Although you can’t step outside for a breathe of fresh air, life in space resembles Earth rhythms, in that it follows daily patterns and routines revolving around eating, sleeping, working and relaxing. A mission to Mars can take one and half to three years, depending on how much time is spent on the surface.  The Race to Mars mission calls for the crew to be in space for 522 days, only 60 of which will be spent on the surface of Mars itself.  During the transit to and from Mars, the crew will live in a special habitat with room for up to six astronauts.  It will include private crew quarters, a medical bay, a flight deck, and airlock and storage for oxygen, water, food and other supplies.

Over the course of their 582-day trip, the Mars crew will be traveling in space 522 days, with only 60 days spent on Mars itself. During transit the crew will live on board the Trans-Hab unit of the Terra Nova vehicle. With room for six crew members, the Trans-Hab has private crew quarters, an airlock, medical bay, science stations, control systems and storage for oxygen, water, food and other supplies.

Communicating in time-delay

Unlike previous NASA missions, the crew traveling to Mars will have nearly autonomous control over its own day-to-day scheduling. The crew will work from a master schedule developed in advance, but light-time communications delays varying between a few seconds and 44 minutes will make it impossible for ground crews to micromanage the Mars astronauts’ schedule, a practice that has raised tensions between the crew and the ground in the past. Instead of mission control, the ground crew’s role will be one of mission support. A message can take anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes to travel between Mars and Earth (and the same length of time for a response to get back), making normal conversations with ground crew or family members impossible. Mars astronauts will chat in real time only with each other, communicating with the ground with messages, files and reports via special software over a delay-tolerant network. The Mars crew will be required to do its own troubleshooting, respond first in case of emergency and will be self sufficient if an extended loss of communication occurs.

Personal hygiene 

Water is carefully conserved in space, so astronauts only shower only rarely. Although they can wash their hair with a special no-rinse shampoo applied with a towel, give each other haircuts and shave with an electrical or disposable razor, astronauts must be very careful to vacuum loose hairs and whiskers, which can get into equipment and clog filters. Astronauts use their favorite toothbrushes and toothpaste for brushing their teeth, but instead of using water and a sink, they spit the toothpaste into a towel.

Bathroom from the Space Shuttle.
(Image: NASA)

The crew’s tiny washroom contains a unisex urinal, odor and bacteria filters and a space toilet. Built for microgravity conditions, space toilets are more like toilets on a plane than the kind you use at home. Consisting of a small raised bowl and seat, the space toilet vacuums solid waste into a compartment. Each astronaut has a personal urination device that looks like a small cup. The cup is connected to a long plastic tube that sticks out of the wall and vacuums urine away into the waste compartment. In order to use the space toilet or urinal in microgravity, astronauts need to strap themselves in so they don’t float, which means using either device can take as long as 10 minutes more than it would on Earth. While wearing their spacesuits, the astronauts will use the Maximum Absorption Garment, a large adult diaper.

Food 

A sample day’s menu for the Mars crew in space could include:

  • Breakfast: scrambled eggs, a tortilla, dried fruit and trail mix.
  • Lunch: smoked turkey tortilla wrap, almonds, dried peaches and lemonade.
  • Dinner: teriyaki chicken, corn, rice pilaf, mixed vegetables and a tortilla, with a brownie for dessert.
 En Route to Mars: A day in the life
Morning

  • Station inspection, hygiene, breakfast, daily planning, status reports, email.
  • Exercise: cardio or strength training and hygiene

Afternoon

  • Lunch
  • Work (8 hours): systems operations, trash collection, assembly, maintenance, traffic operations, medical operations, routine operations, science.
  • Days off: communicate with friends and family, read, housekeeping, listen to music, play games.

Evening

  • Dinner
  • Review plan for next day
  • Hygiene and relaxation
  • Sleep

NASA food scientists spend their careers planning and perfecting the food astronauts eat, and their biggest challenge yet is creating tasty dishes with a five-year shelf life for the Mars expedition. The good news is that with hydroponics, the Mars-bound crew may be able to grow lettuce, tomatoes, onions, wheat and other food in space.

Food selected for space is chosen for minimal crumbs (crumbs float!) and ability to withstand mold and bacteria, which is why tortillas are popular. In microgravity conditions, astronauts’ sense of smell is dulled in space when the fluids in their bodies, such as blood, shift upwards as a result of lowered gravity and cause nasal congestion, so food scientists have been working to add more tang and zest to space food. Texture is also important: astronauts appreciate the occasional crunch, which is more difficult to achieve when most of your food comes dehydrated in plastic pouches. Astronauts add water to the pouches and heat them as required. Additional seasonings, including salt and pepper are available in liquid form and attached to the communal table where the astronauts eat together.

Sleeping, relaxing and waiting 

Because much of the Mars flight will be automated, the Mars crew will have a great deal of free time available, which means there’s a risk the crew might get bored. Mars crew members will be encouraged to cultivate sedentary hobbies, such as computer programming or gaming. They may even choose to spend their time studying and doing correspondence courses. During downtime, the crew can communicate with family and friends, listen to music, read, play games or watch movies. Most astronauts bring an electronic collection of family photos, messages and video clips with them. And while the exhilarating view of Earth or Mars from space never grows tired, the many months in between won’t offer much in the way of a stimulating view.

Each astronaut will have their own sleeping compartment equipped with a sleeping bag, pillow, light, air vent and space for personal belongings. Sleeping bags are rigid on one side so they feel like a mattress. Although sleeping in artificial gravity is similar to sleeping on Earth, when astronauts sleep in microgravity, they can sleep anywhere, by simply curling up in a corner to doze. Because some find the free-floating sensation of their arms strange, astronauts often secure their limbs with restraints or fold their arms across their chests while sleeping in microgravity. In previous space missions, noise and bright lights on board often necessitated the use of sleep masks, earplugs and even sleeping pills. Private quarters would almost certainly be required onboard for an extended Mars mission.

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