Only a few space agencies, research institutions, and private initiatives undertake the challenge of analog work, simulating space-like conditions and experiences for research and development (R&D). These initiatives remain relatively siloed, forcing scientists, explorers, and organizers to often scramble for additional sponsorship sources. I met with two seasoned analog researchers to further understand the dynamics of this current scenario.
Here’s a beautiful paradox. Our bodies have elements found in stars, yet we’ve not evolved to survive in the extremes of space. Sheltered by the crown jewel in our Solar System, a permanent multi-planetary presence forces us to re-think the most basic assumptions about our physiology, psychology, basic functioning, and emotional needs. How can we test prototypes, technologies, and human dynamics for space settlements? A sustained presence in space requires more than a hardware fix.
Analog missions on Earth have been serving as a “petri dish” for decades, informing scientists about the human dimensions for spaceflight and exploration. Of course, the scope and breadth of these field missions vary. Still, at its core, they set out to simulate space-like environments in extreme areas to assess how we respond accordingly.
I’ve noticed the widening gap between the increased commercialization of the space industry and analog work on Earth for space. Only a few space agencies, research institutions, and private initiatives undertake the challenge of analog work, simulating space-like conditions and experiences for research and development (R&D). These initiatives remain relatively siloed, forcing scientists, explorers, and organizers to often scramble for additional sponsorship sources. I met with two seasoned analog researchers to further understand the dynamics of this current scenario.
Ladakh: A Petri dish for Mars in the Himalayas
Based in Mumbai, Siddharth Pandey Ph.D. is the Head of two major divisions at Amity University Mumbai- part of India’s largest non-profit private educational group. Siddharth leads the Amity Space Centre and India’s first Centre of Excellence in Astrobiology (ACoeA). With a doctorate in aerospace engineering, Siddharth has a breadth and depth of experience in the space industry. He currently also serves in an advisory capacity to several space organizations and he’s the project coordinator for the Spaceward Bound India Program.
The Spaceward Bound Program started at NASA Ames Research Center in 2006. This annual educational program unites astrobiologists, scientists, and students in extreme environments for research and study. Earlier expeditions were conducted in remote areas in the Mojave Desert, Idaho, North Dakota, Australia, New Zealand, and the Polar regions. Ladakh, India was the site for the Spaceward Bound Program in August 2016.
Ladakh Spaceward program 2016. (Photo credits: Siddharth Pandey)
Ladakh is located in the easternmost section of the Himalayas (3500 – 5500 meters above sea level). With cold temperatures and high ultraviolet exposure due to its elevation, Ladakh has unique topological features that are of particular interest to scientists and analog explorers alike. For example, it has natural hot springs filled with microbial organisms adapted to reduced oxygen levels and atmospheric pressure. Salty lakes coexist with arid desert, making Ladakh in many ways possibly similar to ancient Mars. Data sourced by rovers points that liquid water and warmer temperatures were maybe present on the Martian surface.
Despite this rich “petri dish” for research and development, Ladakh is a lesser studied region for human space exploration. Siddharth co-authored the paper “Ladakh: diverse, high-altitude extreme environments for off-earth analog and astrobiology research” about the 2016 expedition. The International Journal of Astrobiology published this paper. It presents data to prove why Ladakh is an essential place of study for scientists and explorers.
“What we see today in Ladakh is helping us build the picture about what Mars was like 2 billion years ago, and also how it changed,” explained Siddharth. “For example, as a result of climate change on Earth, we see that there are several high-altitude lakes in Ladakh, which are slowly receding because the water is evaporating faster than it’s getting filled up. Many of these phenomena occurred on Mars over a long time, so this opportunity at Ladakh helps us understand the Martian past in terms of how the surface atmospheric processes enable life and what kind of life forms exist in these harsh conditions? And if such life forms existed on Mars, what kind of environments would they exist in and what kind of byproducts would they have left behind.”
