According to Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, establishing a permanent presence beyond Earth is the first step humans will take towards the “divergence into a new species”. Plans to visit and even colonise Mars are no longer the subject of science fiction novels.
But before we can do that, we need to understand how humans can survive and thrive on Mars. Some of that we can do right here on Earth by simulating Mars-like conditions.
In the most recent such experiment, I was the crew commander of such an expedition in the high-altitude desert of Utah, the most Mars-like place on Earth. The crew were comprised of seven – two scientists, two engineers, a medical doctor, a journalist and a humanoid robot.
We were based at the Mars Desert Research Station, a facility replicating a planned NASA surface base on Mars. The Habitat Module was our home for 14 days. A two storey silo-shaped building with lab areas and living spaces, eight metres in diameter, it is built to fit atop a heavy-lift launch vehicle. Attached are a greenhouse and observatory.
With only 50m2 of living space in the Habitat Module, the idea of personal space was completely left behind as soon as we entered the simulation. If you were not within eye-shot of someone, you were certainly within ear-shot. If there were any disagreements within the crew, there really was nowhere to escape to. You simply could not just step outside for a breath of fresh air. Just to leave the Habitat Module required agreements with Mission Support the day before. Then you had to don a spacesuit that would act as a barrier between you and the harsh outside world. In such a tight and intense environment, it was easy for the smallest conflict to get amplified.