Red Planet roommates have been stuck on 'Mars' together for 100 days

Simulation milestone coincides with NASA's 65th birthday – will it manage the real thing before its centenary?

NASA has celebrated its 65th birthday by marking 100 days of its first attempt to simulate a yearlong mission Mars mission.

The four-person crew entered the CHAPEA (Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog) habitat at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston on June 25 to begin a 378-day Mars surface simulation.

October 3 marked 100 days since the doors were closed. Since then, the crew has been carrying out the types of activities NASA hopes astronauts will perform should any manage to reach the Martian surface.

The habitat comprises 1,700 square feet (157.8m2) and includes living and exercise areas and space for crop growth. According to NASA, the crop growth system inside CHAPEA is similar to indoor home gardening setups with water, nutrients, and lighting.

Since NASA wants to simulate a food system similar to that planned for Mars missions – where food supplies will be sent ahead of the crew – there is considerable interest in the physiological and psychological benefits of growing something fresh.

Other activities performed include trips into a 1,200-square-foot (111m2) sandbox simulating the surface of the Red Planet, performing robotic operations, and maintaining the habitat.

Communication with the outside world is via a link that simulates the delay future explorers will experience. However, unlike those astronauts, CHAPEA's volunteer crew can opt to walk out at any time. After all, the mission is a test of mental endurance as much as anything else and a validation of techniques to deal with both isolation and having to be locked up for a year with three other crew members.

CHAPEA is the latest in a long line of mission simulations, some of which have not gone entirely to plan. In 1972, a 56-day simulation of a Skylab mission – known as the Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test (SMEAT) – was conducted to evaluate equipment and procedures proposed for the Skylab space station.

65 years of NASA

At the time of SMEAT, NASA was approaching the 14th anniversary of its creation, having begun operations on October 1, 1958.

The civilian agency was formed in response to the perceived pace of Soviet developments in space and, via Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, succeeded in landing a crew on the surface of the Moon and returning them to Earth.

The agency is now 65 and, in terms of human spaceflight, continues to be best known for the achievements of its earlier years rather than the decades spent circling the Earth in the Space Shuttle.

With CHAPEA and the upcoming Artemis missions, managers will be fervently hoping to recapture some of that human exploration excitement before the centenary rolls around. ®

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