30 July 2020
In the not-too-distant future, astronauts will finally set foot on Mars. Christiane Heinicke already knows from her own experience what it might be like to live there. In 2015, she was involved in the NASA-funded HI-SEAS project in Hawaii, the purpose of which was to simulate life on Mars. She lived with five other scientists for a year in a habitat on the Mauna Loa volcano. Now employed by the Centre for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) at the University of Bremen, Heinicke is working on a real-life habitat – a type of accommodation that should make it possible for humans to live and work on the moon or on Mars.
#explore: What was it like to “live on Mars”, Ms. Heinicke?
Christiane Heinicke: in a certain way, it wasn’t unlike a shared house on Earth: you had to cook, clean and talk to each other. On the other hand, however, the living conditions were pretty exceptional, of course. Contact with the outside world was limited to voice mail or e-mail; you couldn't invite friends over for your birthday, and you had to get by with limited water and food reserves. If things had run out, we wouldn’t have been able to pop to the supermarket or go out to eat. And you were living with five people in a confined space for over a year – which meant that you all had to get on.
© Christiane HeinickeEveryday life in Hawaii.
What is NASA hoping to achieve with the Mars simulation in Hawaii?
Part of this research project is to find out more about the group dynamics on such a mission: How does a group develop over such a long period of time under conditions of extreme isolation; what problems crop up? And, once you have all these data, how do you put together a crew in such a way as to ensure that its members will survive this time together?
When you compare the different crews from the simulation program, you can draw conclusions about which personality types would experience problems during the missions and what kind of character traits you’d have to weed out in the selection process. NASA also wants to find out to what extent a crew on a Mars mission can be given psychological support from Earth and through further training.
What kind of training are we talking about here?
As part of the research project, we ran individual training programmes that focused on dealing with stress, conflict and mental health problems: How can I recognize as early as possible if I or one of the other crew members are getting depressed, and what active countermeasures can I adopt to nip this kind of problem in the bud?
What were the biggest conflict hotspot within the group?
Just like a normal shared house, conflict usually revolved around small things: Who hadn’t done the washing up again, who was always leaving used coffee cups in the lab? The solution here was always to address these kinds of issues as early and as objectively as possible. And because we were all equally motivated to get through the year together in good shape, we didn’t see such criticisms as a personal attack, but actually tried to change our behaviour.
What personal qualities do you have to contribute and how do you put together a group so as to ensure that people don’t end up at each other’s throats?
A thick skin is certainly useful. But the most important thing is for all the crew members to be capable of teamwork. This might sound like the standard blurb you find in a job advertisement. But what it really means is that you need a certain kind of tolerance to overlook the little mistakes or quirks of the other crew members. Instead of complaining or going on about problems, you should actively and collectively look for a solution that’s acceptable to everyone. This can in the first instance take longer than just imposing a top-down solution. In the long term, however, you’ll all be happier with a compromise that everyone has helped achieve.
© Christiane HeinickeThe hiking boots give it away: Christiane Heinicke is climbing in Hawaii.
We were all given appropriate psychological training in advance, but our selection did of course in all cases also depend on our being a good fit in terms of our character traits. After all, bit of training doesn’t turn a lone wolf into a team player overnight.
What was your personal motivation for taking part in the project?
Curiosity! I wanted to see if I could manage something like this and whether the other five would be able to stand me for a whole year (laughs). So, on one level, it was all about personal experience and development.
As a scientist, I was also interested in the extensive monitoring of the crew that took place during the experiment: We regularly filled in questionnaires, kept sleep diaries and recorded how we were spending our time during the mission. After all, you can’t carry out this kind of comprehensive study in a normal environment or a laboratory.
© Christiane HeinickeSpacesuit outside only – the experiment was supposed to be as realistic as possible.
Were you an easier person to deal with after you got home?
Since I’ve been back it’s definitely true to say that I keep my cool a lot better. We were, of course, warned about the risks and trained to deal with stress. But I was unprepared for how significant the psychological strain would actually turn out to be. Most importantly, it’s not as if you’re suddenly under major stress from day one day – it increases gradually and imperceptibly. It’s a bit like the image of the frog in the saucepan. If it’s thrown into boiling water, it jumps right out again. But if the water is heated slowly, it gets used to it and learns to deal with it over time. The whole thing has made me much more stress resistant.
How were the roles and tasks divided up in the group?
