Simulating a Mission to Mars: a Scientific Experience, a Human Adventure

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• Like nine other ISAE-SUPAERO crews before them, seven students took part last February in a simulation of Martian life in the Utah desert, USA.
• An experience they had prepared for throughout their first and second years at the Institute.
• A real asset in their curriculum, both in terms of human adventure and scientific research.

A red, bumpy, arid and hostile expanse: the Utah desert bears a striking resemblance to the postcards sent out by Mars rovers. That’s why The Mars Society, a non-profit organization promoting exploration of the Red Planet, has set up a base here, the MDRS (Mars Desert Research Station). Crews from all over the world come here to simulate life on Mars.

MDRS Crew 293 1
Credits : Club Mars ISAE-SUPAERO

Crew 293, which spent four weeks there from February 18 to March 16, was made up of seven students from ISAE-SUPAERO. Through Club Mars, one of 145 student clubs on campus, the Institute has been sending volunteers on this analog astronaut mission for ten years, i.e. reproducing on Earth the living conditions of a long mission in space.

“I had seen a TV report on this experience when I was in ninth grade”, recalls Erin Pougheon, in her 2nd year of the engineering program, who acted as the crew’s journalist. “At the time, I didn’t realize that they were ISAE-SUPAERO students. When I realized that I could experience the same thing, I immediately applied!”

Contributing to research

Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t donning a spacesuit that drew her to the MDRS project. “People think that what drives us is playing astronaut. What I found great about this opportunity was being able to contribute at our own level to research in the space sector.”

Beyond the adventure of living in space, the MDRS expedition is in fact a research project that needs to be well prepared. “It takes more than a year”, points out Marie Delaroche, who is in her final year of her engineering course and served as Crew 293’s captain. “You have to create a network of researchers and find partners to carry out experiments that can’t be done elsewhere.”

MDRS Crew 293 3

Tests of cognitive performance, equipment, and technologies in extreme or desert environments, atmospheric experiments: there is no shortage of subjects to study. Among those conducted by Crew 293, Erin Pougheon’s favorite was Orbital Architecture, in conjunction with Sweden’s KTH University.

“The aim was to find out how the station’s confined environment affects our physical and mental performance. It’s a very comprehensive experiment that we carried out throughout the mission, using sensors, cognitive tests, and questionnaires. It was also conducted last January on the ISS by ESA astronaut Marcus Wandt. Swedish researchers will compare his results with ours.”

Promiscuity, rationed water, rehydrated food

Confined in a base 8 meters in diameter and two stories high, Marie, Erin, Léa, Mathurin, Leo, Yves and Lise also enjoyed an extraordinary human experience. “Cut off from the world, we’re totally immersed in our mission and working on subjects we’re passionate about. It’s a great experience! I’ve never experienced anything like it in any other work environment,” says Marie Delaroche. “I’ve realized that it’s possible, and even pleasant, to live cut off from everything,” adds Léa Bourgely, the crew’s astronomer.

Léa, a Master of Aerospace Engineering student at ISAE-SUPAERO, was attracted by the psychological aspect of the mission.

"The impact on astronauts’ psychological health and conflict resolution are among the subjects I’d like to work on," she says. And what she remembers from her own experience is that, despite the crew’s long preparation, human relations are not the easiest thing to manage: "Not everyone has the same sensitivities or the same expectations. But we learn to accept that we’re not all the same!"

“We ate better on Mars than on Earth!”

Nevertheless, the crew had no trouble getting used to the discipline and strict living conditions of the mission: wake-up at 6:30 a.m., physiological measurements, sports session, research activities and extravehicular activity (EVA), meal preparation in pairs – with rehydrated food –, resumption of activities, then a two-hour communication window.

MDRS Crew 293 2

“This was the time when we had to provide our daily reports to Mission Support, but above all transmit our research results”, explains Marie.

This drastic schedule did not, however, prevent a few unforeseen events. “After three weeks, we had to face a storm with 80 km/h winds that flattened the access tunnel to the science dome, our lab”, says Léa.

“We had to do an emergency EVA to repair it. It reinforced the simulation aspect as well as cohesion and was a positive experience that left a lasting impression on me!”

Water restriction was also part of the analog astronauts’ daily routine. “It wasn’t compulsory, but we made a point of it”, says Marie. “We managed 5.5 liters per person per day, bearing in mind that we had to keep some water to rehydrate the food.”

As for the diet, it didn’t put off our seven students. “With spices, it’s very tasty”, smiles Léa. We ate better on Mars than on Earth!” The greenhouse adjoining the Hab (the main module) even provided an appreciative supplement.

Legacy and transmission

Léa, who has had to deal with telescope problems and the breakage of her spacesuit in the middle of a mission, now feels armed with “an ironclad emotional strength”. And it’s with great enthusiasm that she embarks on an internship at CNES in line with her curriculum. “The subject of my internship is ’Creating a Rover to Support Astronauts on the Moon’. I couldn’t have dreamed of anything better!”

MDRS Crew 293 4

Marie, too, says she came out of the experience transformed: “It was my second mission with the MDRS, but my first as crew commander. I felt like I was learning 1,000 things a minute, about myself, human relations and how a team works.”

Ready to move forward, but a little nostalgic, everyone still has their heads on Mars. Both figuratively and literally: “For some studies, we still have to give feedback to the researchers.” The seven students also have the mission of accompanying the next crew until their own departure on the MDRS station, and they intend to share their enthusiasm with them.

ISAE-SUPAERO: a benchmark for space careers

Since 1970, ISAE-SUPAERO has been contributing to advances in the space age through its training, research, and innovation activities. As the only organization in France to offer degree courses (engineering, master’s, specialized master’s, doctorate) covering all 22 space-related themes identified by CNES, the Institute is a key gateway to careers in space.

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