real simulation of living on Mars. While the MDRS facility is quite sophisticated, it isn’t an entirely closed system. Moreover, the environment here, even in winter, does not come close to simulating the Martian environment. It is too warm and it has is a full atmosphere. And it certainly is not isolated. If someone gets seriously ill, or the facility experiences an irreversible failure, immediate evacuation is always an option.

Still, the Mars Society has been using this facility for simulating Mars missions since 2001, and has completed eighteen field seasons involving more than 1,200 participants. I am sure they have accumulated a great deal of useful data that can be applied on future Mars missions.

However, the U.S. has been running a much more realistic Mars simulation habitat since just after the end of World War II, and it appears that few realize it.

I discovered this fact myself upon reading a superb book, Icebound: A doctor’s incredible battle for survival at the South Pole, written by Dr. Jerri Nielsen with Maryanne Vollers (Scribner, 2001). In this book Nielson tells her experience of wintering over the 1998-1999 season as the doctor at the South Pole U.S. station, and while there discovering that she has a fast growing breast tumor.

Well written and a page turner, Icebound describes the tension and difficulty of treating her cancer long distance, the risky improvised airdrop that brought her needed medicines during that winter when no flights could land, and the effort to get her out of there early so that full treatment could begin.

What struck me however was the nature of the place and the experience of living at a polar station that had to manage on the supplies on hand, during an arctic winter with no sun and temperatures routinely colder than -90 degrees Fahrenheit. In many more ways that the situation at the Mars Society’s Utah facility, the U.S. South Pole station did a great job of simulating closely what living at an early Mars base will be like.

Interestingly, some of the differences would like make living on Mars easier then at that 1999 station. Because of the lack of full atmosphere on Mars, any Mars base must be sealed from the outside environment. At the south pole, they did not do this, so that the inside temperatures were generally colder than one would like. This also meant that the crews were somewhat oxygen-starved by the end of the mission, as the facility was also at about 9,000 feet elevation and thus had a thinner atmosphere then what you’d likely find inside a Martian base.

Similarly, any facility on Mars would likely be located in a mid- to low latitude, meaning it would always have a day-night cycle. Its inhabitants would not have to struggle through six months without sunlight.

At the same time, the extreme coldness and the dry but icy environment made the South Pole a very close match for Mars. Its isolation, requiring a careful watch on the use of water, food, and electricity, was also quite like one would expect on Mars. Nielson’s improvised cancer treatment and her rescue also matched closely what future Martian settlers will experience once they have landed there and are separated from Earth. Like Nielson, they will have to fend for themselves, figuring out solutions to problems with the things on hand.

Nielson lived for another decade, eventually passing away in 2009 when her cancer returned. She left behind however a great instruction manual for future Martian explorers. I highly recommend everyone who wishes to spend a field season at the Mars Society research station to read it to help them prepare for the experience.

I also think that Elon Musk as well as all would-be engineers of Martian colonies must read it. It will help ground in reality their dreams of living on Mars.

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11 comments

  • Jerry Greenwood

    The Mars simulations here on earth probably glean more information on the psychological aspect of a Mars mission then the nuts and bolts issues of actually being on Mars. Engineers can work out the engineering issues right here but dealing with human interactions under very stressful conditions will be the most difficult aspect of the mission. Biosphere 2 is a great example of how a mission can be jeopardized by the participants (although the engineering side of the project missed some basic issues that caused major problems).

  • Jerry Greenwood: I actually disagree, strongly. The problems of people interacting and living together in close quarters has been vastly overstated by bureaucratic doctors for decades. It will not be a serious issue.

    Far more challenging will be solving the untold engineering problems required for people to survive well in these hostile environments.

    In fact, the book I recommend in this post illustrates my point perfectly. The people managed well with the social issues (there were problems but they figured out how to deal with them). The engineering issues however were far more difficult.

  • wodun

    Need windows that can shield from radiation and still let in light and plenty of places for solitude and mingling.

  • Brendan

    I have been thinking about this problem Bob, and it occurs to me that it could be solved in some ways (and would help here in earth too)! If there was an “open source” hospital (where many of these things can be 3D printed or created with expanded aluminum.

    https://www.who.int/medical_devices/survey_resources/medical_devices_by_facility_provincial_hospitals_kenya.pdf

    I’m going to mull it over a bit but I think this could be created by a bunch of space enthusiast engineers.

  • Brendan: That chart, describing the cost to build a hospital, is very depressing. It reminds me of what rocket companies said it had to cost to launch a rocket three decades ago. Their claims were absurd (as is this chart). You can always do it for less. All you need is competition, a willingness to accept new ideas, and freedom.