The team was made up of a commander, a doctor, an engineer for repairs and scientists from different disciplines. There was also an architect who specialised in space architecture. I myself was the Chief Scientific Officer. I coordinated the experiments and had to make sure that we could carry out experiments for other scientists and that they wouldn’t conflict with our own.
What experiments did you do yourself?
One of my experiments was about extracting water from the ground. Lava rock contains very small amounts of water that evaporates when the sun shines on it. Instead of letting this water escape into the atmosphere, we caught it in a mobile greenhouse. In one week we were able to extract about one litre of water from a single square metre.
Could water be extracted in this way on Mars?
Yes. But whether it would make sense would depend on the duration of the mission. Water is only found on the Martian surface as ice or in permafrost or in the form of water vapour in the atmosphere. Permafrost is extremely hard and very difficult to break down – you need the right kind of equipment. And the method we use is also accordingly time consuming. So, in the early stages of future missions to Mars, it would be much easier to simply take the water with you from Earth. But if you wanted to build a permanently occupied station, you’d have to extract the water locally.
What was your most memorable experience during this year?
What I enjoyed most were the field assignments. Walking around in a spacesuit at an altitude of 2,500 metres is physically quite exhausting, of course. But the landscape in Hawaii is incredibly impressive: very barren, almost extraterrestrial and, at the same time, very diverse. Lava rock can take on a crazy range of colours, figures and shapes. It really is a very, very interesting rock! (laughs)
"What I enjoyed most were the field assignments."
What did you miss the most?
Fresh raspberries and fresh ideas! When you’re always talking to the same people, you soon get to know their stories – how they think, how they tick. Knowing what you’re dealing with in other people does of course have its advantages. But in discussions, you can usually predict who’s going to adopt which attitudes, who’s going to support or reject a proposal using which arguments. What you don’t get is a direct dialogue with new perspectives, other ways of thinking and experiences.
How did your experience in Hawaii feed into the “Moon and Mars Base Analog” (MaMBa) habitat that you developed – the accommodation intended for astronauts on the moon or Mars?
I’m an engineer by trade. And during the time on Hawaii, I noticed things that wouldn’t work in a real habitat pretty much every day. In fact, all previous habitats have been designed exclusively for simulation on Earth. If we’re going to send astronauts to the moon or Mars in the coming decades, there won’t be a structure for them to live in to start with. So, I started to think about what this kind of habitat would actually have to look like.
And thanks to my experience in Hawaii, I also know how important it is to take human needs into account in architectural design. One of our crew's favourite places in Hawaii was by a window through which you could see the lava landscape. This view on the outside world - the chance to look into the distance and not always to have to focus our gaze on things that were less than ten metres away - was incredibly important for all of us. So it follows that our MaMBa-Habitat should also feature a window in the living quarters module.
What will this kind of habitat for the moon and Mars have to do?
From the technical point of view, the rough requirements are relatively simple. The habitat needs to be able to protect astronauts from vacuum conditions, temperature fluctuations and space radiation. Otherwise, a solar storm would literally roast the crew alive. The station would also need an airlock and a life support system to process water and breathable air.
From the architectural point of view, I also have to think about what else people need to live. Personal space to retreat into is essential, even if a dormitory would actually be more efficient. After all, everyone has the occasional bad day or just wants to be by themselves. It’s also important to incorporate some flexibility into the furnishing. At home, you can rearrange your furniture to change your immediate surroundings. In the station, you’ll be confronted with the same colours, smells and sounds every single day. You can't easily move the shelves, let alone go to a furniture store. So the design needs a different order of flexibility – for example, you need to be able to change the colours and lighting so that it doesn’t always look the same.
To what extent have you already implemented this approach in the demo module?
The demo module is a mock-up. In other words, it’s is a preliminary version which isn’t yet fully functional from the technical point of view and which we’re using to test whether the architecture, design and dimensions are right. And because the laboratory will be the heart of the planned station, we started by building a demo version of this laboratory module.
Working all day in a windowless laboratory with constant lighting is incredibly tiring for the eyes. That's why we installed lamps that can be adjusted by the crew. Our testers found this very helpful, and during the working day the lamps were variously set to be a bit warmer, lighter or darker to create a little variety.
What’s the basic concept of the habitat?
The basic configuration consists of six modules: three working and three leisure modules. There’s a sleeping module, a kitchen module and a living quarters module, a laboratory, a greenhouse and a workshop. All the modules are upright cylinders with an internal diameter of 4.40 metres and a height of 6.50 metres. There are also two airlocks – after all, the crew has to be able to get in and out somehow.
