I live in California’s Bay Area, so for the last week and a half I’ve joined around seven million people in a shelter-in-place mandate. While my family is adjusting to this new normal, I’ve been reminded of a previous time I made a massive adjustment: when I lived on Mars.
Thanks to the Mars Society, I took part in two Mars simulations in the southeastern Utah desert and one simulation in the Canadian high Arctic, only a few hundred miles from the North Pole. For each simulation I joined five men and women from around the world.
We had to quickly get to know each other and relentlessly work together in an extreme and remote environment.
Plus, we had to maintain the simulation—which meant that except for emergencies, no one could go outside without donning a mock spacesuit and passing through a dummy airlock.
Mars simulation in the Utah desert.
Today I’m “sheltering” at home with my husband, son, and father. We can go outside for a very small number of reasons, such as exercising and grocery shopping.
That’s it! Although we’ve known each other for years, we’re facing entirely new pressures in how we live, work, and learn together.
Here’s what I learned from living on Mars, and how I think we can transform lessons from today’s Covid-19 crisis into a solid foundation for humanity’s future on Earth and off planet.
My immediate concern about sheltering in place? The mental-health effects of a loss of privacy. My home now has people in it all day, every day. Thanks to years spent working from home, I know that I need physical and mental space in regular doses.
During my Mars simulations, “home” was “The Hab,” a two-story metal can that rocked and groaned in a high wind.
Downstairs were the “airlocks”, the toilet, and the engineering and laboratory spaces; upstairs were the kitchen, the common area, a storage loft—plus six individual bedrooms.
In my windowless bedroom, which was so narrow I couldn’t stretch my arms out, I could close the door on my exhaustion, my homesickness, and the strain of interacting with a very, very small social group for a long and challenging period of time.
Privacy isn’t just about shutting other people out. It’s about dedicating space to being with yourself. Virginia Woolf famously said that to write (which to me means “to think”), you need money and a door with a lock on it.
Today, my home office lacks a door or even a fourth wall.
Even though my husband bought me some fancy noise-canceling headphones for Christmas, as a family we’re establishing norms to foster privacy, like wearing headphones by default and trading off child supervision so that at least one adult has some headspace.
The forging of new customs, rituals, and social norms around privacy will be crucial to future Mars colonists. Spaceships and early settlements may lack everyday sensory inputs, such as textures and scents, that support mental health; composting toilets and unwashed socks constantly remind you that you’re never really alone (although you’d be shocked by what you can get used to).
Could we use haptic tech and emerging digital olfactory technologies to build rich, private spaces? Would virtual reality have eased my yearning to feel the wind on my face when I was in sim? Today, those of us sheltering in place can still take a walk outside, but privacy at home remains a challenge—and no doubt, like our family, people are getting creative. The Covid-19 crisis may turn out to be the forcing function we need to answer these questions, and others.
We’ve all seen images of store shelves ransacked by panic-buying citizens. Interestingly, in my local stores, while toilet paper and hand sanitizer are in short supply, fruits and vegetables are easily available.
With the lockdown my family is no longer eating out (although we can still order takeout)—and with three full meals at home every day, we’re doing a lot of dishes.
But overall, our eating habits haven’t changed that much, since we already focus on whole, fresh foods.
For each Mars simulation, if we didn’t have it, we didn’t get it; there was no popping down to the store. Our Utah station eventually included a greenhouse, but when I was there, we had no fresh greens. We had no produce in the Arctic.
When a visiting reporter tried to eat a banana that he had brought with him, he was assaulted by six piercing gazes. He silently handed over the fruit, and we meticulously divided it into six pieces. That was the best bite of banana I’ve ever tasted.
I never understood Ernest Shackleton’s fixation on food until that day.
“Freshies,” as they call fresh produce today in Antarctica, clearly boost both physical and mental health in extreme environments. Freshies come with sounds, textures, and smells that can be intimately tied to normative, social memories.
I remember that single bite of banana with fondness, but my stomach lurches as I recall my desperate attempts to eat canned meat (eventually I gave up, which is not a nutrition-forward choice).
Food is central to our personal and social identities, as well as to our bodies.
When a reporter asked what would prevent me from joining a real Mars mission, I quickly responded, “If they don’t have cheese, I’m not going.” I wasn’t joking. Fortunately, a host of technologies, from 3D printing to indoor farming to cellular agriculture, may support the health and happiness of future space travelers and colonists.
Until then, revolutions in the future of agriculture and sustainable living will be crucial for supporting humans on Earth, including in the face of climate change and during times of crisis. While you’re under lockdown, be sure to treat your body right: eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, but skip the processed foods.
