A(u)stronauts Are Taking the Lead on Manned Mission to Mars

bridges vol. 11, September 2006 / Feature Articles
by Caroline Adenberger


A hostile desert environment and blistering heat. No idea what to expect outside the habitat, an eight-meter diameter, two-deck cylindrical structure mounted on landing struts. That's exactly the situation the flight crew of "AustroMars" had to face in April this year when arriving at MARS . . . but no, we're not talking (yet) about the first human landing on the Red Planet itself but about the first "landing" of an all-Austrian crew on the so-called "Mars Analog Research Station" (MARS) in the desert of Utah in the United States (which, by the way, also explains the "blistering heat." On real Mars, the temperature would be a little chillier, with an average of 218 K or -55°C).


The six Austrians forming the "flight crew" became analog-astronauts for two weeks, successfully conducting 17 experiments in various scientific fields under Mars-like conditions in and around the habitat, and under many of the same constraints as they would encounter on the Red Planet. Two years of preparation preceded their mission, with about 120 volunteers from Austrian universities and private businesses preparing and organizing the whole project. Sponsored by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency with €80,000, and supported by several private businesses, the costs for this project amount to approximately €140,000 according to the main organizers, the Austrian Space Forum.

The goal of the AustroMars mission was to gain new knowledge for the first real human space flight to Mars. Although a manned space flight to Mars is, at the present time, still a distant prospect, habitats like the one in Utah represent a key element in the preparation and planning of the future human Mars mission.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} But the results of the scientific and technological experiments conducted in the research station are not only of use for future human explorations of Mars: Their results, and the technologies developed, can also be applied in real life on Earth, in fields from mobile monitoring of patients to waste management. And they show, last but not least, that Austrian research and development in spaceflight-related fields has the capacity to compete at the forefront of international R&D.

AustroMars - meet the flight crew
After a public call for Austrian (analog) astronauts - bridges reported on it in vol. 7 - 182 persons, with various educational backgrounds like pilots, technicians, doctors, and university professors, applied to become members of the flight crew of the AustroMars mission. Out of these 182, the final six flight crew members and a three-member backup crew were selected, based upon the results of medical, psychological, and knowledge-based tests:

Flight CrewAustroMars_Flight_Crew_capt

  • Norbert Frischauf, Commander AustroMars Project Management, Engineering Unit Management
  • Alexander Soucek, MSS, First Officer AustroMars Project Management, Humanities Unit Management
  • Gernot Grömer, Health and Safety Officer AustroMars Project Management, Science and Logistics & Support Unit Management
  • Christian Hutsteiner, Flight Engineer
  • Christoph Kandler, Mission Specialist Planetary Science
  • Markus Spiss, Mission Specialist Life Science

Backup Crew

  • Johannes Gross, Backup Flight Engineer
  • Johannes Nendwich, Backup Life Science
  • René Vidalli, Backup Planetary Science

After extensive training and preparation sessions ranging from physical tests like the "lower-body-negative-pressure" test at the Institute for Adaptive Space Flight Psychology (IAP) in Graz (see article on the IAP in bridges vol. 6 ) to theoretical training with lectures in astronomy/planetology, organization theory, or GPS field sessions, the AustroMars crew was ready on April 8, 2006, for the takeoff to its two-week mission.

An interdisciplinary project
The Austrian Mars simulation, with its 17 experiments in 10 different disciplines, was the largest high fidelity simulation ever to take place in the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) founded, and still overseen, by the Mars Society. The MDRS has been in operation since January 2003, and about 70,000 person-hours of analog experience have been collected so far - more than in any other analog station worldwide.

The Austrian crew conducted experiments in the following areas (the following project descriptions refer to the AustroMars website):

  • BioMars (Birgit Sattler, University of Innsbruck)AustroMars_track_trace_capt

Project description: During a manned Mars mission, preventing the contamination of soil samples (especially when looking for traces of life) poses a major microbiological challenge. Within the scope of BioMars, the amount of forward (i.e., from the habitat to the Martian environment) and also backward contamination (i.e., the possibility of introducing biological material from the environment into the habitat and eventually into the ecosystem of our planet) will be quantified for the first time. The BioMars team analyzes the magnitude of contamination via microspherules (microscopically small plastic balls), which are able to fluoresce, as well as by other microbiological techniques.

