Preparing colonists
2015-07-22 | Text: Tatiana Petukhova | Photo ©: Kovalenko Inna / fotolia, Institute of Physics Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, American Spirit / shutterstock; Colin Marquardt, archive «Mars-500», HI SEAS, Mars One, snapshot from the film «Увидеть Марс… и не сойти с ума» | 3537

It’s always hard to train a specialist. It gets even harder when there’s no way to simulate the specialist’s future work environment. However, astronauts still receive training, and those training methods have been perfected down to the smallest detail. Now even greater challenges are on the horizon – how do you train people for longer space missions colonize other planets?  Here is where many problems come into play. Extremely limited water, food, fuel, and air; cramped conditions; long periods spent working with the same people; the impossibility of outside help; encounters with new (and perhaps unpredictable) surroundings… Will future space travelers be able to take it all? Where is the line between human ability and human limitations? Scientists are seeking answers to these questions in earthly experiments to develop unearthly skills. 

“A Year on a Spaceship”

After Gagarin’s spaceflight Sergey Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space program, set his sights on further space missions – including a flight to another planet, naturally.

The first experiment to simulate life on another planet took place in late 1967 at the Institute of Medical and Biological Issues and entered history under the name “A Year in a Spaceship.” It was a secret experiment: the participants told even their own families that they were going on a trip to the Arctic. In reality medical doctor German Manovtsev, biologist Andrey Bozhko, and technician Boris Ulybyshev spent 366 days completely cut off from the outside world, in a hermetically-sealed chamber whose dimensions were exactly the same as those of the crew module of a ship designed by Korolyov to fly to Mars. They tested not only life support systems within a closed space, but also the extremes of the human body’s endurance.

The three subjects lived under conditions that were worse than harsh. A 3x4-meter space contained a table, stove, a bicycle ergometer for exercise, three bunks stacked one on top of the other, and a lavatory. The module possessed a self-contained life support system. There were minimal supplies of water and air which were renewed through an internal recycling system. Each subject had an allowance of one bucket of water for every ten days, plus whatever could be filtered from the common kitchen waste. The three’s rations consisted of canned food and freeze-dried meat and vegetables. Their calorie intake did not exceed 1,000 calories per 24-hour period. By way of comparison, today’s astronauts consume 3,000 calories every day. The subjects had to endure constant feelings of hunger throughout the year-long experiment. 

During the experiment the crew’s circulation and respiration were checked, and medical examinations took place every morning and evening.  The test subjects even had to sleep in special helmets that took encephalograms. A ventilation system generated 90 to 100 decibels of constant noise both day and night. 

The subjects regularly faced simulated emergencies ten days in duration. One such simulation modeled decompression of the module. The temperature rose from 21 to 30-35°С, and oxygen levels dropped to 16% (fresh air contains 21%),while carbon dioxide readings increased tenfold.

The most grueling experiments turned out to be psychological, however. It needs to be said that researchers deliberately choose test subjects who were incompatible with one another. They began to dislike one another from the very beginning. The crew’s commander, doctor German Manovtsev, for a long time kept a severe ear infection secret from the others for fear that it would end the experiment. The relations between the crewmembers were so strained that when he revealed the secret, Manovtsev performed the operation himself, using a small mirror.

In his book A Year in a Spaceship biologist Andrey Bozhko writes: “It turned out that the three of us living together created serious problems due to the “triangle” that formed […] To me it is completely obvious that the hardest thing was living together in a closed space from which you could not leave if something did not suit you. That constant psychological pressure exhausts you more than anything else…” While recounting his group’s psychological trials, he quotes O. Henry: “If you want to instigate the art of manslaughter just shut two men up in a eighteen by twenty-foot cabin for a month. Human nature won’t stand it.”

When one is in long-term isolation, any little thing, any word or look that on Earth would be of no account, can cause anger or resentment.

As the test subjects later noted, keeping diaries helped them deal with the experiment psychologically.

For two months of “flight time” the subjects lived only in a single sealed chamber, but then, according to the test script, their station docked with a greenhouse module, in which the test participants not only grew fruits and vegetables, but also had the opportunity to get away from each other and spend some time alone.

While living under these unbearable conditions the experiment’s participants also needed to carry out a program of experiments within their field of expertise. Two of them used the results of these experiments to write dissertations.

The results of the experiment, as well as the knowledge and experiences of the three test subjects, later proved to be of use preparing and carrying out new experiments, in particular the Mars 5000 project.


In Krasnoyarsk scientists at the Institute of Biophysics at the Siberian Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences spent the ‘60s and ‘70s working on a life-support system called BIOS. At first it was used to grow a type of algae, Chlorella, that can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Then in 1972 a 315-square meter facility, BIOS 3, was created to carry out experiments with humans. Out of ten experiments with crews of one to three people, the longest lasted 180 days. Of all the participants, it was engineer Nikolay Burgreyev who spent the most time in BIOS 3 – a combined total of 13 months. 

