Being a test subject on simulated Mars

[Version française sur le site de La Recherche]

Like a ship in a bottle. Metaphor suggested by Pete Roma.


Are your coworkers or roommates sometimes getting on your nerves? Imagine being roomies with your coworkers. Five of them. And imagine living with them for a year, without seeing or talking to anyone else and without any of you ever leaving your flat. Imagine that water, electricity and food are extremely precious and must be shared; nothing is yours. This under a high workload, with high responsibilities. Ah, and your coworkers/roommates all have very strong personalities. Astronauts on Mars will be exposed to such conditions.

We are researchers. We have been selected for profiles that match what is expected from the first astronauts on Mars, so we all have scientific and engineering skills of relevance for a mission to Mars. But here, we are also tests subjects. How do mental health, performances and interactions of a team of scientists evolve when isolated in a confined environment? We are here to figure it out.

So we are constantly monitored. First, with surveys; 7 a day at the very least. Some are about our health and mood: anyone sick or wounded? Anyone depressed, overeating or exhausted? Others are about between-crewmembers and mission support-crewmembers interactions. Who did one interact with lastly? Why? Was the interaction effective? Any fistfight over the last bag of chocolate chips? (OK, OK, I made the last one up.) Once a week, we also qualify the interactions between each possible pair of crewmembers. Among the possible adjectives: conflictual, professional, personal, flirtatious, and sexual (nope, I won’t reveal anything here). We also answer questions about the work we did that day, leisure time and so on.

Christiane answering surveys.

The main issue with surveys is their subjectivity. And because of the traits we’ve been selected for, we have an annoying tendency to state that everything is fine even in the worst situations. My crewmates joked that my last words will be “No, I’m alright!” and that even if my body was cut in two in a car accident, I would crawl out on my elbows and go back to work. On top if this, there is a clear gap between the answers of European and American crewmembers: when we Europeans are rather satisfied with something, we choose the “Rather satisfied” box. When the Americans did not cry in despair, they usually pick the “Satisfied to a very great extent” one. So, more objective methods are needed. The most obvious: video cameras. Some constantly film the main room, the kitchen and the area where we eat. Yes, we sometimes feel self-conscious.

Then, we wear sensors. Some, for instance, are worn around a wrist and document our heart rates, our physical activity and our sleep. And there are the badges: palm-sized sensors retained around our necks. Those mostly document our interactions: distances between us, who we are talking to, the tone we are using, how our body reacts to those interactions… You thought the cameras were invading our privacy? There are nothing compared to the badges. Besides, the latter are connected to heart rate sensors worn around our rib cage, which we cover with some gel for better contact. As you might have guessed, they are not very popular among crewmembers. Every evening, we fill in reports about the badges. When answering whether anything unusual happened to the badges that day, it is our pleasure to imagine scenarios where the badges usually end up in a lava tube, in cooking oil, or in the composting toilet. But we know how useful this data will be for dealing with social issues in long-term missions to Mars, so we stick to it.

We regularly take biological samples to quantify our stress levels, sometimes while conducting specific tasks. Saliva or urine samples are without notable consequence, but we all have a white square in the back of the head where hair samples are taken. I usually shave a 1-cm-by-1-cm area on my crewmates’ heads, but unfortunately I cannot shave my own head and the hair clipper has a tendency to slip when in my crewmates’ hands. Especially when I’ve forgotten dirty dishes in the sink.

Taking hair samples from Andrzej. Photo by Dr. Christiane Heinicke.

We take tests aimed at assessing the evolution of our performances, cognitive abilities and the way we cooperate. Those tests can be video games. No, probably not of the kind you are playing at home: nothing more exciting than dragging squares into other squares, with dilemmas opposing the team’s score and your personal score. They can also be negotiations: everyone is given their own objective, but decisions have to be an agreement between several crewmembers. During those tasks, the dome sounds like a souk. Other studies are series of cognitive tests, ranging from guessing the next item in a series to remembering shapes or recognizing facial expressions. Others are geology missions: figuring out the history of an area or the volume and density of specific features, finding lava tubes which we could use as shelters in case of solar flares, and so on. It involves going outside with space suits for hours (which some of us are happy to do) and analyzing data in the dome (which we are usually less enthusiastic about).

Christiane during a geology task.

We also test tools and technologies developed for Mars exploration: space suits, habitat systems, methods to deal with stress, conflicts and depression, virtual reality programs (with goggles giving you the feeling that you are somewhere else) for coping with isolation and confinement, etc.

Doing ANSIBLE, a virtual reality experiment.

And, finally, there are our own studies. Those are (among others) about medicine, drones, the production of resources such as water, food and oxygen, architecture and microbiology. But I will write about those in a later post.

Whatever we do, from the food we pick to the time we go to bed, is interesting to someone. As Pete, one of the principal investigators of the mission, often says: “It’s all data!”.

2 thoughts on “Being a test subject on simulated Mars

  1. pasckqal says:

    Hello Cyprien,
    Two small questions:
    – About the space suits you use and you test. On pictures they look flexible. On Mars, taking account the very small pressure, we would rather imagine rigid suits. Do you have ones?
    – You test means of resource production: water, food… Are you sometimes annoyed by the fact you are limited in research means? I mean, for this kind of experiments, we would imagine a lot of lab devices and material, that maybe you don’t have. New needs may appear during your experiments, that you did not anticipate last summer. And new useful devices (e.g. electronic components for drones) may have appeared as available after last summer. How do you manage that? Are you obliged to imagine experiments that you could do now in a normal lab, but that you must postpone until end 2016? Does that delay you research? Is that frustrating? Can you order things through the support team?


  2. D Whatley says:

    Does your blog show a reader count? As a moderator for an esoteric forum, I know some of our members worry that they are talking to themselves when there is not much dialog. In our case, I can point them to the reader “data” that shows there is an interest where the readers are simply enjoying the writing but don’t feel there is a need for input. I post this to let you know your entries are read and enjoyed but the adventure is so far outside anything most of us will experience that it is difficult to contribute anything meaningful.


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