Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What are Mars Analogue Missions Really Studying?

While various parties argue back and forth about whether humanity has progressed far enough technologically to colonize Mars, technology alone will not determine the success of such a venture. Interpersonal relationships and how the first colonists are able to work together to augment their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses will also be an incredibly important element in producing success. With this in mind NASA and other space-based organizations have undertaken occasional training experiments or analogue missions in an attempt to simulate a mission to Mars. These missions typically take place in specific locations in Hawaii or Antarctica, which are suitable for simulating Martian environment as far as Earth can simulate Mars; however, do these analogue missions have the appropriate goals and tasks for the participating individuals to properly simulate a Martian colonization party?

The major goal of these simulation experiments is to access how different individuals interact with each other over a fixed continuous time period in a confined space, simulating conditions in both travel to Mars and after landing, in effort to understand and predict potential positive and negative behavior among the colonizing party. However, the environment these individuals are commonly thrust into is not similar to that which will be faced by the initial colonists. While the inside habitat-outside habitat transition is properly simulated through the use of space suits, the activities of the participants within the habitat are more focused on specific scientific studies, not on building and developing the operational structure of the shelter. In short these experiments focus too much on simulating a developed Martian habitat versus a developing one.

For example one of the first major issues for a Martian colonization mission is that there is little to no food growth on site. The first colonists will bring a significant amount of food with them when first traveling to Mars, but almost every expert is in agreement that the development of some means to grow sufficient amounts of food on Mars will have to occur soon after arrival for it is too costly to continue to re-supply from Earth. Unfortunately these simulations experiments do not appear to be modeling this critical element for Mars colonization. This lack of planning is a missed opportunity because there are questions to what is the most effective way to grow food on Mars and various simulations starting from scratch could produce important information to determining which method would be the most successful in a real colonization mission. Every scientist and engineer knows that laboratory simulations/conclusions and in-field simulation/conclusions can differ radically.

One of the sub-questions on this issue is what type of food growth system would be optimal for Martian colonization both in the interim and for expansion. Various options, such as hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, cultivating Martian soil, etc. exist and analogue missions would be an effective means to produce higher quality costs, effort and efficiency estimates of these system, both alone and in cooperation with each other, apart from ISS analysis and laboratory hypotheses. Aeroponics is NASA’s leader in the “clubhouse”, but would it work well as the initial on-site food provider for the first Martian colony?

Furthermore due to the significant reduction in gravity on Mars, colonists will have to engage in a rigorous exercise program to reduce the potency of negative physiological effects associated with the loss of this gravity. Simulating the necessary exercise in these analogue missions cannot help study how it influences health on Mars due to the lack of similar gravity, but it can help study how such levels of vigorous exercise would influence energy levels and food consumption along with interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately this potentially valuable information is not acquired in these simulations because the participants are not instructed to exercise in such a way.

Another important connective element that is lacking in these simulations, due in large part to the lack of these above elements, is the changes in stress that would accompany this behavior and these goals. While it is not ethical to emulate the life threatening conditions that failure would bring, general failure to complete necessary tasks would create tension and stress through challenges to the pride of the individuals involved, thus would better emulate real Martian colonization conditions. In these moments of stress, potential problems within the group dynamics can be identified that would not exist when stress levels were not increased leading to a better understanding of how to manage failures in the real colonizing party.

In the end analogue missions are important for various reasons and while human factor elements are certainly important to study and general simulation research strategies have their place, there needs to be more simulations that mimic what colonists will experience when first landing on Mars to better create a methodology regarding how to maximize success for the Martian colonization mission. Overall without expanding the scope of analogue missions to reflect the realities of Martian colonization, one wonders what the point of conducting these missions in the first place actually is, for they are certainly not preparing colonists for the most important part of the colonization, establishing the environment and behaviors to increase the probability of long-term survival.

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