IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

A little bit later in the hour, we'll be talking about retail medical clinics and a huge hole in the universe.

But first, what would it be like to live and work on Mars? Of course, no one knows, no one has been there. But seven researches have just completed a 10-day mission on a Canadian island - I'm sorry, it's a 100-day mission on a Canadian island in the Arctic, trying to simulate one of the challenges that a real-world Mars exploration crew might face. Sounds like the plot of a reality TV show, right? Seven scientists together in one big house.

Joining us now to talk about the project and what they found out is Melissa Battler. She was commander of the mission ear-catchingly named the FXI-LDM, the Flashline Mars Research Station on Devon Island.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. MELISSA BATTLER (Commander, FXI-LDM FMARS Mission): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: How did everybody get along?

Ms. BATTLER: Amazingly well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BATTLER: Yes, I've been in a lot worse.

FLATOW: You surprised yourselves even, I'll bet.

Ms. BATTLER: We sure did. Absolutely.

FLATOW: Tell us about - I imagine the point is to find out - and it's going to be an extended mission, right, if astronauts go to Mars, it takes a long while to get there and to come back.

Ms. BATTLER: Yup. Yeah, it would at least a two-year mission if you're going to Mars. So we've decided - we've been running simulations up to one month in duration for several years now, but we decided to just raise the bar a little bit and try it four months, see what that was like, and the results are good. It was an excellent mission. We accomplished all of our goals. And we're all still friends, believe it or not. We even had a party last night.

FLATOW: No one got voted off the island on this one?

Ms. BATTLER: No, not this time. We joked about it, but it didn't come down to that.

FLATOW: And did you try - is the Arctic - because you tried to imitate or find the place as close to Mars as possible or like that…

Ms. BATTLER: Yes.

FLATOW: Yeah?

Ms. BATTLER: Yeah, definitely. There were several reasons why that specific location in the Arctic was chosen. First of all, Devon Island is the largest uninhabited island in the world and it is above 75 degrees north latitude. So you feel the isolation extremely up there like you don't in most other places on Earth. So, psychologically, it's an excellent analog for that reason. You know that help is very far away, if something bad would to happen, so you act very carefully with everything that you do. And then there were scientific reasons for the location as well.

On Devon Island, there's a crater called Haughton Crater and it's a large impact crater similar to many craters that might be found on the surface of Mars. And the FMARS research station was built right on the edge of this crater because that would be a good place to study the surface of Mars for signs of possibly past life or water. Because when you have an impact event, the ground heats up and you could get water forming there. And we know on Earth, everywhere where you find water, you find life.

And then another reason is that at that latitude - we're in a polar desert region, and we see landforms such polygons forming, which are created by the permafrost in the ground. And we believe that we have seen the same landforms on Mars, indicating the possibility of permafrost underground. Of course, permafrost meaning water and it's all very exciting. So we're trying to understand that environment a little bit more, not only to help us feel like we're on Mars, but to prepare for going to Mars.

FLATOW: Did the building you were in imitate the kind of building we might build on Mars?

Ms. BATTLER: Yes, it certainly did. We lived in a giant tuna can. It…

FLATOW: A giant tuna can.

Ms. BATTLER: Yeah. We lived in a large cylindrical structure. It was a two-floor building, eight meters in diameter, so it's something that you can imagine would sit on top of a rocket on the way to Mars and would be able to land with, like, an aero shield. And yeah, it was tight quarters for sure, but there's an identical station down in Utah at the Mars Desert Research Station where we've all been training for years. So we're certainly used to living in that sort of a tight enclosed space. But, yeah, I don't know if most people would find it as comfortable as we did.

