Life on Mars: How volunteers in NASA’s Mars simulator will live for a year


(NEW YORK) — NASA is offering volunteers an otherworldly experience here on Earth where participants eat, live and communicate as if they were over 200 miles away in space.

Paving the way for future human exploration of Mars, NASA’s Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) program is currently recruiting qualified individuals for its second of three yearlong simulated missions.

For 378 days, the four-member team will live and work inside Mars Dune Alpha, a 1,700-square-foot, 3D-printed habitat located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

So, what is life like in a simulated version of the Red Planet? Suzanne Bell, lead for NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance Laboratory at Johnson Space Center, told ABC News what volunteers can expect.

Space diet

To accurately simulate life on Mars, Bell said volunteers in NASA’s CHAPEA program are limited to food that could be pre-positioned or harvested on a real space mission.

“The idea is, if we were actually going to go to Mars someday, you would have to send that food ahead of time, and you’d have to choose from that selection,” Bell said.

There are no fresh food deliveries, so the team members are limited to prepackaged, shelf-stable foods and the ability to grow some crops during the mission.

The crop growth system inside the CHAPEA habitat is similar to systems used for indoor home gardening and can support the growth of leafy crops, herbs and small fruits, according to NASA.

Habitat living

Mars Dune Alpha offers four separate sleeping quarters for crew members, with a 1,700-square-foot total interior, according to NASA. In a video posted to the agency’s official X (formally known as Twitter) account in April 2023, you can see the habitat includes a bathroom and shower area, a kitchen and living room with a table and furniture as well as designated areas for fitness and laundry.

Communication delays

The CHAPEA crew simulates the Mars-realistic communication delay of up to 22 minutes one way, according to Bell, who says that includes messages to mission control and communication with the crew’s friends and family outside of the mission.

“When you have that communication delay, everything looks different,” Bell said. “You’re not getting the news in real-time and you’re not talking to your family and friends on the phone.”

Social media is also not available for participants in the mission. 

“Similar to what we would expect for a future Mars mission, it’s very restricted on what they have access to in the outside world,” Bell said.

Day-to-day activities

The daily activities for CHAPEA crew members include simulated spacewalks, robotic operations, habitat maintenance, exercise and crop growth.

“There’s a small area, which is still within a confinement bubble, where they can actually go out and do simulated spacewalks as if they’re on the Mars surface,” Bell said.

Bell explained that the mission also uses virtual reality technology so members can traverse and explore the surface of Mars for longer periods and over a greater surface area.

On top of their Mars research, crew members do roommate activities such as cleaning and cooking, Bell said.


Compensation for participating in the mission is available, according to NASA, but an exact salary will be provided during the candidate screening process.

“Crew members are compensated for their time as research participants,” Bell explained, noting most volunteers aren’t signing up for the program for monetary incentives, but rather to further scientific research.

“For the explorers, the adventurers, the people who love science, this is a really unique and incredible opportunity to be able to contribute to science,” Bell said.

Who can apply?

To qualify for the mission, you must be a healthy, nonsmoking U.S. citizen or a permanent resident between the ages of 30 and 55 and proficient in English.

The agency says applicants must have a master’s degree with STEM qualifications and experience in the field, or a minimum of 1,000 hours piloting an aircraft or the requisite military experience. A bachelor of science degree in a STEM field also may be considered, NASA said.

“What we are looking for in this call is everyday civilians who are very astronaut-like to be research participants for us,” Bell said.

The deadline to apply is April 2 on NASA’s CHAPEA website.

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