378 Days Ago, Four NASA Volunteers Entered a 3D-Printed Bunker That Simulated Life on Mars. They Just Came Out

  • The CHAPEA mission aims to investigate what life on Mars might look like.

  • The mission is notable for its isolation from the outside world, maintenance work, and food cultivation.

  • This was the first of three similar missions.

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The scientific world wants to transport humans to Mars. But not just that: It also wants to establish a colony on the planet. However, this will be a difficult endeavor with many challenges. On June 25, 2023 four NASA volunteers entered a 3D-printed habitat to live and work in isolation for over a year. After 378 days, they’ve emerged from this year of isolation, where they were disconnected from the outside world.

No one goes in or out. Known as Mars Dune Alpha, this 1,700-square-foot bunker located in Houston, Texas, was intended to simulate life on the Red Planet. The habitat was 3D printed using “lavacrete,” an inexpensive semi-liquid concrete composite.

Why choose 3D printing? In NASA’s words, “Future space exploration settlements have the potential to be 3D printed with additive construction technology to eliminate the need to launch large quantities of building materials on multiple flights, which is cost prohibitive.” After all, if humans can print houses on Earth, why not do it on other planets by taking advantage of the resources there?

The bunker. The bunker, known as CHAPEA (Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog), had four private cabins for each crew member, offices, a medical station, a common living room, a kitchen, and culture stations. During the more than 300 days the four volunteers spent there, they carried out simulated Martian walks, maintenance tasks, and cultivation work.

Grace Douglas, the project’s principal investigator, stated in 2023: “The simulation will allow us to collect cognitive and physical performance data to give us more insight into the potential impacts of long-duration missions to Mars on crew health and performance.”

NASA's CHAPEA habitat Inside the CHAPEA habitat. | Image: NASA
NASA's CHAPEA habitat Outside the habitat that simulates the conditions on Mars. | Image: NASA

It wasn’t just about being isolated from the outside world. The crew members also had to grow their own food, maintain equipment (Martian dust storms are well-known), and live with a communication delay to simulate realistic Martian conditions. Now, it’s time to draw conclusions and wait.

NASA'S CHAPEA habitat Left to right: Anca Selariu, Nathan Jones, Ross Brockwell, and Kelly Haston. | Image: NASA

Wait? Yes, wait. This is just the first of three expeditions for the CHAPEA mission. The mission doesn’t end with these four volunteers. In fact, it’s just begun. Two more missions are scheduled, one in 2025 and one in 2027, both at the same base. NASA has learned valuable lessons from the Artemis missions, which aim to return humans to the Moon, and the CHAPEA data. This will help in preparing for the next significant step: sending astronauts to Mars.

What happened during all this time? Well, a lot. For instance, Anca Selariu, Nathan Jones, Ross Brockwell, and Kelly Haston missed the premiere of Barbie and Oppenheimer, they didn’t know that Apple launched an AI called Apple Intelligence, and they weren't able to witness the total solar eclipse. On the bright side, they’re back just in time to enjoy the first season of xDefiant or see Inside Out 2 in theaters. Unfortunately, the crew will encounter a difficult situation in Houston on their way out. The city was just slammed by Hurricane Beryl earlier this week, which left four people dead and millions without power.

Image | NASA

Related | Researchers Have Found 150,000 Tons of Ice on Mars Hidden in Plain Sight: In Its Volcanoes

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