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How NASA Is Prepping Mars Astronauts to Cope With Isolation and Other Extremes

The journey to Mars can be quite lonely. From extreme conditions to communication hurdles, here's how astronauts mentally prepare for traveling to Mars.

By Sara Novak
Jun 5, 2024 1:00 PM
astronaut on mars
(Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)


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Mars is between 33 and 249 million miles away from Earth, depending on the time of year you make the journey. That comes out to about two years of travel.

Once you get there, conditions on the Red Planet are brutal, with temperatures ranging from around -248 degrees Fahrenheit to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Just getting there is a feat that seems difficult to imagine, yet once astronauts make the trek, they’re in for an intense workload.

According to NASA, plans are in the works for travel to Mars as early as the 2030s and it will likely take that long or longer to prepare astronauts for what’s ahead. 

Communication with Earth

One of the first concerns when it comes to preparing astronauts for travel to Mars is understanding what’s possible when it comes to communicating back to Earth. How will astronauts making the trip communicate back to NASA as well as family back home?

According to Dayna Ise, director of the Mars Campaign Office within NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, we can’t do anything about the 20-minute communication delay, which will always exist because that’s the speed of light.

But there are also longer delays that occur when Mars is opposite Earth in the solar system and can create a two-week delay in communication, which, as one might imagine, becomes too much when trying to communicate back home in an emergency.

“A two-week blackout period is much more concerning,” says Ise. NASA is working to create a relay system of sorts with satellites in Mars’ orbit and at different range points in the solar system that could reduce this delay. 

Read More: Why Haven't Humans Reached Mars?

Mentally Preparing Astronauts for Mars

Besides communication, mentally preparing astronauts for isolation and the possible lack of communication is also key.  

“Through all of human history, there’s been asynchronous communication, for example, when early explorers were visiting another continent, and it took weeks or months for letters to get back home. But that’s not something we’re used to anymore,” says Ise. “As a society, we’re used to synchronous communication all the time.”

To test and prepare for this sort of lifestyle, NASA designed the Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) to simulate a Mars habitat at NASA’s Johnson Center in Houston, Texas.

Four crew members have lived for over a year inside CHAPEA in an effort to mimic what life would be like. Equipped with a 1,700 square foot living and working space that includes “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.”

The goal of CHAPEA is to look at the impacts of isolation, environmental stressors, equipment failure, and workloads on the crew’s mental and physical health.

Researchers can also look at how isolation impacts scientists living in Antarctica who are physically isolated from loved ones for long periods of time, especially during the Arctic winters.

Additionally, NASA has had crews on the International Space Station for long periods of time. In fact, astronaut Peggy Whitson holds the record for the longest period in space at 665 days, which can give us a good idea of what that does to people both mentally and physically. Astronaut Frank Rubio holds the record for the longest space flight at 371 days.

“The idea is that you build on all these ideas that you learn from CHAPEA, Antarctica, and ISS to get a better understanding until you get to a point where you really feel you’re ready to send folks to Mars,” says Ise.

Read More: Long Mars Voyage Could Raise Stress Levels

Lunar Exploration to Prepare Astronauts for Mars

Artemis III is set to land on the Moon’s South Pole in 2025. Part of this mission on the Moon is to look into what long-term habitation in outer space might look like through Artemis’ South Pole Base Camp. The hope is that much of that knowledge can translate to life on Mars. In order to live on the Moon, the crew will have to wear spacesuits and spend ample time indoors, for example.

While spacesuits on Mars will be different from those on the Moon, this lunar landing will allow for a better understanding of long-term life suited up. NASA is currently working on the preliminary designs for the Mars spacesuits, says Ise.

One of the biggest differences is the dust on the Moon versus Mars. While the Moon’s dust is sharp and presents issues like cutting holes in spacesuits, Mars' red dust contains chemicals like perchlorates, which are toxic. Additionally, Mars has an atmosphere, a mixture of gases that surround the planet, while the Moon does not. In Mars’ case, it’s mostly made up of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon gases.

Life on Mars is Martian, not human, meaning that astronauts have to prepare for every aspect of life in ways that can be difficult to grasp. It’s the full spectrum, from life indoors to strenuous jaunts in a spacesuit to the mental health repercussions of isolation. Still, we’re getting closer and the Red Planet doesn’t seem as foreign or “Martian” as it once did. 

Read More: What Would a Trip to Mars Look Like For a Tourist?

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Sara Novak is a science journalist based in South Carolina. In addition to writing for Discover, her work appears in Scientific American, Popular Science, New Scientist, Sierra Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, and many more. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia. She's also a candidate for a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University, (expected graduation 2023).

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