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By Mary Cavanagh on

Life on Mars

It seems like everyone’s talking about sending people to Mars. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has just found evidence of liquid water on Mars today, Ridley Scott’s The Martian is bringing the Red Planet to life in our cinemas and you can see a spacesuit designed for use on Mars in our Cosmonauts exhibition.

There is hope that we’ll be sending people to Mars for real in the next few decades – but when they go, will they be ready for the journey?

In October 2014, six people went into a dome on the side of a volcano. They spent the next eight months re-creating a mission to Mars: they didn’t see any other people, ate freeze-dried food and had to wear spacesuits to go outside.

Martha Lenio is a Canadian engineer, commander of the NASA HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission and my good friend. While she was in the dome, we could only communicate by e‑mail and send voice messages that were delayed 40 minutes (as though they were going to Mars and back). Last week she came to visit and we took a trip to the Mars Rover test site to talk about her adventure.

Martha mentioned that she was applying for a simulated mission to Mars on the day that applications closed. A few months later she was heading to Wyoming as one of the finalists for the mission. A short camping trip was the only chance the crew had to get to know each other before flying to Hawaii to spend eight months living together in a dome about half the size of a tennis court.

The HI-SEAS dome. Credit: Zak Wilson, HI-SEAS Crew III
The HI-SEAS dome. Credit: Zak Wilson, HI-SEAS Crew III

During the camping trip, Martha was chosen as commander of the mission and is now only the third woman to command a NASA mission of any kind. The other members of the team took on different roles through the course of the mission and everyone was performing experiments similar to those that would run on a real Mars mission.

Far from having nothing to do, all the crew members were kept busy working on their experiments. Martha herself was testing how to grow plants indoors under LED lights. Even after losing a crop of lettuce to white mites (which wouldn’t happen on real Mars), she grew enough to make a few salads – a welcome change from eating only freeze-dried food.

Salad grown on 'Mars'. Credit: HI-SEAS Crew III
Salad grown on ‘Mars’. Credit: HI-SEAS Crew III

While the team were in the dome, I asked Martha what she missed most from the outside world. The whole crew missed their families, particularly at Christmas and on birthdays. Martha especially missed the outside world – feeling the sun and wind on her skin. And many crew members felt isolated without access to social media or the internet.

Christmas on 'Mars'. Credit: Martha Lenio, HI-SEAS Crew III
Christmas on ‘Mars’. Credit: Martha Lenio, HI-SEAS Crew III

However, the really big change was living so closely together. Even though they were isolated from the rest of the world, there was very little privacy within the dome. I asked Martha if that made it difficult to maintain good relationships. Her answer was typically diplomatic: ‘Really, it’s just the same as normal life. Stuff happens and you deal with it – except you’re in a dome and you can’t leave.’

Martha grew up in a big family, so sharing a small space with five other people wasn’t a big shock for her. Even so, the whole crew had to adjust to their new living arrangements. Their tiny, wedge-shaped bedrooms were right next to each other and sound carries easily in the dome. Luckily, there were no loud snorers in the crew!

Martha, Jocelyn, Sophie, Allen, Neil and Zak are now ‘back on Earth’ and, amazingly, still friends. Of course, Martha is glad to be back with her family, but she has no regrets and would make the same decision again – though she wouldn’t go through the experience a second time unless it were a real mission to Mars.

As for a real trip to Mars, Martha would love to go, but only if she gets to come back. As she says: ‘I would want to share my experiences with people here. And I like Earth!’

Martha was interviewed by Mary Cavanagh, an Assistant Content Developer at the Science Museum.