Can Humans Endure the Psychological Torment of Mars?

Alyssa Shannon was on her morning commute from Oakland to Sacramento, where she worked as an advanced-practice nurse at the university hospital, when NASA called to tell her that she had been selected for a Mars mission. She screamed and pulled off the highway. As soon as she hung up, she called her partner, an information-security operations manager at the University of California, Berkeley, named Jake Harwood.

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“Wow,” Harwood said.

“Yeah,” Shannon said. “Wow.”

They sat in silence with the information, struggling to fathom the shape and weight of it, for a very long time.

Later that morning, Nathan Jones, an emergency-room physician in Springfield, Ill., received the call that he had so fervently awaited and so deeply dreaded. His thoughts turned immediately to his wife, Kacie, and their three sons, who were 8, 10 and 12. You get only 18 years with your kids, he told himself. If you accept this opportunity, you’ll have to give up one of them.

And yet … he couldn’t possibly turn down NASA. Mars, he had convinced himself, was his destiny. As a child, he dreamed of walking across an alien planet in a state of wonder; he hoped to attend space camp, but his family couldn’t afford it. Once his sons were old enough, he took them to Cape Canaveral for a rocket launch.

When he told Kacie the news, she nearly burst into tears.

This Mars mission, CHAPEA, would not actually go to Mars. But the success of CHAPEA (“Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog”) will hang on the precision with which it simulates the first human expedition to Mars — an eventuality that NASA expects to occur by 2040.

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