FLATOW: So it had like an airlock on it, all that kind of stuff that you would…

Ms. BATTLER: Yes, it did. It had two airlocks, the front airlock and the back airlock. So anytime we were going outside, we were, you know, simulating that we were on the surface of Mars. So on Mars, you would have to go through airlocks just for the change in pressure and also for decontamination with possible dust on your suit. So we didn't actually have a pressurized home that we were living in, but we used the airlocks just to simulate that five minutes so you would have to wait, more for the psychological effects than anything else, because there are many human factor studies being done on us…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BATTLER: …and done on our - how we were responding to the isolation and just how we were responding to those kinds of Mars analog-type, well, parameters, I guess…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. BATTLER: …with the airlocks and whatnot. So…

FLATOW: Now, on Mars, outside, you'd have to wear a spacesuit, right?

Ms. BATTLER: Yes. Yes. So, likewise, we were wearing simulated spacesuits. They were not pressurized, but they encumbered us the same way that a spacesuit would on the surface of Mars. So we're wearing helmets and bulky gloves - were the most notable - noticeable parts of our spacesuits. They made it very challenging to do geology and biology in the field. So, of course, we would put on our suits before going into the airlock, and you have an experience seeing temperament…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BATTLER: …in that way out in the field.

FLATOW: How about food, you know? You have to have food that would last for a while, right?

Ms. BATTLER: Oh, you're exactly right. You've thought of everything. We had food that was shelf-storable for up a couple of years, like it would have to be for Mars mission. So no fresh fruit, no fresh vegetables, except that we did have a couple of AeroGrow gardens donated. So we were able to grow fresh lettuce, so we were able to harvest lettuce about once a week and have some fresh vegetables that way. And we also grew sprouts, which were a very nice addition as well, which grew surprisingly fast. So we were actually a little bit better off than we thought we would be. But other than that, it was a lot of dried and dehydrated foods that we would have to re-hydrate ourselves.

FLATOW: Now, what kind of communications did you have with the outside world and how could you simulate that?

Ms. BATTLER: Right. So there would be about a 20-minute delay, on average - it we change depending on the exact locations of Mars and Earth in their orbits, but 20 minutes is a good average for the time delay. Ten minutes there, 10 minutes back.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BATTLER: So we didn't use any instant kind of chat programs or anything like that. We just used e-mail for communication and we just simulated with that time delay. So…

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. BATTLER: …with a lot of the people who we were working with on Earth, they were also simulating the time delay on their end. But if not, we would just assume the full 20 minutes. It was very frustrating sometimes to be talking to friends and family who would be excited to get an answer back from you, but you couldn't answer them right away. So - and other than that, we had phones up there in case of emergency because it is, you know, a harsh environment and we didn't want to have any emergencies happening where we couldn't get help immediately. But…

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. BATTLER: …yeah, that was the most part of our communication.

FLATOW: Now, is the Mars day - it's a little bit longer, isn't it, than the Earth day?

Ms. BATTLER: You're right. It is 39 minutes longer, approximately, than an Earth day. So we conducted a very exciting study of living on Mars time. And this is something that has never - had never been done before in such a good analog environment. So the other key thing that I didn't mention about our location on Devon Island is that, at that latitude, we were experience 24 hours sunlight the whole time we were there.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. BATTLER: So what that means is that we were able to shift our day-night cycles by adding the 39 minutes a day. So we were getting later and later by one hour each day, essentially, traveling around the world as our time shifted, but we didn't notice the difference…

FLATOW: Interesting.

Ms. BATTLER: …because we had a full daylight.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. BATTLER: So we were able to just cover the windows at what was 8 p.m. our time and then take off the covers at 8 a.m. our time, and still go out and do our field work at what would have felt like noon to us, but was actually midnight sometimes on Earth. We stalled(ph) the full sunlight to do that. So that's something that just can't be done anywhere on Earth other than at the poles.

And with this good of an analog environment, with this research station, with this crew all operating on Mars time together. We had some of our mission support people operating on Mars time as well, and some them not. You know, we're studying mostly our circadian rhythms and sleep patterns just to see how they would be affected. And the results were very good for most people. One of our lead scientist, Chris McKay, once quoted that he believes that most people - or a lot of people on Earth have a natural Martian-circadian rhythm. And I think we proved him right. A lot of us really appreciated that extra one hour a day and felt much more rested.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it's interesting. Because I would imagine that that would drive me a little nutty. But I would imagine being cooped up with all those people, you would have, you know, you'd have to get used to that, and there might be, you know, personality conflicts that would flare up during at a time like that.

