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On a steamy Sunday afternoon in June, four people disappeared into a space where no human has ever set foot—Mars.
Or more aptly, “Mars.” A simulated version of the real thing.
For 378 days, the foursome—physician Nathan Jones, MD, structural engineer Ross Brockwell, microbiologist Ancca Selariu, Ph.D., and biomedical researcher and ultrarunner Kelly Haston, Ph.D.—will isolate themselves in a 3D-printed structure called Mars Dune Alpha, which sits inside a large white warehouse at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. Inside the 1,700-square-foot habitat (NASA’s word for Mars Dune Alpha), the crew will live and work as if they really are in a spacecraft on Mars.
From the outside, Mars Dune Alpha looks like a large mobile home, but inside, it’s much more sophisticated. Minimalist in design but fully equipped for life in “space,” the habitat includes private IKEA-like bedrooms, a fitness center, a kitchen, two bathrooms, pods for growing food, and multiple work areas. Red sand coats the floor of an adjacent 1,200-foot area where the crew will conduct “Marswalks.” There is no sound or natural light in either simulated environment.
The exercise room also doesn’t have a treadmill. That means Haston, who typically spends most of her weekends on the trails around her Pacifica, California, home, won’t be doing much running on “Mars.” But all the mental endurance she’s built from the 70-ish trail races she’s run over the past 10 years—including the iconic Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and the Fat Dog 120 in British Columbia, Canada—will give her the inner strength she’ll need to stay cooped up in one spot for weeks on end.
During the yearlong test, the crew will experience almost everything an astronaut would, minus the weightlessness and actual space travel. For the good of the mission, they’ll separate from spouses, children, and careers. Haston will also leave behind the northern California trails where she spends much of her spare time. She’ll miss the roots, rocks, and redwoods, but she’ll miss her partner and loved ones more, she said. This sacrifice is worth the ultimate goal.
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“It is a career and personal highlight to be able to be both scientist and test subject and to produce data that may enable new methods and safer space travel and habitation one day,” said Haston, minutes before launch. “It is truly special to be part of this group of dedicated individuals and scientists.”
Throwing four people together to live on “Mars” with only each other for company sounds like the plot of a sci-fi reality show. In real-reality, the project is a four-year culmination of the NASA engineering and human health and performance departments. Called CHAPEA (Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog), the mission will enable NASA to collect critical data to help the organization send humans to Mars and bring them home safely.
The CHAPEA crew will conduct experiments, grow tomatoes, sleep, and do laundry in “space.” Crewmembers will eat what astronauts would eat, as well as exercise daily to preserve their pre-mission fitness. (Astronauts can lose up to 20 percent of their bone mass during extended trips in space, according to NASA literature. Those working aboard the International Space Station are prescribed two hours of exercise daily to combat bone and muscle loss.)
The CHAPEA foursome will also have to live and work under potentially stressful conditions for 378 days. “We’ll have to be really honest and work on our relationships constantly,” said Haston, two days before boarding Mars Dune Alpha. “Our work won’t always go well. As we start missing our friends and families more, it will be harder. We’ll have to work together as well as look to each other for support.”
To make the mission even more realistic, challenging, and isolating, the crew won’t have instant access with anyone else. Communication with mission control will be delayed by about 20 minutes to mimic the time it takes for messages to travel 140 million miles. They’ll have to solve problems on their own to keep the mission going—not unlike navigating a technical mountain climb in the middle of the night.
It was around 85 degrees and 85 percent humidity in Houston, Texas, in late June, when Haston and I spoke, but she kept her windows open. She wanted to take in as much fresh air as possible before she disappeared into the habitat. She spent off-hours during training at the beaches along the Gulf of Mexico because “I want to feel the sun on my face as much as I can.”
Haston first heard about NASA’s call for volunteers in 2021, when her partner brought it up on a run. “I’ve long been aware of NASA and interested in lunar biology,” she said. “This project spoke to a lot of my personal and professional skill sets. I’m used to working on cooperative teams. And I resonated with the goal—to better understand space travel so people can go further and potentially live on Mars.”
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After a 13-month selection process, after which Haston learned she made the cut, she flew to Houston to train with her fellow crew members for a month. The environment and easy rapport with her colleagues felt natural, almost like the first time she stepped on a trail after years of road running. “It was like, this is where I belong,” she said.
She’ll bring pieces of some of those home trails with her to “Mars”: videos and photos of the wandering routes around Auburn, California, a trail running hotspot. The rugged seaside cliffs and sandy paths around Pacifica, where she currently lives. Plenty of footage of Ontario, Canada, where she’s from. “I traveled a fair bit this year to visit extended family,” she said. “All these images I’ll be able to call on to get through rough patches.”
Haston has experienced plenty of rough patches over the past 15 years on the trails. After a handful of shorter races, she ran her first 50K—the partly paved Jed Smith, in Sacramento—in 2013. She filled her race resume with classic northern California events, too, traversing the Marin Headlands, the Dipsea Trail, and the trails around the Sierra Nevada mountains. In all, she’s completed between nearly 70 trail races over the past 10 years.
In most of these races, she runs as part of the Pamakid Runners, a San Francisco-based running club that has topped the Pacific Association USA Track & Field’s Mountain and Ultra Running (MUT) series for the past seven years. Running for hours, alone or with company, has helped Haston hone her ability to overcome adversity—and throw a few friendly jabs along the way.
During the Quad Dipsea, runners complete two out-and-back trips along the Dipsea Trail for a total of 9,200 feet of climbing and about 2,700 stairs over 28 miles. Haston and runner Chris Jones saw each other several times that day. “Kelly rubbed it in every time she passed me—and at the finish,” he laughed, adding, “I think I beat her the next year…”
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Jones said that, as much as Haston loves dishing it out, she’s tough enough to take it, too. And she can take a lot. In 2015, she completed the iconic UTMB 100-mile event. The following year, she finished the Ruth Anderson 50-miler in 8:34, the first female finisher in a regionally competitive race. And in 2019, she finished the Fat Dog 120-miler in her home country.
All those ups and downs will only help her succeed in what could be called a yearlong ultra. “There are sections that aren’t going to go well. You’re going to have a bad patch, but you’re going to recover,” she said.
“On trails you’re dealing with new environments and getting challenges thrown at you constantly. You learn not to beat yourself up for failures and celebrate little victories. You also know you’re going to have help—that there will be people at aid stations who will help you get to the next one.”
If all goes well, the CHAPEA team will emerge in 2024, stronger than before. “This is a peer-driven, hard-working group,” she said. “Everyone is respectful, super-smart, and positive. I feel like I’ve landed in the perfect spot.”