Concordia Research Base, Antarctica. Image via European Space Agency

The Stars Down to Earth

The first installment of a five-part tour of life inside the most isolated space analog sites in the world.

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May 18 2015, 2:40pm

Concordia Research Base, Antarctica. Image via European Space Agency

All week, Motherboard contributor Daniel Oberhaus will be exploring those space simulations from around the world that have become integral in planning for long-duration space flight. This is part one of five.

It is 3:17 PM on July 16, 1969, and the mission control center in Houston Space Center is uncharacteristically quiet. In fact, it is totally silent. All the NASA employees present stare anxiously at their low-fi computer screens, waiting with bated breath, their white collars soaked with sweat. And then, finally: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

A collective exhale, a deafening cheer. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had successfully made their journey to the lunar surface, completing the most technically challenging feat of human daring in the history of the species. As NASA flight director Chris Kraft recalls in his book My Life in Mission Control, following the landing, "all hell broke out…cheering and waving small American flags, handshakes all around, complete pandemonium from the people who'd held it in and did their jobs in the face of historic stress. Neither [Manned Spacecraft Center Director Bob Gilruth nor I] could speak over the lumps in our throats."

Despite how momentous this occasion was, the moon landing in 1969 was only one of a number of similar excursions to the lunar surface that had occurred over the past two years at NASA's behest. These moon landings occurred far from the Sea of Tranquility however, instead taking place in a lava field just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Today, the Cinder Lake fields in northern Arizona don't look like much: an empty expanse of black volcanic rock surrounded by a grove of ponderosa pine, ATV tracks crosshatching the barren terrain, the occasional crushed can of Bud Light.

Things looked much different 47 years ago, however. Depending on the day, you might have witnessed massive explosions created by US Geological Survey personnel as they dynamited the field to create craters (which matched the lunar surface in the Sea of Tranquility), any number of scientists decked out in faux space suits traversing this pockmarked terrain, or maybe even these same scientists taking a lunar rover out for a spin.

Two USGS geologists in space suits conduct a simulated lunar mission at the Cinder Lake Crater field. Image via Northern Arizona University

By all accounts, the Cinder Lake lava fields represented the first space analog site, created for the sake of R&D that was pertinent to sending a manned mission to the moon. The fake lunar environment proved vital to the success of the Apollo 11 mission and in the half-century that has elapsed since NASA began dynamiting its way to a Moon analog, space simulations have become an integral element in planning for long duration space flight. Now that space agencies and private companies are seriously planning for a manned mission to Mars within our lifetime, the role of the science conducted at these space analog environments has taken on a special urgency, providing insights and elements of mission design that will be crucial for making humanity's first trip to the Red Planet as successful as its first trip to the Moon.

The environments used for contemporary space analog habitats are as varied as the people who live at them. From Antarctica to the bowels of unexplored cave systems to a warehouse in the middle of Moscow, everyone from college students to flight-tested astronauts are taking up residence at these analog locations to help find out just how humans will fare both physically and psychologically on long duration space flights in our not-too-distant future.

"It's very difficult to simulate every single aspect of space"

Despite the staggering variety of space analog locations, there are nevertheless some similarities between the designs of each site and the experiments performed there.

"It's very difficult to simulate every single aspect of space," said Pablo de Leon, an associate professor in the area of extravehicular activities and space suit design at the University of North Dakota. "It's more about simulating as such as you can, but you can't do everything. You just try to learn all you can with the tools that you have."

There are many aspects of spaceflight that are nearly impossible to prepare astronauts for with Earth bound simulation, particularly the effects of microgravity and radiation exposure. Despite the difficulty in simulating microgravity on Earth (according to de Leon, people still ask him frequently where NASA keeps its room where all the gravity has been sucked out, but he would like to remind everyone that this is still impossible), de Leon and his team are working on fixing that.

Their solution involves an Oculus Rift and a giant bungee apparatus at Johnson Space Center deemed the Active Response Gravity Offload System, or ARGOS. The set up will allow astronauts to get the real experience of walking around on Mars without leaving Houston. This is made possible by using imagery from planetary spacecraft to recreate a virtual Mars which will stream data into a fully pressurized space suit modified to fit an Oculus Rift in the helmet. The suited-up astronaut will then be placed in ARGOS, which is programmed to replicate the experience of Martian microgravity. Combined with the virtual Martian scenery being streamed into the astronaut's helmet, de Leon is hoping that the whole apparatus will give the test subjects an authentic Martian experience on Earth.

Despite how promising the advent of virtual analogs are, de Leon and his team still has a few technical difficulties to work out. "We're struggling a bit right now due to the small delay, just fractions of a second, between the imagery and movement," he told me over the phone. "It still gives you some motion sickness."

The initial tests of the ARGOS system look promising, and de Leon thinks that VR will increasingly become a part of analog life in the near future. That being said, he is the first to admit that it is unlikely it will ever completely replace its IRL counterparts.

"I think the use of VR technologies will become more vital over the years, [but] I don't think it will ever be just one way or the other," he said. "It will be a collaborative environment between virtual reality and humans. It's difficult to make a guess how these technologies will evolve over the years."

While the team continues to iron out the few remaining technical kinks in their VR space analog system, it looks like astronauts are going to need to continue to rely on their slightly less hi-fi terrestrial analogs. They may not be able to simulate gravity as precisely as ARGOS, but the proliferation of space analog systems has nonetheless made it possible to simulate a staggering variety of extraterrestrial conditions here on Earth.

CONCORDIA BASE, ANTARCTICA

Aurora Australis over Concordia. Image: ESA

Mario Salza (Italian, Station Leader), Lorenzo Moggio (Italian, Antarctic Atmospheric Physicist) and Beth Healey (English, ESA Research MD) are part of the 13 member team that is currently weathering out the long Antarctic winter at 75.06 ° S, 123.21 ° E. Concordia Base.

