National Geographic : 2016 Nov
50 national geographic • november 2016 Someone who’s mentally resilient and has ex- cellent social skills. These traits may or may not correlate with the ability to pay $500,000, which is the SpaceX criterion. “ We select very low- drama people. Nonetheless, there’s bound to be conflict,” says Kim Binsted of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who directs other NASA- funded analog missions. In the most recent one, six volunteers were sealed for a year into a mock Mars habitat halfway up the side of a volcano. They could exit only if they donned space suits. No experiment on Earth, however, can quite simulate the feeling that will come from being locked in a small can millions of miles away. William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, has noticed something about astro- nauts on the space station. “ They tweet a lot of pictures of their hometown,” he told me. “ They take pictures of their college football stadiums. There’s still a really strong tie back to the Earth.” Kornienko felt it. “ This is not even nostalgia, you understand; this is not a business trip to a dif- ferent city, when you miss your apartment, your home, family,” he said, shortly after he returned from his year in orbit. “ This is about missing the Earth as a whole. It is a completely different emo- tion. There is a shortage of greenery, for real, like not enough forest, summer, winter, snow.” In June, six months after SpaceX triumphant- ly landed its booster, NASA held its own rocket test in the hills of northern Utah. This was a “ground test” of a solid-fuel booster that will be an integral element of the Space Launch System, the blandly named rocket that NASA says will someday take humans into deep space. Thousands of people gathered a mile away, in- tently watching through the clear desert air as an announcer went through the countdown. At zero, the booster, lying on its side and bolted fast to the ground, ignited ferociously. The announcer reminded everyone that this was part of NASA’s “Journey to Mars.” The jet of flame roared for more than two minutes as a great pillar of smoke things become actual.” Which means a lot of things have to be figured out. That includes more complicated things like human psychology. “We’ve done so well with robotic missions, we think we’ve got the hardware part of it figured out,” says Fogar- ty. “But now we’re going to throw in self-aware, self-deterministic individuals that are part of this team. Have we truly understood all the risks they bring and given them the tools to handle it?” NASA works on that problem by conducting analog missions on Earth. At Johnson Space Cen- ter I visited one. Inside a cavernous, windowless warehouse, beyond a do not enter sign, sat a three-level, domed structure, also windowless, that was covered in soundproofing material— like a chunk of space station specially wrapped for a long and dangerous journey. Inside were four volunteers, each making $160 a day to be sealed up for a month, physically cut off from the outside world. Thirteen cameras inside their habitat allowed researchers in “mission control,” a few strides away, to watch their every move and see how they dealt with the isolation, individual- ly and as a crew. The simulation has its limits. “Obviously we don’t have a zero-g switch,” said project man- ager Lisa Spence; these astronauts get to enjoy a flush toilet and a shower. But Spence and her colleagues strive for as much verisimilitude as possible. As we watched two volunteers hud- dled in a darkened air lock, wearing virtual reality visors and experiencing a simulated space walk, we spoke in hushed voices, lest they hear us. A huge storm had just blown through, a real toad-strangler, with booming thunderclaps; if anyone inside the module asks about thunder, Spence said, “we make up a cockamamy story about space weather.” A certain kind of personality is needed for a Mars mission, the experts say: someone who can tolerate isolation and boredom during the long transit, then shift into overdrive on Mars. No experiment on Earth can quite simulate the feeling of being locked in a small can millions of miles away.