Your immune system (and your microbiome!) will thank you.
The phrase “social distancing” has exploded into our collective consciousness, but as the WHO has pointed out, our response to coronavirus needs to focus on “physical distancing.” Humans are social animals, including—perhaps especially—in times of crisis.
Our six-person simulation crews were international and slanted toward scientists and engineers; we first met at each simulation’s jumping-off point.
We were supported by a team in Colorado, who we contacted via email with a 30-minute delay (in Utah) or once per day (in the Arctic). Our relationships with our crewmates and support team evolved as we connected around projects and interests.
And yes, there was conflict, particularly as each simulation progressively impacted our health and made us more emotionally distant from our everyday lives.
Author de-suiting in the airlock.
To counteract those forces, we developed rituals, catchphrases, warning signals.
When I had something important to say, I’d tap my left shoulder with my right hand—because that is how I activated my radio when I wore my spacesuit outside.
When one of us was close to melting down, we’d head up to the storage loft, with its commanding view of a strange horizon. Coming down from the loft always meant hot chocolate (our cozy drink of choice for our daily haiku slams).
Technologies like video conferencing and virtual reality have the potential to establish new and meaningful rituals and interactions.
For these touchpoints, we shouldn’t just be thinking about translating physical interactions into digital forms, but also about crafting new, human-centered meanings that are nonetheless designed to exploit the affordances of digital existence.
If haiku and hot chocolate isn’t your thing, consider using a digital platform like Zoom to host board games, dance parties, happy hours—with the beverages of your choice, of course.
I think that supporting technologies will be important for closing not just gaps in space, but also gaps in time: a message from Earth takes as long as 22 minutes to reach Mars (hence our email delay in sim), and the reply needs the same time to come back. And that delay is just for the next planet over! Clever tech will be needed to bring us together across space and time.
Learning From Today to Design Tomorrow
Covid-19 is bringing us face-to-face with a host of uncertainties, pressures, and yes, catastrophes. But if we have the patience and courage to learn from this experience, we empower ourselves to build stronger, inclusive, and resilient futures on Earth and elsewhere.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from my Mars simulations is the benefit of slowing down and disconnecting.
On Mars, we each struggled to adapt to our new normal—and my simulations happened more than a decade ago, when people were far less dependent on connection. During each simulation, I pushed through that detox stage to a smaller, quieter world.
A world where I had time to watch a flower bloom on my lab bench. Where I would sit every day with the only five people in my orbit, sip hot chocolate, and laugh at our bad haikus.
Sheltering in my home in California, I’m looking for positive touchpoints every day.
While I’m anxious that my business is down, I’m finding gratitude for and ways to use the time that I’ve gained from my new commute-free, travel-free life. I see my neighbors more often now, although from a safe six feet away.
My son helps to cook dinner most nights, since we’re not dashing in the door frantic with hunger. We’re developing new rituals and evolving old ones.
Am I nervous about the future? Yes. I’m also changing, and just like I came home from Mars a different person each time, I expect to be a different person when this immediate crisis passes.
I refuse to be consumed by Covid-19 and its fallout. Instead, I’m seeking ways to catalyze a better future. Hard-earned insights from today’s crisis have the potential to transform life here on Earth, as well as humanity’s next chapter.
No matter where we go from here, we have this moment to define what matters to us, as individuals and as a species. As futurist Anne Lise Kjaer recently wrote, Covid-19 is forcing us to “build windmills and harness the winds of change.
” Are you ready to build a windmill to power your future?
Image Credit: Tiffany Vora
How would you survive on Mars?
Members of Purdue University’s new Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats Institute are studying the hurdles in building habitats like this on the moon or Mars. Credit: Purdue University photo/RETH Institute
The Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats Institute is working to ensure that the first long-term settlement on other planetary bodies are safe from hazards such as a meteoroid colliding with the moon or violent sandstorms on Mars.
Shirley Dyke, head of Purdue University's RETH Institute, said she noticed that the habitats on other planets portrayed on TV don't look realistic. In order to keep occupants alive, a habitat system on another planet would have to be much more sophisticated, even smart.
“We decided to start looking not at how do we get to Mars, but rather how do we thrive there once we arrive,” said Dyke, a professor of mechanical and civil engineering. “How do we actually build habitats that can sustain life and deal with all the hazards but still keep people comfortable and keep things moving in terms of exploration and science?”
As part of the research, the RETH Institute will build a quarter-scale habitat as realistically as possible in Purdue's Herrick Labs. This structure with the various subsystems would allow some components to be physically tested, while others are examined in a virtual context.