Ms. BATTLER: Oh, yeah. That's a big concern for sure. To me, the most important part of planning a Mars mission is crew selection. If we don't have a crew who gets along well and you don't have good group dynamics, then you're not going to get any work done, you're not going to be happy, and things can get out of hand and can get dangerous if people are fighting, of course. So…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. BATTLER: …the crew was selected very carefully. Four of us actually are - we're already good friends for years before this and we applied together as a team. And the other three who were selected were just awesome people as well. So they threw us in another Mars Desert Research Station for two weeks back in March just to test it out and see how we got along. And we immediately got along very well then and continued to get along during our two weeks of very intense training. So we thought that that was a good indicator that we would probably get along for the four months. And on - in the case of a real Mars mission, you'd probably want to spend something more like four months together just to really make sure. But we got lucky. We all just didn't have any conflicting personalities.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. BATTLER: We're very laid back, adaptable people. It was good.

FLATOW: Now, I saw a few months ago that NASA had - I think they had formed a study group or were looking into, you know, this kind of idea where you - these people going to Mars are going to be spending a long time together, and they were actually going to try to investigate the sexual ramifications of this.

Ms. BATTLER: Huh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: If you - how many men and women did you have to get in one place?

Ms. BATTLER: Oh, we had three women and four men on our crew.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BATTLER: And it seemed to be a good balance. I mean, that's definitely something that's talked about quite a lot, is the gender ratio for a Mars crew, and also the age ratio and how would that mix work out. And we had, on average, the age of our crew, I believe, was about 26 or 27. And that seemed to work very well. We like having a little bit of a variation. The youngest was 24, oldest was 39. And that seemed pretty good.

In terms of the gender ratio, I think it worked well, too. I've been on different crews where I was the only female, or where there were many females. And I think that I like the more balanced crew best. We all got along very well, and, I don't know, no problems, no complaints at all.

FLATOW: Well, you would think that in a mission that's going to last for years, you know, that they - a couple of the crew shacking up together, I don't know how to put it any more gently - would be something you'd be worried about or some of the ramifications?

Ms. BATTLER: Oh, definitely. You know what, that's something that I think would come up a little bit - in a bit of a longer duration…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. BATTLER: …study. So it's four months, it wasn't so bad.

FLATOW: Are longer durations being planned?

Ms. BATTLER: Yeah. Not one - not by us right now. It's the Mars500 mission, which is being planned by - in Russia and by the European Space Agency as well. And we've been talking to them a little bit. I'm not directly involved with that. But they're going to, I imagine, look at things like that. They're going to be isolated for more than 500 days, I think. So…

FLATOW: Yeah. Wow.

Ms. BATTLER: Issues like that may come up. I don't know. In the case of our crew, we knew - you know, four months away is really not that bad. Geologists go in fieldwork trips for four months all the time.

FLATOW: I have about 30 seconds left. One last question. What did you miss the most?

Ms. BATTLER: I missed strawberries and swimming.

FLATOW: Strawberries and swimming.

Ms. BATTLER: Yeah. The fresh air, feeling fresh air on your face. It's one thing that we just didn't get when we had to wear the spacesuits all the time. So it was very nice to get that at the end of the mission.

FLATOW: Well, I wish you good luck. And thank you very much for taking time to talk with us.

Ms. BATTLER: Absolutely. It was great talking to you. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Melissa Battler who was commander of the recently completed Flashline Mars expedition. She's also a graduate student in planetary geology at the University of New Brunswick.

We're going to take a break. When we come back, changing gears to something a little closer to home - the medical clinics that are cropping up in the non-medical places. You see them in the malls. You see them in all kinds of places. What do we need to know about using and making use of their services there? What should we watch out for? Stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

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