A Tale of Two Planets

With missions to Mars proposed to occur within the next few decades, testing our capabilities and limitations in a Martian environment is of pivotal importance. I had the good fortune to join the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) for a week in their “AMADEE-18” mission, where I learned about the intricacies and challenges of analogue Mars research, and its role for the future.

As a Psychology student at the University of Surrey, it was only a few years ago that I began to understand the implications of my studies in regards to human spaceflight. Before applying to Surrey, I had written a short thesis discussing the psychological factors in space travel, which discussed astronaut selection and training, as well as issues including prolonged isolation. Curiosity drove me further, and after many emails and discussions I was referred to the Austrian Space Forum where I completed an internship in 2016. I was tasked with studying factors in group conflict, so when I returned for AMADEE-18 this year I was not only intrigued to learn about other aspects of the operation, but to look out for the issues I knew could occur.

Due to confidentiality reasons I cannot discuss the finer psychological aspects of the mission, however I can entail my other experiences. This included talking to the “Field” crew on “Mars”, who were isolated for several weeks in the deserts of Dhofar, in Oman.

Like most space missions, the OeWF have a Mission Support Centre (MSC), which is tucked away in a corner of Innsbruck. Here lies the heart of the operation, where students and space professionals work in a variety of different roles and teams. To name a few, these include:

  • Flight-Plan: Organising the daily scientific activities of the Field Crew on “Mars”, down to 15-minute block sections of specificity.
  • Flight Director: The “leader” of the MSC. They are expected to be in constant communication with the other teams in order to make the best decisions for the mission.
  • Biomedical Engineers (BME’s): The medical officers who monitor the analogue astronauts physiological signs, including ECG’s, heart-rate, and C02/Oxygen levels within the analogue suits.
  • EarthCom: Similar to “CAPCOM” in NASA’s manned spaceflight program, this is the “middle-man” between field crew and MSC, relaying information from the MSC to the field, and vice versa.

It was the EarthCom position that struck me as highly interesting from a psychological standpoint, as the individual in that role holds responsibility for communication from the MSC to the Field Crew. This requires a level of sensitivity and situational awareness from the individual working in that position, as it is not only important to send the relevant commands and decisions from the MSC, but the manner in which you communicate these can also be influential. Incidents of Earth and space crews clashing in communication can be evidenced back to the Apollo era, where a “medical mutiny” by Wally Schirra led to tension between the groups, with Schirra talking back at Mission Control in irritability. A more serious example of such an event occurred in Skylab 4, where the crew shut down all communications with Earth for a full day, and is now a case study in team management and psychology. In regards to Mars missions such situations could be dire, as the communication delays between Earth and Mars can range from 3 to 21 minutes. A contingency situation on Mars would be difficult enough with this delay, let alone with a blend of miscommunication and team fission. As a result communication is not taken lightly even in analogue missions, and OeWF members are required to take several training courses in team-building and mindfulness, with the aim of raising empathy between crew and preventing such situations. So when I was asked to step in the role of EarthCom for a while I was initially apprehensive, however I was soon delighted to find that the high team-spirit within the MSC was also shared with our colleagues in Oman.

“Good morning Earth!” was often the first message we received from the Field Crew in the morning. Traditionally, in turn we chose a “wake up song” to tag to our response, including hits like “Danger Zone” and “Hooked on a Feeling” to share comradery and boost the mood of both MSC and Field teams. I was particularly interested to see the Field Crews outlook on the mission, as they had been alone in the Dhofar desert for almost three weeks when I joined. By that point it could be argued that the novelty of the situation could have worn off for both teams. For the MSC team this wasn’t too hard to deal with as despite the long working hours, we often met for socials and walks outside work. For the Field however this was harder to overcome, as like a real mission they were confined and isolated. Surprisingly, from what I gathered from my occasional time at EarthCom and the media content produced from the team in Oman, it looked like the crew were managing exceptionally. It was argued that previous analogue and isolation experience for many of the field crew had been a factor for this. Despite this, we still have to note that one month is relatively short in comparison to the isolation of a real Mars mission (which would take several months). This is to be expected given that the OeWF is a volunteer organisation in which people cannot devote large periods of time to, unlike individuals in NASA’s “NEEMO” program, and studies such as “Mars-500”. Nevertheless, the project held high scientific value, not just from a psychological perspective, but also in regards to geological and engineering problems.

In Oman, the Field Crew were hard at work conducting experiments daily. Thesewere done by the analogue astronauts who wear the “Aouda” spacesuit simulator, an analogue suit with physiological telemetry, thermal control, and communication systems. The suits have a W-LAN range of up to 1km, so the astronauts can communicate with the members back at base, where procedures can be clarified. Should the connection break, there were “safety” officers with backup radios who accompanied the astronauts a short distance behind in case anything went wrong. Fatigue can be prevalent, as these suits weigh close to 50kg, and demand high fitness from the astronauts who sometimes go on several hour EVA’s. This effect is amplified as part of the suit incorporates a modifiable exoskeleton, which replicates the pressure on the human joints as it would in a spacesuit on Mars. Even more impressive is the “donning” time to put on the suit: 3 hours.

Some highly interesting concepts and experiments were undertaken on the field, one of which was called “Hortextreme”. Developed by the Italian Space Agency, it consisted of a mobile inflatable greenhouse which incorporated hydroponics to grow “microgreens”, which are plants specifically selected for their relatively short growth cycle and low light requirements. After 12 days of operation, the crew were able to add some of these greens to their meals in the form of sprouts, a-la Mark Watney style.

Other experiments included ScanMars, a 2D/3D ground penetrating radar that aimed to provide a subsurface “map” of the area. The Dhofar deserts were specifically chosen for reasons related to this experiment, as it shares features with a Martian geology. The site chosen had evidence of “fluvial structures”, shared similar mineralogy as well as grain size distribution. One of the common worries of Mars exploration is dust, and this was an issue encountered during the AMADEE-18 mission this year. In regards to ScanMars, it will be intriguing to see what the radar discovered. On the topic of discovery, the mission even incorporated an experiment from the Oman Junior-Researchers High School called “Water-Explorer”, which used a geophone mounted on a rover to measure the reflection of ultrasound waves. These were just a few of the 15 experiments which were carried out over the course of the mission duration, and it was clear to see the application and importance to the greater context towards providing salience and knowledge in a real Mars mission, where food, water, and shelter in the form of underground caves will be vital.

In just a short week in Innsbruck, I learned much about analogue Mars missions and the role they play in preparing for the real thing. I would be excited not only to see the results of this mission, but to take part again in the next mission and see from my own point of view how things have been adapted or developed further. Practice makes progress, and in regards to Mars exploration that is a highly exciting prospect.

Konstantin Chterev

University of Surrey

Credit: OeWF/Florian Voggeneder

OeWF Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oewf/

OeWF Website: http://oewf.org/en/

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