“The idea is we can swap pieces in and out to examine different aspects of the habitat system,” Dyke said. “We can look at the interactions among the subsystems and understand how to make them robustly perform the way they need to.”
The research is focused on three specific habitat characteristics: resilience, intelligence and autonomy. The goal is to develop smart habitats that can respond to changes and anything that could go wrong during a mission and still maintain the integrity and safety of the occupants and science inside.
Dyke said the resilience level is key to the work, creating habitats that can stand up to any number of hazards. That includes some not normally a problem on Earth.
“The biggest issue is the extreme hazards these habitats are going to have to be able to deal with,” she said. “What happens when there is radiation exposure, a Marsquake or a sandstorm and how do we build a habitat that can survive and adapt to deal with all of those things.”
Part of the habitat's survival also is being aware of problems when they occur. Multiple types of sensing equipment will be investigated to determine the best way to monitor not only the structural status of the habitat, but also its systems, including life support and environmental controls.
Autonomous robotics also will be examined as a way of identifying, diagnosing and fixing structural and systematic issues when they occur.
“In an extreme environment such as space, if the HVAC goes out or if the structure is breached in some way, then the environmental controls are affected,” Dyke said. “Cascading failures can occur and you need to keep a tight rein on the condition of your habitat so if something goes wrong you have to be able to fix it or be aware of the consequences if you don't.”
The RETH Institute is an interdisciplinary partnership of as many as 21 researchers from Purdue and three other universities and two industrial partners to study what is necessary for otherworldly habitats.
The initial RETH research began in 2017 at Purdue through funding from the Provost's Office. The creation of the RETH Institute recently was announced as as part of funding totaling $15 million over a five-year period from NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate.
Dyke said ultimately the goal of the habitat is to serve humans. But not every module will have a continuous human presence.
“Periodically, humans are going to show up and the habitat has to be ready for them,” she said. “The habitat has to transition to a state where humans can come in, live there comfortably, and after a month or two, leave. Then the habitat will continue operating until the next time humans are there.”
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Can we survive on Mars?
If you believe the news, a human mission to Mars is no longer a sci-fi fantasy. But what problems would we need to overcome? And should we even try?
The Horizon Probe is about to make its closest approach to the dwarf planet Pluto, having completed an eye-watering nine-year, three-billion-mile voyage. Pluto is so distant that it lies in the Kuiper Belt, a region of the Solar System beyond the planets. This raises the possibility that space travel might one day be boundless.
For now, though, all eyes are on Mars, a mere 180-day journey away and a possible target for a future human colony. And this isn't merely science fiction—the space race has already began.
The Mars One settlement
One example is Dutch company Mars One, which plans to launch a one-way-trip with four astronauts to Mars, landing in 2027. Additional crews will join them every two years to form a colony.
Sceptics largely dismiss Mars One as a stunt, but a more viable proposition is Nasa’s Orion, the first mission since Apollo designed to take humans into deep space.
A return trip to Mars is planned for the 2030s.
In preparation for this, Nasa and the European Space Agency (ESA) are studying Mars with a host of spacecraft, in an attempt to solve the mystery of how Mars lost most of its atmosphere. In 2021, Nasa’s rover will test an experimental weather station on Mars and also a device to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.
Much has been discovered already. Two of the most exciting finds this year concern water, one of the vital ingredients for life as we know it.
Using powerful infrared telescopes, Nasa scientists have confirmed that Mars once had more water than the Arctic Ocean, and some of this remains locked up in Martian polar caps.
The Hubble Space Telescope, meanwhile, discovered yet more water beneath the surface of Jupiter’s largest moon Ganymede—another future space destination.
How do we get to Mars?
The furthest we have sent astronauts is to the moon, about 240,000 miles away. This is small fry compared to the 35-million-mile journey to Mars. Reaching the red planet will require some serious hardware.
Nasa will use its new heavy-lift rocket the Space Launch System (SLS) to propel Orion—the new generation of spacecraft—into space. The SLS is more powerful than any previous rocket, firing over 8.4 million pounds of thrust, equal to 135 Boeing 747s.
The computers running the software on Orion have the ability to handle 480 million instructions per second.
Can humans live on Mars? You asked Google – here’s the answer | Ian Sample
Wanted: men and women to leave the birthplace of humanity and the only safe haven in the solar system for an interminable voyage in a cramped container with people you will probably learn to hate.
Destination: the freezing, airless, highly irradiated and irredeemable wasteland we call Mars.
Must be willing to live in a pressurised pod, drink crewmates’ recycled urine and endure disgraceful broadband service.
Hollywood has a knack for bringing excitement to Mars, but the foundation of any tension invariably lies in the fact that anyone who goes wants to come back, because it’s downright hostile and Earth was never that bad, that dangerous, or that doomed in the first place.
Visionaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk want us to colonise other planets to safeguard the future of the species. They have a point. But if we can’t survive on the planet we evolved to live on – the only life-nurturing planet we know – it’s hard to see us making a great fist of it elsewhere.
Another hitch: we’re nowhere near ready to leave.
As the crow flies, the shortest distance from Earth to Mars is 55m km, but Mars missions fail as often as they succeed.
In the past, spacecraft have crashed into the surface, burned up in the atmosphere or barrelled on by.
Instead of taking the shortest route, they typically follow more efficient trajectories that take about eight months one-way. That’s a long time to be cooped up with a bunch of strangers.
Aware of the potential for things to go wrong, space agencies have run several simulated missions to Mars by locking would-be spacefarers into pretend spaceships and watching how they cope.
A 520-day European Space Agency simulation found that some men developed sleep problems, particularly on the long “return” leg, despite having plenty of music, books, DVDs and computer games for entertainment. It didn’t help that communications to the outside world have a 30- to 40-minute delay. But it’s the boredom that hurts the most, apparently.
In Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, a retired cosmonaut confesses to the mind-numbing boredom of space station life. “I wanted to hang myself,” he said. Which, he goes on to point out, isn’t that easy in weightless conditions.
Life on Earth is protected against the intense radiation of the solar wind and cosmic rays by the planet’s magnetic field. Once Mars-bound travellers pass through the field, they must be shielded by other means.
Some of the most harmful radiation is in the form of high-energy protons, which can be stopped by hydrogen-rich substances, such as water and polyethylene.
In principle, a spacecraft’s water tanks – topped up with filtered urine – and even the crew’s waste food packaging could be used as shielding in transit. But more sophisticated materials are on the horizon.
Nasa is developing hydrogenated boron nitride nanotubes that can be woven into threads, potentially to make suits that absorb the damaging particles. They are an ever-present danger that would cause radiation sickness and cancer in those exposed.
Life on Mars | Can We Live on Mars?
Welcome to Apollo Week, celebrating 50 years since the Apollo 11 mission, explaining what it means today, and exploring how its legacy will shape the future of space exploration.
Our fascination with the Red Planet is understandable. Proving that humans can survive (and thrive) as an interplanetary species would completely change our society. But the challenges facing NASA—or any other outfit willing to make the long trek—are monumental.
These are the biggest hurdles that stand between us and Mars, and how the moon might be the perfect place to help prepare us for the Red Planet.
Challenge 1: The Orbit
You can’t just point and shoot. Do that and your spacecraft will miss Mars. So, rocket scientists use a maneuver called a Hohmann transfer orbit to send a vehicle from a small circular orbit (say, Earth’s) to a larger one (Mars’s).
The transfer orbit must be timed precisely so that when the spacecraft leaves Earth it arrives at destination orbit at the same time Mars reaches the same position.
Earth and Mars only come into the right orbital alignment for a Hohmann transfer once every 26 months to allow a survivable six-month journey with the use of available propulsion techniques.
How Going Back to the Moon Helps: It would be relatively easy for a Mars-bound vehicle to “stop by” Gateway at its very high orbit at a relatively low cost in terms of propellant and velocity change.
Challenge 2: The Long Away Mission
Could There Be Life on Mars Today?
The search for life on Mars shouldn't focus exclusively on the distant past, some researchers say.
Four billion years ago, the Martian surface was apparently quite habitable, featuring rivers, lakes and even a deep ocean. Indeed, some astrobiologists view ancient Mars as an even better cradle for life than Earth was, and they suspect that life on our planet may have come here long ago aboard Mars rocks blasted into space by a powerful impact.
Things changed when Mars lost its global magnetic field. Charged particles streaming from the sun were then free to strip away the once-thick Martian atmosphere, and strip it they did.
This process had transformed Mars into the cold, dry world we know today by about 3.7 billion years ago, observations by NASA's MAVEN orbiter suggest.
(Earth still has its global magnetic field, explaining how our planet remains so livable.)
Related: The Search for Life on Mars (a Photo Timeline)
But this turn of events doesn't necessarily mean that Mars is a dead planet today.
“If Mars had life 4 billion years ago, Mars still has life. Nothing has happened on Mars that would've wiped out life,” said Michael Finney, co-founder of The Genome Partnership, a nonprofit organization that runs the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology conferences.
“So, if there were life on Mars, it may have moved around, it may have gone into hiding a bit, but it's probably still there,” Finney said last month during a panel discussion at the Breakthrough Discuss conference at the University of California, Berkeley.