Humans are now the closest they have ever been in getting to Mars. Hopefully, human missions to the red planet may start in 10-15 years, says astrobiologist Michaela Musilová, chair of the non-governmental Slovak Organisation for Space Activities (SOSA), who has recently returned from her second simulated mission to Mars, in which she served as a commander.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You have recently returned from a simulated mission to Mars. What do you consider the most successful part?
Michaela Musilová (MM): The main purpose of all of these missions is to help prepare people to colonise Mars in the future. We test technologies and research experiments that will help either to get humans to Mars or to live there. Then there is the psychological aspect: whether a crew of approximately six people can survive in the extreme conditions of these missions. As with a real mission to Mars, the crew has to survive the simulation with a limited amount of water, food or electricity and you can only communicate with people on Earth for a couple of hours a day. During our mission we had to perform about six different scientific and technological experiments, and luckily in the end they were all successful.
This was actually my second simulated mission on Mars. In the first one I was the so-called “greenhouse officer” and I was also in charge of all the research we had onboard. This second time I was the commander of the entire mission. I also got to choose the crew, and it was very important for me to find people that were compatible together. I think I did a good job because we had to overcome several challenges. For example, the toilet didn’t work from the very first day as we had snow and wind storms that caused a lot of problems. Despite all that we managed to work together very well, communicate effectively and all the problems got resolved, even crisis situations like when we lost two-thirds of our water supply.
Furthermore, it was important for me to give Slovak researchers access to this mission. Thus, I brought two research projects from Slovakia with me. Also, as I wanted to get Slovak students involved too, I organised a competition with a Slovak electricity company – Mission to Mars. Students from secondary schools were able to invent an experiment relevant to Mars and I took the winning project with me on the mission: growing spinach in the simulated Martian conditions. Students from a school in Detva were giving me instructions on how to do the experiment during the mission. It worked very well and our last supper on Mars included fresh spinach.
TSS: What were the criteria for choosing the project? Will you continue testing it for further use?
MM: The criteria for selection were first of all whether it’s scientifically robust; whether the students made sure all the procedures were thought through and whether they took into account all the limitations of the mission. It also had to be a very lightweight, small, compact experiment, not very expensive and had to fulfil various biological and technological criteria. The students needed to demonstrate that they did enough background research. The originality of the project was also important.
There are several possibilities for what can be done with this experiment in the future. Since it was successful, I think the Mars Society is going to use a similar system in the future. Moreover, we are actually planning to continue it partially here in Slovakia. SOSA is planning on building a mini-greenhouse at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava (STU), where it is based, and continue the project.
TSS: How do you assess the interest of students? What other experiments did you find interesting?
MM: There was a lot of interest. The best part for me was that the experiments came from all over Slovakia, even very small towns or cities. Ironically, there were no projects from Bratislava. The students, for example, built a pretty big Lego rover which was meant to sample the Martian soil. To collect a few samples, but also to put some different biochemical experiments into it. It was very well-designed in terms of the engineering, but from the scientific point of view they lost points because they didn’t think through the chemical sampling very well and they didn’t do their literature research well enough. Another experiment was focused on monitoring dust storms on Mars. It just lost its point because it wasn’t fully applicable at the research station where our simulated mission took place.
TSS: What do you think persuaded the Mars Society to ask you to command the simulated mission to Mars?
MM: One thing I think contributed to this was my performance in the previous mission of the first British crew to the Mars Desert Research Station. At the time, I was doing my PhD in Bristol. I had also worked with NASA, the European Space Agency and the UK Space Agency, had relevant research experiences, and I had also participated in extreme expeditions to places like Greenland or Japan. This is why I was given the role of being in charge of the research on Mars. The selection of the crew before the mission was focused more on the individual psychological profiles, not the compatibility of the crew together. That later led to many problems as there was one person who had problems with her own research and started to take her frustrations out on another team member. The space within the station is very constrained (with only eight metres in diameter), and there was no way to escape it. This caused that the person to go a little bit crazy and she actually wanted to escape the station. I was the main person that was calming her down, trying to solve the situation and who communicated with all the parties involved.
Since we were monitored at all times, I think the managers of the mission noticed that I had the right reaction to the situation and the necessary communication skills. I have also remained in contact with the Mars Society for the last three years and we have proposed several projects together.
TSS: How did you choose the members of your crew?
MM: I chose people that I had seen work together before or I had some working with them. I knew how they react to certain situations, how responsible they are in terms of doing research. I had to weigh out many criteria, but the compatibility was one of the main things.