The test subjects grew food in special phytotron and cultivator modules. Wheat was grown using a conveyor system, allowing fourteen age groups to exist simultaneously. Scientists bred a special sort of dwarf wheat possessing large ears but short stalks (which reduced waste). A conveyor system with six age groups was used to grow carrots, radishes, beets, potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, sorrel, lettuce, dill, onions, and tiger nut sedge (to produce cooking oil). Each participant received a daily ration of about 200 grams of grains (bread was made) and about 400 grams of fresh vegetables. Scientists created a balanced selection of plants that provided the levels of vitamins and micronutrients required by the human body.

Human waste underwent mineralization, and some of it was used in the Chlorella cultivators. Waste water for bathing and laundry was used to water the wheat and vegetables. Drinking water was derived from condensation that formed in the phytotrons and Chlorella cultivators. The resulting water was passed through filters containing ion-exchanging resins and activated carbon.

People inside BIOS breathed only the air and drank only the water contained within the system. In terms of food, the system was 50% self-contained: plant-derived food was grown within BIOS, while the second half of the rations came from a stock of food rich in animal-derived proteins.

Biosphere 2

How an American attempt to simulate human life within a self-contained ecosystem on another planet turned into the large-scale project Biosphere 2.

Biosphere 2 was built by the company Space Biosphere Ventures and billionaire Edward Bass in the Arizona desert. The number two in its name emphasizes that the first biosphere is Earth.

In a 1.2-hectare structure the project’s creators constructed an artificial biosphere in which they tried to model processes that take place in Earth’s natural ecosystems. The Biosphere contained tropical forest, desert, savanna, a small ocean with a coral reef and mangrove swamp, and farming area for growing fruits and vegetables and keeping livestock. In order to recreate the Earth’s natural nutrient cycle as closely as possible, the Biosphere was populated with a specially-selected group of species.

Eight project participants (four men and four women) spent two years (1991-1993) in complete isolation in the Biosphere. They were faced with a problem: the artificial biosphere developed completely unlike a natural one. For example, within it the concentration of carbon dioxide began to grow. Oxygen content decreased by 0.5% monthly, and over sixteen months dropped from 20.9% to 14.5%. In the end the participants were forced to live in conditions of oxygen deprivation (on Earth this state can be felt at an altitude of 4,080 meters above sea level.) Naturally, the lack of oxygen took its toll on the well-being of the project participants and their ability to work. When oxygen levels became critical, oxygen had to be pumped in from outside, which violated the biosphere’s original conception of a self-contained natural ecosystem.

Many of the various plants could not produce the necessary amount of oxygen. Scientists believe that the oxygen was “eaten up” by microorganisms present in overabundance in the soil.

One more problem that the participants faced was the presence of pest insects, whose numbers increased in the absence of predators (the food chains in the artificially-created ecosystem turned out to be incomplete.) Using chemicals to control the pests was impossible because they would certainly poison the other inhabitants and the humans (self-purification processes in such small ecosystems happen very slowly.) The project’s participants had to gather the pest insects by hand and breed their natural enemies.

The Biosphere did not have enough farming area to feed even eight human subjects. The biomes that had been created collapsed. In the mornings water condensed under the complex’s glass roof, leading to artificial rainfall, even in the biosphere’s desert. The lack of wind, which in a natural environment regularly strengthens trees by shaking them, meant that the trees were weak and fell easily.


This project of the Institute of Medical and Biological Issues at the Russian Academy of Sciences simulated a manned flight to Mars and back lasting 520 days (from June 3, 2010, to November 4, 2011). Six volunteers from four countries took the “trip to Mars”: three were from Russia, two from the European Union, and one from China.

During the three nights preceding disembarkation, the members of the landing group slept on a 15° incline relative to horizontal. This was done to bring the subjects’ bodies to a state similar to that which they would experience after a flight in weightless conditions. During simulations of disembarkation and work on the Martian surface, Orlan-E spacesuits were put through successful trials. The developer, NPP Zvezda, presents the Orlan-E as the prototype of a future protective suit for use on Mars. The spacesuit weighs 32 kilograms – roughly half the weight of the Orlan orbital spacesuit – and has greater mobility for the wearer’s arms and legs.

While participating in the experiment, the group drank personalized probiotics that had been cultivated from their own bodies’ microflora before the mission’s start. This helped their bodies deal with harmful microorganisms that cause problems with digestion. The program participants took showers only once every ten or more days, but microbiologists provided experiment participants with silver-coated underclothing.