Another dimension for the analog work at Ladakh in 2016 includes productivity. Under such extreme conditions, physical and mental fatigue sets in, aggravated by lower oxygen levels. As a result, what would be easy to do based on someone’s given skill set becomes a gargantuan task. These factors forced mission organizers to understand the interplay of individual productivity, health, and emotional well-being with the group dynamics.
Siddharth Pandey connected with me from Mumbai. 2021.
“During our expedition, we noticed that there were so many cultural nuances that tend to become visible as in how people go about doing their work. And especially when you had researchers from different backgrounds and sciences, as is typical of astrobiology. And there’s also a sequence in which things are done. So, we need to understand that a site like Ladakh can help us train for such kinds of missions.”
The Ladakh Spaceward program visit in 2016 received financial support from the publicly-traded automotive company Tata Motors and National Geographic Traveler India. Researchers collaborated closely with scientists at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Ladakh Spaceward program 2016. (Photo credits: Siddharth Pandey)
Siddharth offered his perspectives on the missed opportunities for the private sector.
”There might not be a clear and immediate return for a space company to invest in analog work unless they have a particular product and service that they would like to market. However, it will be increasingly important to link space research for sustainability on Earth. For example, what are the different technologies for Moon and Mars that can adapt to remote locations in dry environments, which are the usual sites for analog missions? And how can we support the communities that live in these kinds of places? Analog sites can be utilized by companies with applications here on Earth as well, for example, testing low-energy consumption waste management or water filtration systems.”
Siddharth explained how his team at the Amity Centre of Excellence in Astrobiology continues to push forward and partner with research and educational institutions for the Mars Amity Research Station (MARS) in Ladakh. For example, they’re planning to build temporary geodesic-dome structures over the next couple of years during specific seasons. Conceptualizing field drills for Moon and Mars with communications lags is another example.
The team also wants to democratize the experience and access to the information by opening it up to the broader community of space enthusiasts. Through a new Earth and Space Exploration Program (ESEP) program, enthusiasts apply and partner up for a flat fee with scientists at Ladakh for several days. For the first open call pre-pandemic, more than 100 people had signed up. However, it was scaled down later by the organizers due to social distancing protocols. The Bangalore-based SatSure company provided some funding to ESEP 2021, thus showing the dynamism of India’s new space ecosystem.
The first crew of the ESEP 2021 already achieved a major milestone this past July. They tested the Mars Amity Surface Characterization Operations Trainer (MASCOT) in the glacial lake bed of Tsokar at 4600 m above sea level.
“Amity University has been very supportive of the work that I do. Space is still not the main focus for universities and especially private ones. I’ve had the opportunity to set up this new center with the freedom to do several things. Building something from scratch presents its challenges, but I’m excited about the prospects for the future.”
Analog as Proxy for Imagination and Innovation
Benjamin Pothier Ph.D. is a consummate analog researcher and professional explorer. For the past decade, he has specialized in isolated, confined, and extreme environments. Born and based in Paris, France, Benjamin is an elected international fellow of the iconic Explorers Club and a human factor expert at the International Astronautical Federation. He has participated in more than a dozen research expeditions and analog astronaut trainings, including the International MoonBase Alliance missions with the European Space Agency at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) habitat. The depth and range of Benjamin’s missions have taken him to remote locations in the Arctic circle, Iceland, Hawaii, Chile, among many others.
Benjamin dreamed early in his life to become a jet pilot. However, these plans were cut short due to eyesight problems, so he pivoted to the arts as the launching pad for his career and analog research. For more than 15 years, Benjamin worked in various mediums, photography, sculpture, interactive installations, and film. He earned his doctorate in an interdisciplinary research program at the University of Plymouth’s Planetary Collegium. One of his recent artworks ISSBM (ISS BLUE MARBLE), will be launched to the International Space Station next year in collaboration with the space company Nanoracks.
