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Simulating The Red Planet, On The Pale Blue Dot


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Ever wondered what it would be like to live on Mars? You wake up to the sun peeking over a red horizon. Outside, it's a balmy minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Time for breakfast, right? Mars has a little gravity, at least about third of the Earth, so at least your fried egg would probably stay in the pan. Better yet, at the end of the day you have 40 extra minutes to waste on Facebook or read a novel or tend your Martian garden. That's right, the Martian day, or sol, is 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds - just a bit longer than our days here on Earth. Well, before we actually send astronauts there, scientists are busy preparing for the trip here on Earth. They're creating Martian habitats all over the planet. They have one in the Arctic, in the Antarctic, in Russia, the Utah desert, even on the side of a Hawaiian volcano, to see how humans really fair with longer days, limited light and a different menu. Seems like a good idea to work out the kinks before that six month journey, right?

Well, here to talk about what's going on in these experiments are my guests: Kim Binsted is a co-investigator on the HI-SEAS Project, that's the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. She's also an associate professor at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. And she joins us today from Hawaii Public Radio. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

KIM BINSTED: Great to be here.

FLATOW: Welcome - Charles Czeisler is the Baldino professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Med School. He's also the chief of the division of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. He joins us from the BBC in Manchester, England. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Czeisler.


FLATOW: Dr. Binsted, you're working on a study to make a better, quote, "space menu." Tell us what's wrong with the old space menu. What are astronauts eating today and what should they be eating tomorrow on their way to Mars?

BINSTED: Well, that they have today on the space station tastes great but what they are essentially is individually pre-prepared meals. You'll get sort of a TV dinner chunk to heat up, maybe add some water to and eat. The problem with that is that once you have you pre-prepared, say, individual serving of lasagna, it will stay lasagna for the rest of time. It will never be anything else.


FLATOW: And if you're looking at a two-and-a-half year mission to Mars, it would be nice, probably, to have some variety. So what we're looking at is instead of sending pre-prepared meals, sending shelf-stable ingredients that the astronauts can combine into different dishes.

So you're giving them basically the kitchen pantry to take with them instead of the pre-made stuff?

BINSTED: That's right. It's a specialized pantry. It has to be shelf-stable. That means it needs to be able to last the length of the mission without go bad. But yeah, essentially that's what we're doing.

FLATOW: Yeah. And I'm looking at some of the ingredients here. You've got truffle oil, dried shiitake mushrooms, Korean chili paste. This is better than the stuff I'm eating now.


FLATOW: Well, if you think about it, the cost of food on Mars, the most of the cost is going to be getting it there. So truffle oil weighs the same as the canola, so we might well send the good stuff.

All right, Charles Czeisler, let's talk about the study out this week in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the Mars500 mission. You didn't take part in this particular study but tell me about this mission and what they found.

CZEISLER: What they found was that one of the most prominent issues that came up when they did the simulation was difficulty adapting their sleep-wake cycles to the conditions of the experiment. So they were there for about 17 months.

FLATOW: How many people were put where?

There were six months - excuse me, six people who were there for 17 months, and they simulated many of the aspects of travel to Mars, the confinement, being in an environment where you're with a particular crew the entire time. And they were about the same age as the crew members - current astronauts on the International Space Station are. And they had mission tasks to do and they had a simulated time when they landed on Mars. The only thing that they did not include in the simulation was the Martian day, that 40-minute extra time that needs to be factored in to adaptation to Mars. But even without that aspect, four out of the six crew members developed quite severe abnormalities in the timing of their sleep-wake schedule. One was unable to maintain the 24-hour day and began exhibiting what we call non-24-hour disorder, where every day he was going to bed and waking up about an hour later each day even though the rest of his crew and the rest of the activities were scheduled on a 24-hour day. A couple of the crew members had delayed sleep phase disorder where they were having trouble going to bed at night and trouble waking up in the morning.

CZEISLER: Another one split the timing of their sleep-wake schedule so that they were taking part of their sleep during day and part of it during the night. And yet another one was having trouble sleeping at night and trouble staying awake during the day.

FLATOW: Is lack of sleep - is that a real problem on a Mars mission if you're just basically on your way to Mars?

CZEISLER: Yes. Because what it does is it causes a deterioration of our ability to perform during the daytime. And in addition to that, there are adverse effects on the body as well as the brain. So in addition to increasing the risk for error and accident, which could be catastrophic on the way to Mars, it also causes difficulty even in metabolizing the meals that are being prepared.

