Simulating Life on Mars

In April, 7 men and women gathered in a desert in the US state of Utah. They entered an experimental facility seeking to know what human beings need to survive on Mars. I took part in a 2-week experiment at the facility simulating life on the Martian surface.

A day and a half after I left Japan, I arrived at an experimental facility shaped like a landing vehicle in the middle of a vast desert in Utah. It's the called the MDRS, or Mars Desert Research Station.

The station was built by the non-profit organization Mars Society. Researchers and scientists gathered here from around the world to carry out an experiment simulating life on Mars.

I joined Team Asia, which consisted of 6 Japanese -- 5 men and one woman -- and an Indonesian man. We took over from a team from Belgium. We were to spend the next 2 weeks at the MDRS tackling challenges considered inevitable during life on the Red Planet, like the procurement of food and building inter-personal relationships.

World focuses on Mars

Interest in Mars is growing around the world. One reason is the growing possibility that humans will someday make it to the planet, thanks to scientific and technological progress such as the development of high-speed rockets.

Venture firm SpaceX, established by Elon Musk, the CEO of US electric car maker Tesla, has announced that it will send people to Mars by 2024.

Another factor is concerns that global warming and population growth on Earth is intensifying at a faster pace than anticipated. Moving to Mars is being considered as a possible reality.

Experiment begins

The oldest member of our team was aged 54, while the youngest was 19. Each person was given a role, such as commander, engineer, and biologist. I was given the role of a journalist, and was to video-record the experiment. I brought nearly 20 cameras.

Before the experiment began, the members and I stood outside the research station to inhale what would be our last breath of fresh air until the end of our 2-week long stay. Then we went inside. The moment we shut the heavy door, we began working under the scenario that we were stationed on Mars.

The atmosphere on Mars mostly consists of carbon dioxide, so we were required to wear a spacesuit and put on life-support equipment when we ventured outside. Unlike on Earth, we were subjected to various restrictions regarding the use of electricity, water and telecommunications. As the experiment got underway, I felt nervous and tense.

Daily schedule and rules

On Day 1, I put on a spacesuit and adjusted the air pressure in a designated area before venturing out. The red rocks and the desert I saw through the glass on my helmet made me think I was really on Mars.

The rules for "living on Mars" were stricter than I had expected.

We were basically banned from getting in touch with people not involved in the experiment. We had to wear a spacesuit outside the station. We were required to use English, especially for wireless communications, and cook for ourselves using freeze-dried space food. We had to rely on solar power. There were limits on water usage. For example, we could only shower once every 3 days. Telecommunications data was also restricted to 500 MB a day per team.

Brushing our teeth and washing our faces using just one cup of water, and ingesting space food through tubes, made me truly feel as if I was in an entirely different world.

Our daily schedule, from 7 AM to 10 PM, was quite tight.

  • 7:00 -- Wake up and have breakfast
  • 8:00 ~ 9:00 -- Meeting
  • 9:00 ~ 12:00 -- Activity outside station
  • 12:00 ~13:00 -- Lunch
  • 13:00 ~ 15:00 -- Research
  • 15:00 ~ 18:00 -- Compile reports
  • 18:00 ~ 19:00 -- Dinner
  • 19:00 ~ 21:00 -- Communicate with "controllers on Earth," submit reports and plans for the next day, etc.
  • 21:00 ~ 22:00 -- Meeting
  • 22:00 -- Bedtime

Many troubles occur

Even a minor error can be fatal when living on Mars. Due to the extreme anxiety and stress of the members, a series of errors were made several days after the experiments started.

Our oldest member, 54-year-old Wataru Okamoto, serving as engineer, mistakenly mishandled wires used to gauge radiation levels outside the station. The mishap took place when he was helping other members measure the levels.

Lack of concentration was to blame. It took him an hour to unwind the wires, going 15 minutes beyond the time limit. Had this occurred on Mars, the delay would have been very risky since the amount of oxygen is limited.

Our team's youngest member, 19-year-old Kai Takeda, the biologist, dozed off during meetings, apparently due to fatigue. He was yelled at by the team commander. Everyone appeared to be struggling to get used to the extraordinary lifestyle in the limited space. But that brought the team closer together, and the other members tried to cheer Takeda up.

Difference from lunar probe or space station

The most serious problem I recognized during our project was the time lag generated when communicating with "controllers on Earth."

Mars and Earth are 75 million kilometers apart. It takes anywhere from 3 to 20 minutes for radio waves from Mars to reach the Earth. That means it takes double that amount of time to exchange messages.

This could be a problem in emergencies, as we would hear back from controllers 6 minutes later at the earliest. Astronauts working for the International Space Station or those involved in lunar exploration basically act on instructions from Earth, since the ISS and the moon are relatively closer to Earth. But on Mars, people will need to be able to overcome an emergency on their own. And teamwork is essential for the team to successfully proceed with the project. Maintaining good personal relationships is the key to success.

Water contamination happens!

Around midway into the experiment, our 19-year-old member, Takeda, found that water in the outdoor tank had become contaminated.

A countless number of white substances about the size of a pinky finger were floating on the water surface. We were not sure what they were. All we knew was that the water was our life source.

We couldn't identify the source of the contamination, meaning that the water was probably no longer safe to drink. And no drinking water could automatically mean the end of the experiment.

There was a water source, but we couldn't use it because we didn't have a spare tank to store water.

We had about a week to go before the scheduled end of the experiment. It was impossible for any of us to survive that time without water. We would have to clean the contaminated tank.

That was a big challenge as we had to wear spacesuits while working outdoors. And we didn't know how many days it would take us to finish cleaning.

Another possible solution was to boil the contaminated water before consumption. But the crew members, who had become accustomed to thinking that they were actually living on Mars, were afraid the contamination was due to viruses or chemicals not yet known to mankind. The commander said he couldn't put any of his crew members in danger.

Should we suspend our experiment, prioritizing safety? Our team was facing a tough decision. None of us wanted to give up. Our discussion about what to do continued through to midnight.

Shortly after 2:00AM, one member had an idea -- to move the contaminated tank to a warehouse set up close to the habitat. We would clean the tank there and put the reserve water in it. This would help save a lot of time.

We took action the very next day. Thanks to everyone's hard work, we were able to have clean water again within 3 days.

Not a single member took the easiest path. Each one of us did our best to work through the challenge. It showed that working together was the path to a solution.

What I learned from my 2-week life on “Mars"

With our 2-week mission complete, I stepped out of the Mars Desert Research Station and took off my helmet.

In front of me was the vast, beautiful, gleaming desert that I was viewing through my own eyes and not through a piece of glass. I will never forget the sense of relief that I felt.

Looking back, 2 weeks was quite long. But at the same time, I remember thinking during my time there that I wouldn't mind continuing this lifestyle. I believe that's because our team was able to establish strong bonds.

While this experiment ended in 2 weeks, an actual trip to Mars will take 7 months, and require a 2-year stay. It will likely take 3 years or longer to complete a mission.

According to the ongoing plan, similar experiments simulating life on Mars will be continued at facilities set up at various locations around the world.

What is the key to life on Mars? If I were asked that question, I would immediately answer, "You would never be able to survive on your own. The key is to trust your buddies."

I believe this is the most important thing for humans to remember when exploring life on Mars.