NASA is looking at using the International Space Station as a testbed for a human mission to Mars, beginning with a planned week-long simulation to be staged next summer.
Initial studies would focus on figuring out effective and safe ways for NASA's ever-present Mission Control to give the astronauts more autonomy.
Mars-bound crews won't be able to talk with flight controllers -- or anyone back on Earth for that matter -- the same way they do from aboard the station, which orbits just 220 miles beyond Earth. Traveling at the speed of light, a radio wave will take up to 22 minutes to travel between Earth and Mars -- and the same span of time for a reply -- making normal conversation impossible.
"We want to use the space station as a way to get smarter about what a mission to Mars or a mission to an asteroid might look like," space station flight controller Pete Hasbrook told Discovery News.
A week-long simulation on the station would be the first step in a series of increasingly more complicated -- and realistic -- Mars-like operations.
One proposal is to have space station astronauts participate in ground simulations immediately upon their return to Earth, before they have had a chance to recondition their bodies after six months in weightlessness. Six months is about how long it will take to get to Mars with existing technology.
"Rather than just going up (on the station) for six months and landing and having a whole support staff to help you, which is the norm right now, we'd have them actually do a mission that shows they are physically capable of performing tasks after spending six months in microgravity and then landing on the surface of a planet," Chris Carberry, founder and executive director of the Explore Mars advocacy group, told Discovery News.
Though gravity on Earth is stronger than on Mars, combining a six-month stay on the space station with a post-flight simulation on Earth would be valuable learning experience, Carberry said.
"I think something even as long as a month (post-flight) would be useful," he said.
Future simulations could include some of the space station astronauts sealing themselves off in a separate module to better replicate a Mars flight experience.
In addition to tapping station astronauts as Mars crew stand-ins, NASA plans to use the orbital laboratory to test equipment that could be useful to future space travelers, such as Robonaut, the station's prototype humanoid robot.