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image of a landscape on mars
Photo by Sian Proctor/HI-SEAS, University of Hawaii
She Lived on Mars (sort of  )

The fascinating life of an analog astronaut

By Mackenzie Carro and Anna Starecheski
From the September 2020 Issue

Courtesy of Sian Proctor

It’s not easy to live on Mars. There’s not enough oxygen to breathe. It’s a frigid -81 degrees Fahrenheit. And the atmosphere is so thin that if you step outside without special gear, your blood will fizz up like soda and you’ll die within seconds.

Yet despite the planet’s inhospitable environment, Dr. Sian Proctor spent four months living on the surface of Mars.

Or at least . . . she pretended to.

Proctor is what is known as an analog astronaut. Her job is to go on analog missions that simulate—or closely imitate—conditions in outer space. Her “mission to Mars” actually took place on the side of a volcano in Hawaii.

So she and her five crewmates were never actually in danger of their blood fizzing. But they did face many of the challenges that people stationed on Mars would face.

That was the whole point.

Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock.com

Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our solar system.

Questions to Answer

Humans have been dreaming of the stars for thousands of years. But it’s only recently that we’ve had the technology to get there. Over the past century, we’ve orbited Earth, walked on the moon, and sent robots to other planets. And now, NASA plans to put humans on Mars within the next 10 years.

In spite of all these achievements, there is still much to learn when it comes to living in space for long periods of time. Where will our food, water, and air come from? Where will we live? How will we get along with each other? How will being so far from home—in a place never meant to sustain human life—affect us?

These are some of the many questions that analog astronauts like Proctor can help answer.

Safe and Successful

The purpose of an analog mission is to learn how to make real space missions safe and successful. Analog missions are used to test technology, conduct experiments, and study the effects of space travel on humans.

The goal of Proctor’s mission was to study how astronauts might cook and eat in space. Proctor and her crewmates experimented with freeze-dried foods—foods that have had all the moisture sucked out of them so that they won’t go bad. Freeze-dried foods are a staple of astronauts’ diets because they last a long time and don’t take up a lot of room on spaceships.

But they didn’t just eat like astronauts. For the four months Proctor and her crewmates lived at the site, every aspect of their lives was meant to simulate life on Mars.

For example, they lived in a cramped dome similar to what a habitat on Mars would look like. (It was about the size of four school buses put together.) Each time they went outside, they put on a spacesuit. And they had no in-person contact with anyone outside the mission. They could send and receive messages from “Earth,” but they had to wait 20 minutes for each message to arrive—because that’s about how long it will take for messages to travel between Earth and Mars.

Courtesy of Sian Proctor

What It Takes

Proctor will tell you that being an analog astronaut is rewarding—but it isn’t easy. You need to be resilient, work well in a group, and stay calm under stress.

You also can’t get grossed out easily. Consider this: At times, each member of Proctor’s crew could only take two-minute showers twice a week. (Water on Mars will be scarce; not one drop can be wasted.) As a result, they had to get used to being a bit stinky.

So how do you become an analog astronaut? There are many paths. Proctor is a geologist and a college professor. Doctors, artists, engineers, and journalists have also gone on analog missions. After all, a future Mars society will need people to fill a variety of jobs.

You can even start training now.

“Living in space is all about being efficient with food, water, and energy,” says Proctor. “Start thinking about your electricity consumption and how you can be more efficient. How long are your showers? Can you do two minutes?”

Who knows?

One day you might get to use your training on a mission to Mars—maybe even the actual Mars.

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue.

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