© ZARMA module of the Habitat Christiane Heinicke is working on.
In relation to the usable space, the modules are quite high. Why is that?
This basic height allows us to divide the working modules into two floors. And, at the same time, it allows us to leave out this mezzanine floor in the leisure modules. This means that I can lounge around on a cushion in the living quarters and have an uninterrupted view up to the roof. Which means that the ceiling isn’t pressing down on me, so to speak.
This principle is also based on my experience in the Hawaiian habitat. There, only half of the dome was divided into two floors; the other half was an open space with a ceiling height of about six metres. This really helped us not to feel hemmed in in the habitat, even though we only left it every few days.
How did you test the habitat?
We invited scientists to consider what experiments could be conducted on Mars or the moon. They then carried out these experiments in our laboratory module. There were two test runs of one week each, during which the scientists spent the whole working day - from about 9 am to 6 pm - in the lab.
© Christiane HeinickeChristiane Heinicke developed many ideas for the Habitat while living in the accommodation in Hawaii.
What was the feedback from the testers?
We arranged for the scientists to work there in groups of three and four. Three is the nominal number - and it worked brilliantly. With four people there was a need for more cooperation and mutual consideration, but the scientists still managed to do some decent work in the lab. Requests for changes related primarily to the specific laboratory equipment. The requested changes we made before the second test run.
How are you aiming to further develop the module?
We will continue to use the current demo module, albeit with a different focus. For example, we’ve planned some experiments to see how support might be provided from Earth. Given the 20-minute delay, to what extent can the crew be supported or, in an emergency, the habitat be remotely controlled? At the same time, we’re looking to develop a technically functional prototype. Starting with the airlock, which is one of the most complex components of the habitat. The module itself will then take the form of a pressure housing made of metal. Then we’ll be able to install the life support systems and test how efficiently and for how long oxygen can be generated with the technology.
When could the first habitat be installed on Mars or the moon?
That depends on who you ask! (laughs) I think that a permanent station on the moon might be feasible in the 2030s. The problem isn’t so much the technology as the political will – and, above all, the funding. With Mars, getting there is still a major challenge. Once this has been solved, we’ll have to build the habitat and associated infrastructure on Mars and thoroughly test it before sending in a crew.
However, a launch window to Mars only opens every two years, and there are always delays in space travel. So it’s likely to be another 20 years before astronauts will actually be able to move into a habitat on Mars. However, the environmental conditions there are actually more favourable than on the moon, because they’re more like the conditions you find on Earth.
In what way?
The moon has one-sixth of the Earth's gravitational pull, whereas Mars has a third. There’s virtually no atmosphere on the moon, but you have an atmospheric pressure of 6 millibars on Mars – about 1 percent of what we have here on Earth. While this isn’t survivable for people without a spacesuit, the habitat would need to withstand less pressure than it would on the moon. Resources on Mars could also be better used by a crew on the ground. There’s iron, there’s carbon dioxide and iron oxide - what this means is that you also have oxygen. In principle, you could fly to Mars and extract oxygen locally. This wouldn’t work so well on the moon.
What’s more, the surface of the moon is very dusty, and the dust has extremely sharp edges. If you drive a rover over it, you end up with dust in the gearbox, the bearings, in all the moving parts. On Mars, of course, you also have a dusty environment, but the dust there isn’t quite as fine-grained and sharp-edged as on the moon.
© Christiane HeinickeIt was extremely important for the Hawaii-crew to be able to look into vastness.
So the moon could be a kind of robustness test for a Mars habitat?
Exactly. Which is why I think it makes sense to build such a habitat on the moon first. If something goes wrong, you can send spare parts or evacuate the crew within a few days. Once you’ve sorted out the teething troubles and thoroughly tested the habitat, you can then go on to send the same habitat to Mars.
If the opportunity were to present itself, would you want to be on a flight to Mars?
I’d first want to know who was going to be on the flight with me and who was organising it, of course. But yes, I strongly imagine that I’d want to be on board!
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Christiane Heinicke studied physics in Ilmenau, Germany, and Uppsala, Sweden, and holds a doctorate in engineering. She is the first - and so far only - German to have been selected for a NASA-funded research project to simulate life on Mars over the course of a whole year. The geophysicist at the Centre for Space Technology and Microgravity at the University of Bremen has been working on the development of a modular residential station for the moon or Mars since 2017.