Special bracelets recorded changes in the subjects’ physical condition. Physiologists discovered lowered activity levels and sleep disorders in the test subjects. One subject completely lost any sense of the day/night cycle. Instead he began to live on a 25-hour cycle, which quickly led to his completely falling out of sync with the rest of the crew. Another participant did the opposite – he developed insomnia.

Stations in the desert and the Arctic: FMARS and MDRS 

American space experts believe that in order for astronauts to develop skills in extravehicular activity, studies of people in closed environments must be combined with work in “analog habitats” – places that approximate conditions on another planet.

The Mars Society, founded by Robert Zubrin, has created its stations on the analog habitat principle. One station, the Mars Desert Research Station, is located in the Utah desert, while another, Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, is located in the Arctic, on the northern shore of Devon Island.

In Utah crews replace one another every two weeks, with over 140 teams having participated since 2001. In the summer of 2013 team number 129, Team Russia, worked at the station, and Russian Anastasia Stepanova came to the station in fall 2014 as part of team number 143.  The station is a testing ground of sorts for all kind of experiments. Teams try out equipment – rovers, weather balloons, wind-based power stations – and carry out geological and biological experiments. Thanks to a fund set up by Elon Musk, the station includes an observatory with 14-inch telescope at which amateur and professional astronomers can conduct research.

Extravehicular activity on the Martian surface is an important part of the work at MDRS. Large distances are traversed using rovers. Analog habitats allow researchers to get at least something of a feel for the harsh conditions on an alien planet. Russian participant Alexander Ilyin recalls: “In the Utah desert the dry air can be very dangerous – dehydration sets in very quickly. After sunrise the humidity rapidly falls from 20% to 1-3% and during the day rarely exceeds 10%. At MDRS we had to drink several liters of tea or Gatorade every day. Without constant hydration, your ability to work decreases, you begin to get confused and experience headaches…”

Crews consume pre-packaged food, most of which is freeze-dried. The station has a GreenHab greenhouse in which vegetables and some fruits and berries are grown. Since missions last two weeks, each group must be scrupulous in its greenhouse duties. You eat what the previous crew planted, and the next crew will eat what you planted and cultivated.  

The Arctic base is host to longer missions either a month or three months in duration. In 2015 it will host a year-long mission – Mars Arctic 365. The station is located about 1500 kilometers from the North Pole, in the middle of the polar desert, near Haughton Crater, a 22-kilometer impact crater formed 39 million years ago. Polar regions are the closest analogues to the Martian surface that can be found on Earth.

Part of the mission will consist of geological exploration. Methods and techniques most suitable for work on Mars will be developed. The crew must achieve real scientific results. The mission’s crew will have to endure not only prolonged isolation, but also the cold climate (prior expeditions took place during the mild Arctic summer). And there’s one more danger – polar bears.

Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS)

One recently launched experiment is the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. Run jointly by Cornell University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the project is financed by NASA.

Those behind the HI-SEAS project managed to find a “Martian” landscape among all the lush vegetation of the Hawaiian Islands. At an altitude of 2500 meters above sea level they constructed a base on a slope of the Mauna Loa volcano, among lava flows where plants and animals are scarce. The base is a two-story dome 11 meters in diameter that occupies an area of 140 square meters.

The first two stages, each consisting of four months in isolation, have already been completed. An eight-month experiment began on October 15, 2014. A team of three men and three women were picked on the basis of their levelheadedness and compatibility. The primary focus in this case is on psychological risks. The researchers at the project believe that prolonged isolation might lead to depression and interpersonal conflicts. The subjects will be observed for signs of what is called the “third quarter syndrome.” This psychological state, marked by depression, occurs in people who work in isolation for long periods of time. Scientists consider the psychological element to be one of the primary problems with a flight to Mars, on a level with radiation – something so serious that there is no point in attempting a mission until the issue is solved. At first the space mission is enthralling and inspiring; in the second quarter it becomes routine. In the third quarter some crew members might lose interest and conflicts might arise between crew members or between “Earth” and the crew. As a rule, toward the end of the mission, things return to their prior routine.

Finally, in conclusion, we take a look at what plans the world’s space superpowers have for colonizing space. In other words, when will there finally be an opportunity to use the skills developed in all these experiments?

The year that figures most often in these programs is 2030. The United States plans to send a manned flight to Mars. Russia wants to fly to the moon and establish a manned base in stationary orbit there. China first plans to go to the moon, and then twenty years later (in 2050) to go on to Mars, using its own lunar base as the launch point.

But government programs are not the only ones. There are also private initiatives, and they are even more optimistic. The first space tourist, multimillionaire Dennis Tito, plans Venus and Mars flyby mission in 2021-23. The Dutch project Mars One plans to create its first “one-way ticket” Martian settlement in 2026. Meanwhile Elon Musk plans to create an 80,000-person colony on Mars. Admittedly, he has yet to name any dates.

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