  • TeleMars (Gernot Grömer, University of Innsbruck)

Project description: Because of its location, an astronomical outpost on Mars exhibits advantages such as observing objects in our solar system from two different points of view (Earth and Mars) or the observation of Mars' atmosphere by monitoring its absorption behavior (for example observe the light of well analyzed stars). So astronomers can measure short-term variations in the atmospheric chemical composition very precisely.

  • PhysioMars (Sandra Lengauer, Educational Center West for Health Personnel)

Project description: A heavy life-support system in a backpack, a lot of EVAs (i.e., Extra Vehicular Activities) - already weakened by a journey in zero gravity lasting several months, the crew of a Mars mission suffers when subjected to unaccustomed muscular stress. Physiotherapeutic methods are able to lower the risk of injuries and, at the same time, will increase the efficiency of the astronauts. For the first time, a MDRS crew will receive a brief training in physiotherapy to identify muscular stress patterns and to implement simple countermeasures (massage, etc.).

  • GeoMars (Iris Lenauer, University of Vienna)

Project description: One of the most important tasks of Mars exploration is the geophysical and geological characterization of the surface, e.g., searching for traces of water and information about the red planet's climatic history. With the help of remote sensing data - pictures made by a flying robot and an unmanned rover, as well as the AustroMars flight crew - the experiment is able to simulate how to choose the best locations for taking soil samples, and the ideal methods for sample handling and on-site analysis.

  • MedMars (Berthold Moser/University Hospital Innsbruck)AustroMars_rescue_mission_c

Project description: "Mobile Monitoring of Patients" is one of medicine's booming branches. During the AustroMars mission, it is used to monitor the crew completely during EVA. A monitoring system, which is built into the life-support system backpack, sends data such as ECG, carbon dioxide concentration of exhaled air, and body temperature to the habitat and mission control center. Additionally, the crew is trained in emergency medical aid treatment (like recovering an injured analog-astronaut).

  • PsychoMars (Florian Juen, University of Innsbruck)

Project description: If six people live together in a 24 square meter station in a hostile environment for two weeks, there is a risk of extreme psychological situations which seriously imperil the success of the mission. The PsychoMars experiment studies how stress develops under these extraordinary conditions and which countermeasures the psychologists in the mission control center can apply. For these purposes, measurements of hormones in the saliva, video observation, and written test batteries are used. In addition, the process of selecting the best crew configuration is part of these experiments.

  • LBNP (Helmut Hinghofer, Medical University Graz)

Project description: In the Lower-Body-Negative-Pressure test, the final candidates for the flight crew selection lie on a rotatable couch; in a cylinder that seals around the lower body from the waistline downwards, the air pressure is lowered until the body fluids shift, which leads to temporary unconsciousness. That exposure can be compared with a blackout which occurs when the analog space suit's heat regulation fails. At the same time, the hormonal stress levels are also determined during this experiment.

  • Habitability (Barbara Imhof, Vienna University of Technology)

Project description: We understand the meaning of "habitability" as activities that increase the crew's well-being by adept architectural changes in the habitat, and thereby optimize their coherence and efficiency. E.g., that is an appropriate function of lighting, evaluation of the existing contents of the habitat, etc.

  • MDRS Rover (Manfred Hettmer, Nobert Frischauf)

Project description: The Austrian Institute of Technology in Vienna has built the Mars Desert Research Station Rover on behalf of the Austrian Space Forum. It is controlled by the mission control center via a satellite link or by the analog astronauts via radio link. Besides a GPS-logger, inclination sensors, and cameras, the rover also carries a scientific occupancy loading monitor to support the crew when on EVA.AustroMars_eva_habitat_capt

  • Exploration Management (Willibald Stumptner)

Project description: Besides the crew, the MCC is also part of the AustroMars experiment: It is the intention to optimize the cooperation among the scientific teams, simulated satellite data, pictures and measurements of the aerobot [see below] and the rover as well as the crew. In this regard, exploration science first means simple tasks like testing the construction of an anti-radiation wall built with sandbags in Mars-like conditions.

