Since the 1960s, humans have been tested in preparation for a journey to Mars. Subjects have been crammed into sealed steel containers of only a few square metres, with minimal water, food and oxygen. These isolation experiments have provided scientists with invaluable knowledge of how future astronauts may react in a cramped space.
More than 100 years ago, the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky described in several books the dream of colonising other planets. Tsiolkovsky, considered one of the fathers of the Space Age, believed that Mars, not the Moon, was an important early stop in space exploration. Since then, that vision has inspired generations of scientists in Russia and elsewhere, and since the 1960s, a number of experiments have been carried out in order to obtain the knowledge required for a journey to the red planet. Right now, an isolation experiment called Mars500 is under way in Moscow.
Attempts to imitate the conditions in a Mars-bound spacecraft began in the mid-1960s in Siberia. On the walls of the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk hang black-and-white photos telling the story of the groundbreaking results, obtained during the 1960s and 70s. Bios-3, an 315 cubic-metre habitat, was designed to mimic a spacecraft headed to Mars; today, the simulator is a rust heap, and the “no photos” sign no longer applies. The historical images depict happy and tired subjects, presented with flowers upon their release from the simulator.
The Russians wanted to re-create the Earth’s cycle in a closed system, under controlled conditions, and transfer the model to spacecraft and space stations. Several experiments were carried out secretly and reportedly required at least as many resources as the much more high-profile Moon program. The knowledge obtained from these experiments was meant to aid in the conquering of outer space. In 1959, it was projected that on June 8, 1971, three men would lift off for a Mars flyby aboard the Soviet TMK-1 spacecraft. The Soviet Union also had dreams of a Mars colony and hoped to one day have space stations scattered across the solar system. The names of the three Mars astronauts were disclosed later, but they never made the space journey, primarily because of a lack of funds.
As the Bios-3 lab was being built in the early 1960s, scientist Yevgeny Shepelev became the first human to survive 24 hours in a closed biological system. Chlorella algae converted the carbon dioxide of his exhaled air into oxygen, and he had calculated that just a few square metres of chlorella would match the inhalation and exhalation of air for one person. Russian scientists used Shepelev’s experiment to refine the Bios-3 Mars simulator, and eventually it was able to produce and reuse almost 95 per cent of the water needed by three people. They also managed to introduce edible plants into the system to let the subjects grow and harvest their own food.
The Siberian preliminary trials and construction culminated in 1972, when three subjects spent 180 days in isolation. During that time, a seed that had entered the system by mistake grew into a strong birch seedling under the artificial sun (later, the trunk was cut up and its pieces were considered souvenirs). Nine additional enclosure experiments were conducted in the Bios-3 model over the next two decades. The experimental station shut down in 1984.
Pets counteract stress
Russian scientists have established that humans are not only dependent on plants as an integral part of a shared ecosystem, but also need them for psychological reasons. Plants curb the development of negative feelings such as hatred and rage. Animals tend to have the same effect. In several experiments, the subjects had “uninvited” visitors. Once, a fly swarmed around for days in the room of the three confined men, and they welcomed it as a guest interrupting the rigid everyday routine. On another occasion, a cockroach found its way into a closed steel container, where one of the scientists fed it like a pet.
Astronauts at the Mir space station have had the same experience. Russian cosmonauts were close to tears when they had to kill a flock of birds that could not get used to living in a weightless environment.
Russian psychologists refer to the solicitude for animals and plants during isolation as “exposed nerves”. In high-stress situations, people are not capable of controlling their emotions as well as they normally can, and animals and plants stir strong feelings because they remind the subjects of the life they have left behind. Similarly, after the isolation experiments, all subjects said that it was the banal details of life that they missed most in the Mars simulator, such as blowing wind, fluctuating temperatures and the sounds of birds. Concurrent with the isolation results in Siberia, experiments were being carried out in Moscow at the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems. On November 5, 1967, three men were sequestered inside a 12 cubic-metre steel container, which was a simulation of the space capsule planned for takeoff in 1971. Conditions were purposely made difficult for the men; scientists outside would turn up the heat to extreme levels and turn down the oxygen supply to test how it affected their ability to remember and cooperate. Subjects also suffered from fluid loss, and they “secretly” drank water from the lavatory cistern. One of them had a pregnant wife at home who had no idea when her husband would return.
The experiment was formulated to examine how people react in high-stress situations, in which it is impossible to escape or get help from the outside world. In order to have a consistent amount of oxygen, they changed berths every 10 days, which provided the only variety in their monotonous daily routines. Although the Russian experiments proved that it was possible to survive physically, there was a heavy emotional toll to be paid for isolation.
The 1967 experiment also demonstrated that the lack of privacy made people sensitive to issues of personal space. With around-the-clock monitoring and half of the 12 cubic metres occupied by instruments, the subjects had no privacy and this increased their levels of stress.
