McMurdo Station, Antarctica
2013 January 23
“If you’ve done ANSMET, you’ve done long duration space flight.”
– Don Pettit, ANSMET veteran and three-time Space Shuttle and International Space Station crew member.
A future human mission to Mars will be tough for the crew. They will be separated from friends, family, and the sights and comforts of the natural world for months. They will be confined in cramped quarters with little or no privacy. During the mission they will see no human beings other than their all-too-familiar crewmates. Communication with the outside world will be strictly limited to voice and text in meager quantities. Eating, sleeping, and even going to the bathroom will be difficult and uncomfortable. They will have constant concerns about the deadly environment outside and about the electrical and mechanical systems upon which their very lives depend.
In short, it will be a lot like ANSMET.
NASA plans to send human beings to Mars some day in the future. That day is probably far off, but there is a lot we can do to prepare for a Mars mission right now, for a small fraction of the cost of the full mission. One way to practice for Mars is through “space flight analogs:” expeditions on Earth that are similar to space missions in some way. Desert RATS, NEEMO, the Haughton Mars Project, the Pavilion Lake Research Project, and the European Space Agency’s CAVES missions are examples of current and recent space flight analogs. All of them have produced, or are still producing, insights that will better prepare us for the future human exploration of deep space.
My own participation in ANSMET this year has a dual nature. First and foremost, I was a meteorite hunter, looking for valuable samples from space and fully participating in all of the work involved in identifying and collecting them. I also did my share of the logistics and camping chores associated with life in the field in Antarctica. But in the evenings I was taking careful notes about ANSMET as a space flight analog.
ANSMET produces two kinds of results that are of interest to NASA’s space flight analog community. The first relates to how ANSMET compares to NASA’s other analogs. Each different analog has its own strengths and weaknesses: some have more realistic space-like environments, others have more relevant involvement from the science community. When I return to Houston I plan to write a NASA Technical Memorandum describing ANSMET’s excellent qualities as a space flight analog in relation to NASA’s other analog activities.
The second thing that makes ANSMET so interesting to the space flight analog community relates to “crew autonomy.” Today on Space Station, and recently on the Shuttle, astronauts do almost all their work based on instructions from a control center on Earth. If anything goes wrong, or if they have questions about what they’re doing, they have the powerful resources of Mission Control at their service, just a quick radio call away. It’s a great way to operate, proven over fifty years of space flight operations. But a crew on Mars, so distant that a radio call can take 20 minutes to travel to Earth, and 20 minutes more for a quick answer to travel back to Mars, won’t have that option. They will have to make more decisions on their own, and will have to be equipped with more knowledge in order to make those decisions correctly. In general, they must be able to work independently of the control center. They must be autonomous. ANSMET provides NASA with an excellent example, rich in potential insights, of a crew operating in a harsh, remote, isolated setting where there is no external control center to help with decision-making. ANSMET can begin to teach us things we need to know before we go to Mars, and I hope to be able to distill and record some of those lessons when I return to work at Johnson Space Center later this month.
It has been a privilege for me to participate in ANSMET this season. I hope I was able to make positive contributions to the team and its success. It is certainly true that this year’s ANSMET will make positive contributions to NASA’s space flight analog efforts, and to future human missions to Mars