How a UofG graduate ended up pretending to live lunar
The mission takes place in the Lunares habitat, a makeshift base in PILA, Poland designed to simulate the exact conditions of a manned lunar colony, complete with volcanic rock and dust.
The LEARN (Lunar Exploration Activities and Remote Navigation) mission is a 15-day simulation of the expected living conditions of humans living on the moon. Each year, a team of 5 would-be astronauts, as well as some crickets, cockroaches and earthworms brought along for the ride (and some experimentation), find themselves isolated in the habitat for the extent of the mission. The aim is to add to the collective data available on how humans fare in a group whilst isolated and with a limited inventory. This data could be invaluable for future pioneers who could be living on the moon for prolonged periods of time.
Over the 2-week period, the crew ate only freeze-dried food, had to maintain life support systems and were placed under 24-hour CCTV monitoring from Mission Control at ESTEC, the European Space Agency’s technical facility based far off in the Netherlands — think Big Brother, but with more science (and possibly a larger viewership). The crew also had to go without exposure to natural light, controlling the artificial lighting system which they used to simulate the length of a lunar day — almost an hour longer than a day on Earth.
Matej, a graduate of the University of Glasgow who now works at the European Space Agency, returned in mid-September from his fortnight in the habitat where he acted as Data Officer as part of the five strong crew made up of members from Estonia, Slovakia, Poland and the UK. Commenting on his role, he said:
“It’s basically monitoring the entire progress of the mission, making sure that all the data is gathered – one of the things that we did every morning, afternoon and evening was monitor everything from the health parameters of every single crew member, to how much had been consumed, to the state of the inventory.
“That’s the core of it, but it’s 5 five people locked up in the habitat for two weeks, so you have to be flexible to cover each other’s duty when necessary — not everything goes as planned.”
But in order for this data to be useful, everything must be meticulously replicated — indeed, the crew members cannot leave the base, even to the adjoining hangar (designed to resemble the surface of our only satellite) without first donning an EVA spacesuit or a low-gravity suit. Nothing is left to chance — every shred of data is scrupulously recorded in order to more fully understand the demands a crew this size will place on limited supplies.
“We noticed that our humidity inside oscillated between 40-60% and we wanted to check if the humidity was affecting our water intake, so we recorded every drink of water we had,” says Matej. “We wanted to see how much water we could get away with – we managed to shower in 400ml of water. And by shower, I mean you take a bit of towel and you rinse yourself.” Matej continued, “You don’t want to be hauling all that water to space.”
On the moon, nothing is wasted. In a video tour posted on the LEARN Facebook page, we see a towering mound of used tea bags in the kitchen. Rather than general sloppiness, we’re informed by Jacob (the team’s communications officer) that they’re kept there intentionally — the contents being desiccated and used to create biowaste in order to grow plants: after being mixed with some urine, for good measure. “I’m glad this video isn’t in 4D and you can’t smell this”, says Jacob.
We’re also introduced to some of the scientific experiments the crew run in the habitat, including a glimpse of the hydroponic garden (for those not in the know, hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a water-based and nutrient rich solution instead of soil) — which is really quite cool in its set-up.
However, the weakest link in any mission in space is rarely the equipment or inventory, but the people. While the crew logged everything internally during the mission, from what time they rose to whether they remembered their dreams, Mission Control carefully observed their behaviour from afar to get an idea of which types of people bond well together in isolation.
“I think the most interesting observations are about the humans,” Matej explains. “There’s a whole host of neuroscience experiments you can run to see how the stress, the isolation and all the kind of specifics of this sort of environment can influence people. Of course, you can run all sorts of other experiments, but those you could replicate elsewhere as well. So I think monitoring humans is the most genuine thing you can assess here.”
Luckily for Matej, his crew was commended on how well they were getting along. But of course, not everything runs so smoothly in other missions: “You hear from the more experienced analog astronauts that routine is the number one killer. People just fall into the same routine and feel bored, not engaged enough. So that drives them a bit crazy,” Matej tells us. “Sleep is probably the second factor – there’s a huge emphasis given on sleeping enough. and since people know these are the two, I’d say there’s been a few horror stories before. “
Horror stories may be an exaggeration, but it’s from the difficulties that those in these simulations undergo (and the comforts that they go without) that the program will likely glean its most useful data to help provide astronauts, and possibly regular people living in colonies in space, with safety and comfort. And crucially - it’s only for a couple of weeks. “In the end, all the things I was worried about worked out fine”, says Matej.
With any luck, future generations leaving for the moon will be able to say the same thing.
You can learn more about the LEARN Mission on their Facebook page, here: https://www.facebook.com/learnmission/