TSS: Your mission was accompanied by several problems, as you mentioned before. How important is to manage stress in such situations?
MM: Extremely important. The main thing is to react well to the stress. To first take a deep breath, look at the whole situation, make an assessment of what you can do, how you can solve it and then start reacting rather than to start to panic instantly.
TSS: How do you maintain good mental condition?
MM: It’s lifetime of training. My number one thing is weighing out priorities in life or the situation, and just realising that I don’t need to panic. My first instinct is to stop, take a deep breath and assess the situation. And then I start dealing with it. At the same time, I try to keep myself calm. You always have to find something positive. No matter how unpleasant or stressful the situation is, think about the good things in life.
TSS: What were the main differences between this mission and the one in 2014?
MM: The first difference was the number of types of scientific experiments we brought with us, which also changed the focus of the mission. Interestingly, both had experiments that involved doing some work outside and inside the Martian station. During both missions I had to take samples quite far away from the station, so we had to take all the rovers we had. In terms of the work inside, both had experiments in the greenhouse and the biochemical labs.
As for the team, in the first mission we were seven. We were originally meant to be six, but we had an additional crew member who joined us later: a cameraman. He was meant to be filming us from the outside, but then they decided to have someone on the inside filming us. Ironically, there were also meant to be six of us on the second mission, but at the last minute one member couldn’t make it. The number of people did make quite a difference because there was much more personal space per crew member during the second mission. There were also cameras installed everywhere. And the crew interaction was very different.
The psychological aspect was more difficult this time, even though we worked better as a crew. We faced more challenges. On the first day, for example, the toilet broke. That was done on purpose to challenge us and it made us think of crazy solutions. We had several tests like this.
TSS: When did your fascination with Mars begin?
MM: My fascination with space started when I was eight years old. It was the reason I became an astrobiologist, with a focus on finding whether we are alone and whether the life can manage to form elsewhere in the universe, or at least within our solar system. When I was working at NASA JPL, we were focusing on Mars in particular and we were actually preparing the rover Curiosity which was meant to be sent to Mars at the time. During my research there I realised that there is actually a possibility for life to exist on Mars today and even for humans to get there in the near future.
TSS: Doesn’t it sound like science fiction that soon there may be missions to Mars and colonisation?
MM: For someone from the space sector, it isn’t science fiction. I teach at the International Space University, I work closely with various space companies and my organisation SOSA here in Slovakia actually communicates with many universities in Slovakia and elsewhere. I have a pretty good overview of what the situation is like. Actually, these days we’re closer than ever to getting humans to Mars because luckily it’s not just in the hands of space agencies anymore. Private companies are raising money and building technologies to get humans to Mars, which could get us there even in the next decade or 15 years.
My problem as an astrobiologist is that I face a dilemma. On one hand, I want to find out if there’s life on Mars or if it existed there in the past. Even finding at least some fossils there would change our knowledge so far about how easy it is for life to form on another planet within the same star system. On the other hand, getting humans to Mars means we’re likely to contaminate the planet with our germs and other microbes from Earth. Either humans will try to do astrobiology research on Mars themselves, or I’m afraid that our search for life there is limited to the next few years. If all goes well, humans will get to Mars by the 2030s.
TSS: Isn’t there a risk that private companies will turn it into a business?
MM: There are some companies like Mars One, which for years has been talking about sending humans on a one-way mission to Mars. It’s more of a commercial stunt, as they want to raise funds by making something like a Big Brother show. Their selection process is ridiculous as they are not following the strict selection process needed for astronauts.
However, companies like SpaceX are very successful in building rockets. They are developing technologies relevant to Mars. Also, they’re not planning on doing everything alone. As long as they will unite with other companies and space agencies that are good in the other segments, it will probably accelerate getting humans to Mars. Currently an individual country just cannot afford to fund a mission like that.
TSS: You studied at foreign universities because there were not many opportunities in Slovakia. Has the situation changed since then?
MM: Actually, one of my goals is to change it. Astronomy and astrophysics research has existed in Slovakia for many years. There have been several researchers in Košice involved in space missions, like Rosseta. We do have a heritage of some space research and technology, but it’s quite limited and it’s very difficult to study it here. Recently, the Faculty of Aeronautics of the Technical University in Košice mentioned they’ve opened up courses in space technologies. But that’s it. I’m trying to bring the astrobiology research to Slovakia. I actually have students in Slovakia engaged in space-related activities in incubators recently opened at STU. Hopefully, in the near future things will change and people won’t have to leave.