    I wonder however if the medical field today has any of those things. It seems to me that federal regulation has squelched it all, so that no one can build or run a small hospital efficiently or inexpensively.

  • Brendan

    I agree. A table for 23000? That’s why I think an open source hospital initiative would be useful. For instance x ray machines are old technology. It should be possible to create an X-ray similar to how this motor was made.

    https://insideevs.com/news/386297/infinitum-electric-printed-circuit-board-stator/

    Hmmm. I’m thinking of retiring and escaping California. This might be a good project.

    Love your work Bob. I’ve been a huge fan since I first heard you on John Batchelors show. Both of you are inspirations.

    Keep up the good work.

  • wayne

    Jerry–
    I would also agree with Mr. Z., ref the psychological aspects of functioning in Space. You can screen people quite effectively (although not perfectly) for operating in small groups under adverse conditions.
    –I’m glad you brought this up; just because one would like to experience life-in-space doesn’t necessarily imply one is physically or psychologically capable, and there is a measure of ‘the-weakest-link,’ in play in group dynamics.
    (I’m a huge believer in, “if anything can go wrong, it will,” and… “it’s always the 5 cent part that breaks.” so plan accordingly.)

    The South Pole comparison is more appropriate than these simulated environments, because there is an actual existential fear of imminent death. The environment is not-your-friend, and things can go terminally bad very fast.

    If you can walk away, you’re not really at risk. (I’m thinking Donner Pass in winter…. except for the cannibalism.)

  • wayne: Think of the sailing ships crossing the oceans. They did only minimal screening for crews. Things worked.

    Think of tribal cultures from the past, when the natural world was routinely a dangerous place. There was no screening at all. Humans survived, and in fact thrived, spreading across the entire globe.

    Humans know how to live with each other, and adapt, even when confined with no option for escape.

    The real challenge for building new colonies in space remains the hard engineering.

  • Cotour

    I have to agree strongly with Wayne here, Mars is a whole nother thing as far as exploration and human beings ability to stay sane and not dead. There was an element of the unknown in our earth bound explorations, on Mars all potentials and potential failings will be known and clearly understood. Some level of ignorance IS bliss, but not here.

    IMO it will take a certain kind of human being to voluntarily go on a trip that I think we can all agree they will not be returning from, at least initially anyway. And if you do not have that certain kind of human being the weakest link will certainly present all kinds of catastrophic problems that might include having to “remove” them from the equation when in situ.

    And those plans and the means to accomplish it I will assume will be under discussion.

  • Cotour

    And it IS all engineering in going to and existing on Mars.

    Nothing will exist if there does not exist the 100 percent engineered solution to survival here. There will not be any Robinson Caruso’s on Mars.

    Its going to take people like Col. Dan Macready (a real life Batman type) a specially chosen NASA astronaut.

    https://youtu.be/urccN0eKk3Y

  • Edward

    wayne wrote: “The South Pole comparison is more appropriate than these simulated environments, because there is an actual existential fear of imminent death.

    The advantage that I see for the MDRS facility is that it is a small habitat with tight quarters. It seems to me that they are working out details on how an actual lunar or Martian early habitat would best be arranged for human use. What I would like to see in the near future is similar testing of an actual habitat as built by Bigelow or other habitat company, to make sure that it works as intended, because if you can’t make it work on Earth, it probably won’t work on the Moon or on Mars. That is a part of the “hard engineering.”

    The purpose of the MAU tents is not clear to me, however.

    A few years ago, National Geographic produced a series called “Mars” in which they introduced a few hypothetical problems and worked out solutions. It was a little like “The Martian,” in that way.

    I will definitely read “Icebound,” as Robert suggested. Every major manned exploration has had problems, but the grandeur of the mission has turned most of those problems into the equivalent of footnotes. The Apollo program has three well known problems, Apollo 1, which killed its crew, Apollo 13, which almost killed its crew, and Apollo 11, which had some problems that make reviewing the landing much more exciting than we felt at the time. Nielson’s experience sounds like something that mission planners had always feared, and it will be interesting to see how the reality differed from what they had thought they could do in such a situation.

    Returning to the Moon and going to Mars will have their own harrowing moments. Hopefully we will have performed enough research, worked out enough engineering, and practiced enough problem solving to make these moments less life threatening.

    3D printing (additive manufacturing) hospital equipment may work out well, as this requires only raw materials be brought up, materials that could be formed into a large variety of equipment. There may be some parts that cannot be manufactured in place, but the overall concept is valid. Less contingency equipment needs to be taken along, as some of it can be manufactured as needed. Less storage space would be needed to store never-used equipment. The Made In Space company has this in mind as it makes space-compatible 3D printers.

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