NASA’s Mock Mars Mission: Volunteers Exit 3D-Printed Habitat After 378 Days

9th Jul 2024
NASA’s Mock Mars Mission: Volunteers Exit 3D-Printed Habitat After 378 Days

Four volunteers were locked in a 3D-printed simulator for 378 days and exited on 6 July this year. The CHAPEA mission, which took place at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, aimed to replicate the challenges of a Mars expedition, including isolation, resource limitations, and communication delays, providing vital data for NASA’s ambitious plans to send astronauts to Mars by the late 2030s or early 2040s.

About the CHAPEA mission

This Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) mission is the first of three one-year simulated Mars missions. The first CHAPEA mission began on 25 June 2023, and included four crew members: 

  1. Kelly Haston, a research scientist and the mission’s commander
  2. Ross Brockwell, a structural engineer and public works administrator
  3. Nathan Jones, an emergency medicine physician
  4. Anca Selariu, a microbiologist. 

For more than a year, the crew simulated Mars mission operations, including “spacewalks” using virtual reality, conducted scientific research, grew and harvested vegetables, and maintained their equipment and habitat. The four volunteers operated under additional stressors a Mars crew may experience, including huge communication delays with Earth, resource limitations, equipment failure, significant workloads, and isolation.

CHAPEA mission 1 crew harvested tomatoes
Inside the habitat, the CHAPEA mission 1 crew harvested tomatoes and pepper. Credit: NASA/CHAPEA Crew

Mars Dune Alpha: 3D-printed Mars habitat

The habitat, known – Mars Dune Alpha – is a 3D-printed area located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. It is designed to simulate a Mars habitat to support long-duration exploration space missions. Life in Mars Dune Alpha will resemble the expected experience for those living in a future Mars surface habitat.

There are different spaces: 

  • Four private crew quarters
  • Dedicated workstations
  • Dedicated medical station
  • Common lounge areas
  • Galley and food growing stations
  • Bathroom

All this is designed within a limited space of 158 square meters. 

CHAPEA habitat
The 1,700-square-foot CHAPEA habitat contains individual living quarters for four volunteer crew members. Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford

The exterior of the habitat simulates the surface of Mars, including red soil and cliffs. To leave the hangar out to the exterior, crew members go through an airlock.

3D printing technology test during the CHAPEA mission

Future space exploration stations that are expected to be built on Mars have the potential to be 3D printed to eliminate the need to launch large quantities of building materials. The Martian regolith could be used to 3D print the habitat on a real mission to Mars.

What’s the point of simulating life on Mars?

The main goal was to create the most Mars-realistic conditions to obtain the most accurate data during the mission. Information about human health and performance in relation to Mars and relevant resource limitations in isolation will be essential for future Mars missions.

According to NASA’s official mission overview: “The results of CHAPEA and the knowledge gained from the analog missions will allow NASA to characterize the risk of the planned exploration food system design in relation to crew health and performance and inform NASA standards, associated vehicle mass and volume requirements, and resource-risk trades for long-duration exploration missions.

Mars habitat
NASA’s simulated Mars habitat includes a 1,200-square-foot sandbox with red sand to simulate the Martian landscape. Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford

Next steps towards Mars exploration

The second CHAPEA mission is planned to begin in the spring of 2025. The third and final mission is scheduled for 2026.

The results of all three CHAPEA missions will prepare NASA for the next giant leap: sending astronauts to Mars, which aims for the late 2030s or early 2040s.

On 6 July, NASA celebrated the crew’s exit with a “welcome home” ceremony at Johnson Space Center.

“CHAPEA-1 has been a unique experience, with great challenges, joys and sorrows and a lot of hard work, with a fair bit of fun thrown in as well,” mission commander Haston said during the live-streamed event.

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