A desert oasis
While the Russians focused on closed biological systems, US research was highly project-oriented — how to get to the Moon fast, for instance — until a group of scientists visited Moscow in the mid-1980s to learn about the space-travel experiments.
Inspired by the trip as well as by discussions dating back to NASA physicist Gerard O’Neill’s deep-space cornucopias, Space Biosphere Adventures bought a large piece of land in the desert north of Tucson, Arizona. They teamed up with oil billionaire Ed Bass and built the 12,700 cubic-metre Biosphere 2: a giant glass pyramid that contained an ocean, swamps, waterfalls, rainforest, savanna, desert, agriculture and living quarters. The idea was as far-reaching as the construction. Eight people and 3,000 animal and plant species were to live in the biosphere for two years, and they were to be totally self-sufficient. Even human waste was part of the cycle.
The reality, however, turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated. In particular, the interaction between insects and plants was hard to balance: potatoes were ravaged because a mite, which is otherwise only found on tea plants, attacked them (the mite had no natural enemies in Biosphere 2). It also became clear that producing enough food was a 24-hour job, as eight people made at least one too many to be supported by the area.
Largely because of the short-supply situation, the participants started quarrelling. Around the same time, the oxygen level fell from 21 per cent to just over 14 per cent because, among other things, the concrete construction was not sealed and so it absorbed oxygen. The whole mission was in jeopardy, as the energy level was so low that it was hard to produce enough food. Participants risked losing so much weight that it could seriously endanger their health.
As a result, project leaders decided to supply oxygen from outside, which some saw as a threat to the project’s scientific legitimacy. They noted, correctly so, that it could never have taken place on Mars. Bad press also mounted in the media, which at first glamourised Biosphere 2 and then attacked it as problems mounted in the dome; subjects were portrayed as extremists rather than scientists.
Nevertheless, the experiment continued. Oxygen was injected and bigger animals such as pigs were slaughtered because they consumed more biomass than they produced. One of the main lessons of this and other experiments is that the first people to go to Mars will eat a vegetarian diet, as animal products are not practical. The injection of more oxygen into the structure didn’t help solve the growing differences among the project’s participants. After six months, the eight people had divided into two opposing groups: those who believed that science had been compromised and that the experiment should end, and those who believed that it should continue.
When the two years had gone by, Biosphere 2 was labelled as a failure by the Western scientific community, and it’s doubtful whether the group would have been able to solve its complex problems had it been a real Mars base. On the other hand, those who were in charge now emphasise that the experiment demonstrated people’s ability to improvise under pressure. They also stress that the solution-based approach, in which every day was a fight for food and survival, would actually resemble the situation at the first colony on Mars.
A clash of cultures
Russians scientists never doubted the legitimacy of Biosphere 2, which they examine with great interest, almost approaching reverence. The people behind the Russian Bios-3 and Biosphere 2 met during the Cold War and acted as one in the professional scientific community. And in the Russian research outline, published by the National Research Centre, there is a photo of Josef Gitelson, director of Bios-3, and Yevgeny Shepelev, who spent 24 hours breathing air created by Chlorella algae, visiting Biosphere 2. Given Russian scientists’ historical interest in the subject, it’s not surprising that the current Mars simulator experiments are taking place in that part of the world. The project is called Mars500. The six participants will be isolated for 520 days, the projected minimum travelling time to Mars. The experiment has been organised in cooperation between Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA), and participants went into isolation in June 2010. The people behind Mars500 are striving to make it as realistic as possible. For instance, the communication between the participants and the control centre runs with a time lag, as would be the case on a real Mars mission. Participants will be granted a period of 30 days in which they will have access to an area representing the surface of Mars. There they will be collecting samples and carrying out experiments, among other research endeavours.
In 2009, a pilot experiment was carried out; a Frenchman, a German and four Russians spent 105 days in the Mars simulator in order to do a number of medical tests. The team was composed of participants of varying nationalities since it doesn’t seem feasible that one nation will be able to carry out a Mars mission on its own; testing different cultures together is key. During the 105-day experiment, the two teams executed all the required tasks, but the men did ally themselves along cultural lines as experimenters feared they might. A hierarchy arose in which one group was dominant, while the members of the other group felt as though they were merely assistants. In order to prevent hostility among participants, the Mars500 experimenters attach great importance to social activities. The all-men team consists of three Russians, one Frenchman, one Chinese and one Italian-Colombian. In December 2010, there were numerous Christmas celebration activities. Participants in Mars500 are also being encouraged to teach each other different skills, which is intended to help the subjects function better in a very unfamiliar situation. Even though the technology and the life-support systems are much better now than in the initial 1960s experiments, the challenges involved in a journey to Mars remain much the same. Astronauts must let go of constructs involving culture and the need for familiar life circumstances if a journey to Mars is to succeed.
This article was published in our January/February 2012 issue, the second part was published in our March/April 2012 issue. To get a copy, click here.