Slightly expecting my interview subjects to be half-mad with cabin fever and starving for human contact, Mario, Lorenzo and Beth are remarkably laid back given their situation, something which they largely attribute to Concordia's resident chef. Described to me as the "David Copperfield of the kitchen," the base's Italian chef, affectionately referred to simply as Luca, is something of a godsend for the Concordia crew. He has worked in kitchens around the world, fostering a multinational palette which has won over the hearts and stomachs of Concordia's French, Italian, Swiss and English crew. Luca's ability to innovate in the most remote kitchen on Earth is a must: the crew had depleted its stock of fresh fruits and vegetables by April and must rely on dehydrated equivalents until the planes can start flying in again in November.

Food plays a central role at the base, with national dishes not only providing something comforting and familiar to the crew in an otherwise hostile, alien world, but also providing a base for fostering unity and camaraderie among the crew members, something they all acknowledged plays a pivotal role in the success of the mission. The Concordia crew makes a point of dining together each meal of the day, which occur with clock-like regularity and help break up the monotony of winter days without sunshine and summer nights without stars.

Of the many facets of space travel that are replicated at terrestrial analogs, two of the most crucial are isolation and extreme environments. Space may be beautiful to look at from Earth, but actually traversing the cosmos involves incessant exposure to a wide variety of possible deaths and when you start measuring the distance between you and the rest of your species in millions of miles, the sense of isolation is total. Trying to replicate both this isolation and sense of danger on Earth can be very difficult, which is why the European Space Agency began considering analog locations at one of the loneliest places on the globe: Antarctica.

The Concordia base, a research outpost maintained by the Italian National Program for Antarctic Research (PNRA) and the French Polar Institute Paul Emile Victor (IPEV), was established in 1996, but its test subjects only began carrying out year round missions in 2005.Roughly twice the land area of Australia, the population of Antarctica fluctuates between 1,000 and 5,000 people throughout the course of the year. All of the "residents" of the white continent are transients living at remote research bases strewn across the frosted land mass, with the population peaking during the summer months (November-February) when temperatures generally hit a comfortable -30 C.

When I Skyped with the skeleton crew currently holding down at Concordia earlier this month, they were well into their first full day of darkness. The last plane flying from the base had left in the beginning of February, before it gets so cold that jet fuel begins to gel. When we spoke temperatures were hovering around -60C, and they won't be seeing the Sun again for another three months. But the crew members I chatted with were all smiles.

While Mario, Lorenzo and Beth all acknowledged that boredom can certainly become a factor when you find yourself stuck with the same 13 people for eight months out of the year, they all claimed that it hadn't yet become an issue. Concordia offers a host of boredom killing options, such as its sauna, gym and entertainment center. But the crew has found a number of other ways to pass their evenings, such as learning the language of their co-workers or forming a band.

Luca, Mario, Lorenzo and Beth have begun practicing as a yet-to-be-named music group and plan to make their debut performance on June 21, the Southern Hemisphere's winter solstice. According to the crew, the solstice is usually marked with a big celebration at the Concordia Base and not without reason: this date marks the official halfway point of the winter, serving as a forceful reminder that the crew is that much closer to getting to see the Sun again.

The crew takes advantage of any cause for celebration, something they claim is crucial to reducing stress and staying sane. The celebrations are necessarily imbued with a Concordia-twist; the crew does their best to replicate normal life despite their stringent conditions. For example, Beth, who celebrated her birthday two weeks ago, received a lamp made out of recycled cans as a present from the crew.

While life on the Concordia base certainly has its share of Zen moments, it is not all fun and games for the 13 Europeans who call it home. The crew is kept incredibly busy performing a variety of scientific experiments in accordance with each member's area of expertise, which ranges from glaciology to medicine. But it is the minor stressors that have put the most strain on the team.

They operate as equals in an environment where typical means of social stratification, such as wealth or dress, are no longer in play

For Beth, the only native English speaker at the base, the language barrier has been tough, despite the team's best efforts to accommodate her with their accent heavy, but grammatically enviable English. For Mario and Lorenzo, the lack of fresh food and relative immobility have been the toughest parts of life at the base. Unlike Europe, where you can "take an airplane and fly everywhere you want," here the crew is forced to limit their travel to short mile-long jaunts to the base's laboratories or the occasional snowmobile outing, weather permitting.

With the closest humans to the Concordia station actually being on the International Space Stationwhen it flies over it is about 200 kilometers closer to Concordia than the nearest Antarctic outpost at Vostokthe crew also misses variety in human interaction. According to Lorenzo, who is on his second mission at the base, this is something that has been remarkably improved since his last visit five years ago. On Lorenzo's previous visit, using the internet at the base was limited to short periods during which the crew could upload and download emails, making a lag time of up to several days for communication. Now the base is outfitted with a 500kb connection, allowing crew members to regularly Skype and email with their friends and family back in Europe.

The team has also relied heavily on the use of WhatsApp, which not only allows them to communicate in real time with their loved ones, but also is used for instant connection with mission directors back in Europe in the case of a malfunction or other difficulty.

Overall, though, the team says that their experience at the base has been a positive one. They enjoy the uniqueness of the social experiment, where people from all different cultural and professional backgrounds can cohabitate the remotest research facility in the world. They operate as equals in an environment where typical means of social stratification, such as wealth or dress, are no longer in play.

If anything, they said, the experience has made them more enthused about the possibilities of long duration space flight in the future. As Lorenzo told me at the conclusion of our conversation, "I don't think long duration space flight would be a problem. We are just waiting for them to ask us!"