So if we give a standard meal to someone whose circadian rhythms are disrupted and who's not getting enough sleep, and even if they've only been on that kind of a schedule for a few weeks, they already begin to go into a pre-metabolic state where their pancreas is no longer putting out enough insulin, even though their blood sugar levels are going higher.

FLATOW: Wow. 1-800-989-8255. Talking about a simulated trip to Mars. And Kim Binsted, you actually participated in one of those mock Mars mission a few years ago. And you did live on the Martian day, right?

BINSTED: Right. We were up at Mars on Devon Island for four months. And of those four months, we spent five weeks living on a Mars day. And the reason we could do this is we were out there in the Arctic summer, so there was very little natural light variation over 24 hours. It was bright all day. And we found that of our crew, seven, there were couple of us who were already suffering the kind of sleep disruption that has already been described. And those people got worst when we went onto Mars time. The rest of us - I mean I can speak personally. I loved it.


BINSTED: It was like having an extra bonus 40 minutes at the end of the day.

FLATOW: Is there any kind of, you know, I remember when I was in the Antarctic so many years ago, they talked about being there over the winter time when there were six months of darkness. And there was loneliness and actual - a predictable depression that people left alone for such a long time went through. Kim, did you see that? Charles? Do you think that they have to plan for something like that?

BINSTED: We didn't see it, but then again we were in quite a different circumstance. We had brightness all the time. We had sunlight all the time. So we didn't have the sort of depressing darkness that they would have in Antarctica or the artificial light only that they had at Mars500 in Russia.

FLATOW: Charles, wouldn't they have some artificial light somewhere?

CZEISLER: Well, they would, but the seasonal affective disorder occurs even here on Earth in the northern latitudes where they - especially during the winter when there's a reduced amount of sunlight every day. And that is something that would have to be of a concern in preparing for a mission to Mars.

And so one of the things that we learned in our laboratory when we did several mock missions simulating a trip to Mars where we included the Martian day was that specific counter-measures, in particular evening exposure to brighter lights, such as when they might have to be tending their Martian gardens and being in with the sunlight. Instead of like here on Earth, the farmers getting up with the chickens, we would advise that they spend the time - the brighter light exposure in the evening just before going to bed so that that would help facilitate their adaptation to the Martian day.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's talk to Elaine in Sacramento. Hi, Elaine.

ELAINE (CALLER): Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Fine. How are you? Go ahead, please.

(CALLER): I have a question about the ingredients in the pantry of available food stuff for the Mars-bound ship. I'm assuming this is kind of a high altitude. And I wondered, will there be people on board who know how to assemble these ingredients? In other words - the same question I would ask anybody here on Earth. You know how to cook? If you were given a basket of ingredients, would you know how to put them together to make a meal? Or will there be a chef on board?

FLATOW: Yeah. Would you choose people on a mission who knew how to cook, you know, and didn't bring water? Good question, Elaine. What do you think, Kim?

BINSTED: Well, we picked our crew according to their astronaut-like capabilities instead of their cooking abilities. So we've got quite a range in our crew. But just to make sure that everyone knew what they were doing, we gave them cooking lessons. Cornell had a workshop earlier this year. And it was great to see them learning how to work with these ingredients. They made all sorts of wonderful things. You'd be amazed what you can do with chef table's ingredients with a little bit of know-how.

FLATOW: Why is it that we always see so much hot sauce popular with astronauts all the time?

BINSTED: Yeah. That's commonly observed. And there's a couple possible reasons for that. One is that in microgravity the fluids shift in your body so you tend to get more congested. And as you know, the sense of smell is a really important part of your sense of taste. So if that shuts down, then maybe you want to start stimulating your taste buds in other ways. That's one possibility. Another is that space is a low sensory stimulation environment. So maybe people are looking psychologically for whatever stimulation they can get. And again turn to the hot sauce.

FLATOW: Can I give you...

BINSTED: Yet another possibility is that when you're in a closed, cramped space, it gets kind of smelly. And so maybe your sense of smell shuts down for those reasons. We're investigating all three of these ideas in our study.

FLATOW: Can I throw in a fourth possibility?

BINSTED: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: The astronauts were all trained in Houston.


BINSTED: Very possibly that too.

FLATOW: Well, you know, Texas hot sauce. Maybe they're just used to doing that and they take it up with them to space; could be a very simple answer. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Mike in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Hi, Mike.