  • Aerobot (Norbert Frischauf)

Project description:The "Flying Eye" of AustroMars: prior to sending the crew to a geological sample collection location, a zeppelin robot with an onboard camera reconnoiters the area.

  • Object Tracker (Luzian Wolf)

Project description: This experiment tests the tracking of persons in the habitat to study their movement patterns using automated cameras. The data is used to optimize the lanes inside the habitat as well as for psychological tests. At the same time the object tracker offers MCC a minimally invasive way to monitor the crew. The video stream is automatically interpreted by specialized software and permits quantification of duration times in predefined zones of the habitat.

  • Famos (Luzian Wolf)

Project description: Tiredness and exhaustion are two of the major risks for human failure: The fatigue monitoring system (FAMOS) developed by Saamos Technologies is a headset-based system, which monitors the eye movements of the crew members. After the simulation, the videotapes will be analyzed in the laboratory and indicators for tiredness will be determined.

Besides the on-site support in Utah, about 50 people supported the analog astronauts from a mission control center located in a public school facility in Salzburg, Austria. The center was the "brain" of the AustroMars mission, and took care of the safety of the mission and the crew, instructed the members, recorded data, watched over the whole mission progress, and was also the important contact point between the public and the media in Austria.

Part of the AustroMars Mission: Public outreach on Earth
The simulation in the research station lasted a total of two weeks, and on April 20 Commander Frischauf handed over the command to his successor, Commander Bill Clancey and his crew from NASA Ames center. But leaving the habitat didn't mean the project was over: Besides analyzing all the scientific results gathered during the stay in the habitat, public communication continued with the same energetic approach as before and during the project. The list of media coverage speaks for itself; according to a preliminary analysis, more than 50 newspaper articles - national as well as international - reported on AustroMars, over 20 TV reports and numerous radio and Internet interviews, plus special events like exhibitions and guided tours at the MCC, classroom presentations and K-12 education on the topic, and lectures and discussions with interested adult audiences in all parts of Austria followed the mission.

The goal of this public outreach is to create curiosity about the space sciences, and to lay the foundation for a general understanding of what knowledge we already possess about Mars - and the fascinating new methods of exploration and discovery that lie before us.

Mars Missions and the Great Galactic Ghoul
Since 1960, when the former Soviet Union was the first nation on Earth to send a flyby probe towards Mars (which, by the way, didn't even make it to the Earth orbit), failed missions to Mars, rather than success stories, have unfortunately been rather the rule then the exception.

The series of failed missions to Mars even inspired a journalist, Donald Neff of Time Magazine, to half-seriously posit the existence of an evil "Great Galactic Ghoul" somewhere out around the orbit of Mars that liked to destroy, eat, or just toy with any spacecraft from Earth that dared to trespass into its realm. It was as good an explanation as any, some thought, including some engineers who put a caricature of the imaginary beast on a wall at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.1

Viking_Lander_captionBut against great odds, all the nations trying to reach Mars had one thing in common - apart from their "trial and error" experiences - the will to keep going. Today, after more than four decades of (finally successful) flybys, orbiters, and landers & rovers, the search for life has become the major element of all present Mars missions, including ESA's Mars Express which entered Martian orbit in December 2003.

And who knows? At some point in the future, human curiosity and scientific spirit might lead to the first steps of a man on Mars - this time not an analog on sand dunes of the Utah desert, but on sand dunes of the Martian surface . . .

Caroline Adenberger is assistant editor for 'bridges' at the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, DC.


Web site on Austrian analog Mars mission "AustroMars": http://www.austromars.at
Euopean Space Agency: http://www.esa.int/esaHS/ESA9I50VMOC_exploration_0.html
NASA's Mars Exploration Program: http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/overview/

1 from The Depths of Space: The Story of the Pioneer Planetary Probes, by Mark Wolverton (2004) available as free .pdf file at the National Academies Press http://darwin.nap.edu/books/0309090504/html/42.html