Simulation Complete: Pioneer Crew Wraps Up Year-Long Mission in 3D Printed Mars Habitat

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After 378 days of living in a Mars-like 3D printed habitat, NASA’s Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) crew emerged on July 6, 2024, bringing with them vital insights into the future of space exploration. This simulation was no small feat—it was a test of endurance, ingenuity, and teamwork. Inside their year-long home, the crew faced the challenges of isolation, limited resources, and delayed communication with Earth, all to prepare humanity for future Mars missions.

Providing crucial data for NASA’s future plans, volunteers Kelly Haston, Anca Selariu, Ross Brockwell, and Nathan Jones engaged in various activities to simulate Mars mission operations. They conducted “Marswalks,” grew vegetables to supplement their diet of shelf-stable food, and maintained their equipment and habitat. The simulation included the psychological and logistical stressors that would be present during a real Mars mission, including communication delays and resource limitations. These challenges were designed to test their ability to adapt and thrive in a confined space far from home.

Coming from diverse professional backgrounds, the crew members dedicated over a year to living and working in a 1,700-square-foot habitat dubbed Mars Dune Alpha at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The CHAPEA crew was commanded by Haston, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of California San Francisco and Stanford University. The flight engineer Brockwell is a structural engineer and public works administrator with a master’s in aeronautics from Caltech. Jones, the medical officer, is an emergency medicine physician with a medical doctorate from Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. Selariu, the science officer, is a microbiologist in the U.S. Navy and has a doctorate in interdisciplinary biomedical sciences from Rutgers University.

The CHAPEA mission 1 crew poses with a flag featuring their mission patch surrounded by their signatures. Image courtesy of NASA/Josh Valcarcel.

Created from ICON’s innovative Vulcan construction system and proprietary lavacrete material, this habitat is an ideal example of what future Martian homes could look like. In collaboration with architecture firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, ICON fitted the space with private crew quarters, a kitchen, and dedicated areas for medical, recreation, fitness, work, and crop growth activities, as well as a technical work area and two bathrooms.

Mars Dune Alpha is engineered to imitate the harsh conditions of Mars, introducing the crew to the realities astronauts would face. Moreover, since Mars has about a third of Earth’s gravity, it presents unique challenges for eventual human missions. To that end, the agency has created a 1,200-square-foot “sandbox” portion filled with red sand to simulate the Martian landscape and contains equipment such as a treadmill for the virtual reality walks. The simulated challenges, like spacewalks, robotic operations, and habitat maintenance, are all crucial training to prepare for any unforeseen challenges of deep space exploration.

NASA’s CHAPEA Mars Dune Alpha. Image courtesy of NASA.

The primary goal of CHAPEA was to collect data on how humans cope with the rigors of long-duration space missions. According to the agency, the crew’s experiences yielded thousands of data points, creating a valuable dataset that will inform NASA’s plans for human exploration of Mars.

After the door of Mars Dune Alpha opened and the crew came out, Haston, who acted as the mission commander, reflected on the experience as a blend of “great challenges, joys, and sorrows.” The crew’s journey was marked by intense work, moments of fun, and a strong sense of camaraderie. Despite the isolation, they said they managed to stay motivated and support each other, making the mission not only a scientific endeavor but also a profound human experience.

CHAPEA-1 mission crew emerges from Mars Dune Alpha on July 6, 2024. Image courtesy of NASA.

This mission is the first of three planned as part of CHAPEA. NASA has already announced it was looking for volunteers for the second mission to Mars Dune Alpha, scheduled to start in spring 2025, and another mission will begin in 2027. These future missions will build on the knowledge gained from the first CHAPEA mission, further refining the strategies and technologies needed for human exploration of Mars.

NASA’s broader Artemis campaign, which aims to return humans to the Moon and eventually send astronauts to Mars, projected to occur in the 2030s, will benefit significantly from the lessons learned during CHAPEA. Congratulations to the CHAPEA Crew 1 for their pioneering work, bringing us one step closer to the Red Planet.

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