MIKE: Hey, great, fascinating subject, one that I actually follow pretty closely. I, for about two years, worked in a job where for three days a week I was basically locked inside with the same people. Keep in mind, I could go home for the other four days, but we are pretty much indoors for three consecutive days. And at the end of that time, we were basically at each other's throats.

I mean we just didn't like each other, even though we had all started out as fast friends, we're all grown professionals. And I just often think about this experience and how you will not - how you would prevent this from happening to astronauts that are going to be gone for two, two and half years on a Martian mission. And I also have the answer for hot sauce, if you're wondering.

FLATOW: Yeah. What's your hot sauce suggestion?

MIKE: It's very prevalent within the military. If you don't - you've never eaten it or used it in food, you learn very early on to use it. So these are all mostly, I'm guessing, naval aviators. They were exposed to it as young cadets at Annapolis or as young sailors or as young naval officers. So...

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, you know, some of the pay load specialists were not, but then again they were - I'm sticking with my Houston. And I'll go with your - I'll go with your military explanation. Thanks, Mike. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about the missions to Mars on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. And let me get to his question and answer. What about people at each other's throat? Charles?

CZEISLER: It is...

BINSTED: Well, what we...


BINSTED: I was just going to say that what we've learned with these crews is they tend to either do very well together and bond very closely, or things can go quite badly wrong. When things go wrong in these small groups, they can go quite badly wrong. So one possible solution is to just make sure that you've tested your crew as a crew in these kinds of environments to see how they do before you send them off. So maybe you send your Mars crew to Antarctica for a few months before you send them to Mars.

FLATOW: Do you agree, Charles?

CZEISLER: Yes, I agree. And there's also a developing set of technologies to recognize with safe observation when things are going wrong with crew members even if they're not talking about it. And Dr. David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania is working on technology that would allow earlier detection of problems within a crew so that interventions can be deployed.

FLATOW: Kim Binsted, if we have an international crew of astronauts, not just from the United States, you're going to have to widen your menu a bit, are you not to...

BINSTED: Well, as you saw from our ingredients list, we're doing our best to keep it quite wide right now. But yes, you'll find that they way they combine these ingredients, of course, they'll have preferences on recipes and how they use them. Right now we're seeing that as a plus, that it'll provide more variety. But there could well be conflict if one crew member loves a particular dish and another one hates it. That could be a source of conflict rather than pleasure.

FLATOW: And you actually have a recipe contest going on now?

BINSTED: That's right. It's just - I think it's just opening today, so we're - we've posted our ingredient list on our website, And we invite people to go and send us their recipes, look at what we've got. And the finalists are going to be tried out by the crew when their in the habitat for four months. And yeah, prizes to the winners.

FLATOW: And when does the habitat begin? Give us the schedule on it.

BINSTED: It's going to be - they're right now in their training mission in Utah, and then they go into the habitat here in Hawaii at the beginning of April for four months.

FLATOW: And that's on the side of a mountain, a volcano?

BINSTED: That's right. It's on the slopes of Mauna Loa, and it's a wonderful area. It's extremely Mars-like. When you see pictures of it, it looks just like the images coming back from the rover on Mars right now. Very little plant life, all of this wonderful reddish regolith, very little sight of human activity, you know, a telescope off in the distance but not much else. It's not the sand and waving palm trees that you're thinking of necessarily.

FLATOW: But it's certainly not that episode on "The Twilight Zone" where the guy went a little nutty by himself. Remember that one? He thought he was alone in the town?

BINSTED: Let's hope it's not like that.


FLATOW: Any last words, Charles? Any last words of advice on people who are going to be going to space, to Mars?

CZEISLER: Well, I think maintaining - keeping their circadian rhythms in sync with a 24-hour day is going to be critical, and light is the most important synchronizer of our internal circadian rhythm. So coordinating the timing of light exposure is going to be crucial. And it's exciting that on the International Space Station, it's just being refitted with new solid-state lighting systems that are going to enable us to control the wavelength of the exposure and not just the intensity. And wavelength is critical because the shorter wavelength, the bluer end of the spectrum, is much more effective at resetting circadian rhythms.

FLATOW: There we go. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. Have a good weekend.

BINSTED: Thank you.

CZEISLER: Thank you, Ira. Good afternoon.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Kim Binsted is co-investigator of the HI-SEAS project. That's the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, also associate professor at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. You can get - go on our website and she's got that recipe contest up there. Charles Czeisler is the Baldino professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Med School, also chief of the division of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.