An extended voyage being likened to long-term space travel is about to set sail right here on planet Earth.
Two sailors are preparing to shove off in a custom-built ship from a New York City pier on 1,000-day trek across the southern Atlantic Ocean. The journey, set to begin in early January, is one part personal challenge and one part mock Mars mission for its captain — New York artist Reid Stowe.
"I’ve been working on this expedition for years," said Stowe, an accomplished sailor since his youth, in an interview. "Right now I’m in ‘go’ mode."
Stowe and his first mate Alejandro Molina plan to sail their ship — the 60-ton, 70-foot (21-meter) Schooner Anne, which Stowe built by hand and named after his mother — continuously around the southern Atlantic Ocean beyond the sight of land with only a satellite phone to link them to the mainland. A donated satellite beacon is expected to verify the trip’s course, which Stowe hopes will set a record for the longest sailing voyage.
"I’ve always wanted to feel like a spaceman," Stowe said, adding that he realized the parallels between his upcoming trip and a mission to Mars after reading a scientific paper on space psychology. "I realized that a lot of the things [astronauts] would be subjected to, I’ve experienced, such as what it is to live with a small group of people in a dangerous and high-performance environment for an extended amount of time."
Stowe said he welcomes the isolation that he has come to expect from long sea voyages, and hopes the experience will demonstrate to students the long lag times astronauts may experience on a Mars trip.
A space mission at sea
Stowe’s planned mission is twice as long as a 500-day mock Mars expedition planned by Russian space officials, and it carries many analogs with long-duration spaceflight.
Much like missions to the international space station, Stowe’s expedition is limited to a two-person crew. Stowe plans to use a satellite phone to discuss the trip with students in New York City, a service similar to one space station astronauts perform with schoolchildren during their six-month terms in Earth orbit. Stowe and Molina have trained together for the past year to make sure they are compatible to work together within the confines of the Schooner Anne’s rooms and deck.
"When crews train together, they certainly learn to work out their differences early and determine what each other’s strengths are," said Walter Sipes, a psychologist with NASA’s Space Medicine and Health Care office at Johnson Space Center, adding that long training flows are routinely used for space shuttle and station missions. "You find out that, like many combat crews, they learn to depend on each other."
Stowe has also built a garden into the bow of the Schooner Anne to grow sprouts and other greens during the 1,000 days at sea.
Space station astronauts have grown soybeans, radishes and other plants aboard the orbital outpost and heralded the welcome smells of fresh vegetables and fruits that accompany supply ships from Earth.
"One of the most pleasing colors to the eye is green, and fortunately we have a lot of plants that color," said Sipes, adding that a small garden on long expeditions like Stowe’s or even a Mars mission would have several payoffs. "Largely there’s the ability to nurture something and see it grow to fruition."
On long space missions, plants could offer fresh aromas and textures that soften the stark sterility of a spacecraft, Sipes said.
Some earthly differences
Despite their similarities, there are some significant differences between Stowe and Molina’s planned trek and a long spaceflight.
The Schooner Anne, for example, isn’t required to provide basic life support systems like breathable air, and it is already stocked with tons of supplies that include about 12,000 pounds (5,450 kilograms) of drinking water and about 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of coal and wood for heat and cooking. Stowe believes that with his current stores of beans, rice and pasta, as well as the availability of fish and rainwater, resupply won’t be necessary.
Space station missions are typically supplied with fresh food, air, water, spare parts and other hardware every three months or so, though astronauts aboard a Mars-bound mission would likely have to make do with what they take with them.
The two seafarers also won’t have the cadre of medical and psychological experts watching over them daily as current astronauts do.
Sipes said space station astronauts consult regularly with a NASA crew surgeon during private medical conferences and have the option of calling on anyone on the ground to go over a question. Psychological conferences are held about every two weeks, he added.
Stowe said that both he and Molina have met with a physician and dentist to ensure their health for the upcoming voyage, but will be checking in with their doctor periodically throughout their trip. Sickness or injuries have not proven a problem on Stowe’s past sailing trips, but his own personal dental history has given him pause.
"That’s probably my only fear, is that something will go wrong with my teeth," Stowe said. "If something does come up, I imagine I’ll just take some aspirin and do my best."
Analogues for exploration
NASA officials said exploration analogues such as Stowe’s mission, mock Mars excursions by the Mars Society to Devon Island and Utah locations and even the space agency’s own undersea NEEMO expeditions to the Aquarius underwater laboratory can yield valuable experience for future spaceflight.
"Certainly, those are training tools because they can also give [astronauts] the same kind of opportunity to experience aspects of human spaceflight," Sipes said, adding that routine milestones on Earth such as holidays or birthdays become paramount during long-duration missions. "It’s important to realize that people are complex, which makes it all the more important to keep the normal things in life during the isolation of a long mission."