Extended space missions: The benefits of diversity

To best prepare for long stays on the moon or Mars, astronauts and scientists are training in teams in isolated places, and simulating, as close as possible, the conditions found on these celestial objects. Men and women participate in these experiments for several weeks in spartan environments where a mixed crew often proves to be an important asset. To celebrate Space Week, discover the course of a mission to prepare for human exploration of Mars.

Man has already walked on the moon, and we hope to return. However, our sights our now sent on even more ambitious objectives, like the European Space Agency’s construction of a lunar base using 3D printing, and a potential visit to Mars.

The Red Planet’s atmosphere is not inviting of short stays, particularly due to its harsh environment. What is more, it currently takes about seven months to get there from Earth. In other words, there is no question of visiting for a few days and then returning quickly. This mission may be a one-way journey. NASA’s aim is to send its first team to Mars sometime in the 2030s, with a crew composed of scientists and astronauts, both men and women, who are training in the most remote places on Earth, in the closest conditions possible to those on Mars.

Two research stations currently allow teams - usually made up of six people - to prepare for mission a to Mars. One station is located on Canada's Devon Island, in the heart of the Arctic Circle, which approaches the extreme cold conditions found on the Red Planet (-65 ° C on average). The other station is located in Utah’s desert in the United States, where the morphology and geology of the landscape is reminiscent of that on Mars.


"Training sessions can last from several weeks to a few months," said Bernard Foing, Executive Director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG), a part of the European Space Agency and commander of two training missions at the Utah site. During this period, the teams are confined to extremely cramped living spaces: two floors, which are eight meters in diameter (a total of about 100 square meters, much of which is cluttered with scientific equipment). They only come out two to three hours a day, for simulations of sampling in the field, or equipment maintenance.

"During these ‘extravehicular activities,’ we wear heavy suits (each weight multiple kilos), like we would have to do on Mars, where the atmosphere is starved of oxygen. Women can have trouble wearing this heavy equipment. However, this should not be a problem once on Mars, since gravity there is more than two and a half times lower than on Earth," says the researcher.

Cohesion and diversity

In reality, having mixed training groups seems to be an advantage, where community living is 7 days a week and can be more than 20 hours a day. Cramped quarters and the intensive amount of time spent together can quickly affect the mood of the crew. "In my experience, women contribute more than men to group cohesion," notes Bernard Foing. Irene Lia Schlacht shares this opinion and has noticed that "women find it easier to organize and take part in group activities" which helps keep spirits high among the different members of the expedition. The young Italian woman participated in a 15-day mission, on a team made up of three men and three women. She has also followed the behavior of other crews, both mixed and unisex, for three years. "In the field, female members may also propose more imaginative solutions than their male colleagues who are sometimes more tempted to strictly stick to the protocol," adds Bernard Foing.

To survive on Mars, visitors will be required above all else to adapt to group living in an extremely limited space. To achieve this, the diversity of the crew seems to be an sensible option.

For Women in Science

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