What it takes to prep for a life on the Moon and beyond, according to a quantum physicist

  • Dr Adriana Marais talked to Health24 about her off-world settlement projects to prepare humanity for travelling to other planets
  • Once a candidate for the cancelled Mars One project, her foundation aims to further scientific research into sustainable resource-use in hostile environments
  • Besides life on the Moon and Mars, the Off-World Project is also important for communities on Earth in resource-constrained environments

Building a life off-world is not an easy feat. As the private space race heats up and with lots of milestones reached in 2020 – like SpaceX's first crewed mission to the International Space Station – there is still a lot that needs to be done on Earth to prep for missions to the Moon, and beyond.

For Dr Adriana Marais, this includes learning to set up settlements from scratch in harsh environments that will test humans' physical, mental and perhaps even spiritual mettle for survival.

Marais is a quantum physicist and was one of the South Africans shortlisted for the Mars One mission before it went bankrupt last year. But adamant to advance humanity's journey to the stars, she started the Proudly Human foundation that aims to promote scientific endeavours for sustainable living – "whatever planet we are on".

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Settlements from scratch

The foundation's Off-World Project is a series of settlements built from scratch in Earth's harshest environments to prepare for life on the Moon, Mars, and whatever other planets we may end up on.

From the deserts of Oman to the icy wilderness of Antarctica, these missions aim to test and train people to set up facilities for their basic needs, construct communication centres and help them thrive both physically and emotionally.

"The people that travel to and live on the Moon, Mars, and beyond will have a lot of tasks to take care of, while exposed to the risks and dangers inherent to being off-Earth, in an environment far away from other communities and limited in livable space," explains Marais, who gave a talk on the project at this year's SingularityU South Africa Summit.

While the idea of simulating off-world settlements isn't new, Proudly Human's project is unique. Participants have to build these sites from scratch with almost no help from the outside world, in the harshest climates one can find outside travelling by spaceship.

These various settlements will generate data and foster skills necessary for survival on mostly one-way trips to outer space.

A cabin in the woods

Recently, before lockdown, Marais and an expert survivalist Kurdt Greenwood built and completed a liveable cabin in an inaccessible part of the Tsitsikamma Forest area with lightweight materials they carried themselves.

It took them 300 hours to build, carrying around two tons of materials down a 1km trail and cost them around R25 000 for the materials.

“We built the cabin and all of our infrastructure from scratch, deep in a forest valley. Our daily challenges for power, water, food and communication, especially as winter sets in, have been time-consuming.

“But so many of our people here in South Africa and around the world live in far more extreme and resource-constrained environments.

"We rely on fire and gas for cooking and heating water, car batteries for charging phones and other small devices, and finally we had to buy a generator to charge our laptops when our invertor broke and we couldn't repair it during the lockdown.

"We collect water from the river, which is thankfully pristine, as well as our rainwater tank.”

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The isolation of Antarctica

Their next mission will be to a remote part of Antarctica where a team will survive a year in the severe Arctic winter – almost like what it would be like on the surface of Mars – building everything unassisted themselves and living off-the-grid without impacting their environment.

The life-support systems they will have to build include a communication satellite, human waste management, habitat control, agricultural facilities, medical infrastructure, cyber networks and other manufacturing elements.

“The conditions during winter in the Antarctic interior provide a unique research opportunity to prepare for life on Mars: average temperatures of around -70 degrees Celsius, low pressures at altitudes of over 3 000 metres and isolation more extreme than the International Space Station or the Moon, where there is no possible access for months at a time,” says Marais.

“At the same time, we aim to investigate the dynamics of the community itself, to better understand well-being and community spirit in an isolated, extreme and resource-constrained environment.”

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Importance of the psyche

The psychology of astronauts and off-worlders is one of the most important contributors to the success of these settlements. The international, 520-days long Mars 500 experiment confirmed the long-held beliefs that autonomy was one of the biggest barriers to interplanetary travel.

Cosmonauts became less motivated and willing to follow orders from ground control the less dependent they became on the home base, prioritising their own needs above others and believing that their skills to be far more superior than they actually are.

While it fostered independence, the crew’s psyches continuously needed validation of their efforts from ground control in order to stay motivated to stick to their tasks, as well as the need for a psychological support group during the mission to address frustrations.

“Whether you are living in an informal settlement, an overcrowded city, or a base in Antarctica or on Mars, basic human requirements are the same: safe shelter, reliable energy, clean water, nutritious food and of course keeping in touch with communication capabilities,” says Marais. “Setting up this kind of infrastructure in environments like Antarctica or Mars is challenging from a logistics and technology perspective.

“However, technology is not the biggest hurdle to living in extreme environments – mindset is what ultimately determines success or failure. I took the opportunity during the lockdown to reflect. What do we need to be happy? Can we live with less?”

On-world applications

But Proudly Human’s purpose isn’t just for off-world missions. The technological lessons learnt in resource-constrained environments will also help create solutions for humans on Earth in communities more deprived of modern luxuries.

“The Off-World Project hopes to be an inspiration to people just in terms of how resource-efficient we can set up a community to be,” said Marais during a discussion at the summit with Carla Sharpe, founding member of the South African Space Association and Women in Aerospace Africa.

“It’s also an inspiration to resource-constrained environments here on Earth – if we can arrive on Mars and set up camp, there’s really nothing except a lack of imagination and compassion stopping us from doing that in all regions here on Earth so that all humans can enjoy access to resources.”

Sharpe shared these sentiments, adding that promoting these sustainable practices is vital for our species’ evolution.

“I think we’re naturally a species that evolves emotionally, mentally, physically and we need to be able to evolve and change as we move into this new technology era as we move further afield into space,” adds Sharpe.

Awaiting permits for Antarctica

“If we want to survive with our resources and grow as a society, change is imperative and space is one of those areas that allow us to implement this change and to do it efficiently.”

While the Mars One project is no longer, Marais doesn’t view it as the end and believes that we will still get there, one way or another. In the meantime, Proudly Human is awaiting permits for their Antarctica settlement and is setting up a dummy settlement for exhibition at the Cape Town Science Centre next year.

As the private space race heats up alongside NASA’s plans to send another manned mission to the moon by 2024 and more preparation is being done to send people to Mars, it’s important to keep our eyes on home while we reach for the stars.

READ MORE | SA psychologists need to get involved at grassroot level

Image credit: Pixabay
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