By 2021, Benjamin has already participated in two analog missions. First, he served as Commander of the Orpheus Mission at the LunAres Research Station in northwest Poland. An international crew of 5 other analog astronauts lived and worked with Benjamin for two weeks. The research station is located in a modified nuclear bunker at a former military airport. The crew simulated extracurricular vehicular activities (EVA) and tested several tool prototypes.
Orpheus Mission crew members Alicja Musial and Eduardo Salazar Perez during an EVA. (Photo credits: Benjamin Pothier)
Benjamin also participated in the CHILL-ICE Moon mission in Iceland’s underground lava tubes. The mission was conceptualized by EuroMoonMars – a non-profit analog astronaut organization – under the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG). A lava-tube is a natural volcanic cave formed after the lava has flowed downslope from a vent, hardened, and emptied. The mission simulated the construction of the first Lunar base (CHILL-ICE stands for the Construction of a Habitat Inside a Lunar-Analogue Lava-tube). Several scientists have proposed lunar caves as ideal sites for robotic and human exploration. These caves would serve as natural shelters from cosmic rays and micrometeorites.
Benjamin Pothier entering the test site CHILL-ICE mission. 2021. (Photo credits: Benjamin Pothier)
Benjamin shared how analog missions open up the study of human ecology, which explains how humans relate to their environments.
Benjamin Pothier connected with me from Paris. 2021.
“When I’m focusing on the human factor, I’m studying it from an anthropology angle. This allows me to distinguish what’s relevant for the future of human spaceflight because there will be a huge difference between selecting crew to the Moon and Mars compared to selecting crews for the Apollo program or for the International Space Station. I anonymize all my notes about the crew because it’s not about specific individuals. Instead, my study is about looking at the fundamentals of human beings living together under these strange conditions,” explained Benjamin.
Benjamin described how easily the industry can overlook breakthroughs in the social dimensions of space settlements. Analog missions require significant effort, preparation, and rigor, especially at the psychological level. Often, those who work with tools and technologies without constraints have difficulty adjusting to the conditions in analog work. These restrictions might explain why the simulation’s fidelity also requires ample dosages of imagination and creativity.
“I have encountered brilliant scientists that cannot go easily along with the simulation of being somewhere else and playing along with a team. So the simulation also becomes part of the research. It’s a very collaborative process,” said Benjamin. “And although you cannot simulate the entirety of the factors in space for a perfect analog mission, you can replicate many, especially the interaction of crew in the ways they are going live and collaborate. There are also geographical, topological similarities on Earth with the Moon that help field tests and proofs-of-concept.”
Benjamin noted a gradual increase in the number of private companies undertaking innovative approaches to support analog work. For example, some of these companies – Interstellar Lab – plan to build modular habitats on Earth in preparation for long-duration spaceflight. However, there is still evidence of a lack of support from the private sector. Throughout many of his missions, Benjamin has encountered dramatic reductions in the availability of commercial pressurized analog suits.
“I’m quite surprised, to be honest, that SpaceX doesn’t have an analog division by now. If you plan to go to Mars, you should already be working on analog simulations. Furthermore, some studies are too expensive to conduct in the ISS. It’s much easier for space agencies and private companies to conduct more experiments on Earth for long duration spaceflight.”
Approaching the human dimensions for sustained space exploration requires a paradigm shift that looks beyond the hardware. Space is an unforgiving environment for the unprepared body and mind alike.
Siddharth and Benjamin assessed the variety of factors that harness and truncate analog research missions. With increased stressors that can be simulated on Earth, they advocate that analog work equips us with field data and R&D suitable for spacefarers. To continue to focus on a couple of sectors in the space economy at the expense of the human factors will leave us seriously short-staffed for Lunar and Martian settlements.
With an industry that continues to thrive year after year, the time has come for us to embrace analog missions with strength and purpose. We need to imagine our future in space and prepare for it.
Bogdan Tufecciu is the concept artist featured on the header with Jumpgates (2015). Based in Romania, Bogdan has more than 12 years in the game industry. Science fiction books have inspired his artwork.
“Places, technologies, and stories inspire me,” said Bogdan.
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