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Learning to live on Mars: NASA researcher visits Mitchell

People of all ages came to the Mitchell Public Library Monday to listen to Lucie Poulet speak about her research, which simulates living at the International Space Station on Mars.

Lucie Poulet, a NASA postdoctoral fellow with the Kennedy Space Center, gives the first of three presentations on Monday in the community room of the Mitchell Public Library. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Lucie Poulet, a NASA postdoctoral fellow with the Kennedy Space Center, gives the first of three presentations on Monday in the community room of the Mitchell Public Library. (Matt Gade / Republic)

People of all ages came to the Mitchell Public Library Monday to listen to Lucie Poulet speak about her research, which simulates living at the International Space Station on Mars.

Poulet, originally from France, has been in Florida for the last five months as a post-doctoral researcher for the NASA Kennedy Space Center and in the Exploration Technology Division of NASA.

She has been specifically tasked with experiments learning how to grow plants in space and learning how plants react in space. Before doing research for the Kennedy Space Center, Poulet, who says she's a life-support systems researcher and engineer, took part in a five-month research experiment in Hawaii with five other research subjects. Describing her experience, Poulet said there is a lot of planning that goes into developing a sound strategy for delivering astronauts to Mars at the ISS.

"We have to make sure that when the astronauts arrive on Mars that they are sane, but also healthy physically," Poulet said.

Poulet has participated in four Mars analog missions, meaning a situation on Earth that produces effects on the body that are similar to those in space. In a mission in Poland on the site of a former airport, Poulet was part of a simulation that was 20 to 30 years after the first mission to mars and was to simulate what would happen if someone was on Mars and had injured themselves and were left disabled, leaving researchers to consider what adjustments might need to be made.

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In the experiments, food rationing is essential in planning, so an extreme amount of self-discipline is required to follow through with the limitations set by the supply. Poulet said not only does there need to be enough supplies, such as food, water, and other living essentials for the way from Earth to Mars, but also for living on the planet, making the situation very difficult with limited space. Additionally, there were only five people at the simulated station with Poulet.

For that reason, Poulet said the study was done on how people will interact in such a close environment.

Poulet said everything in the experiment, which was done in a space station model in Hawaii's lava fields, was simulated to be as much like Mars as possible, and every day was very routine and planned.

"It could get very old and mundane with the same routine every day, so occasionally we would have to make up our own celebration day to break routine," Poulet said.

One of those celebrations was on May 4 (in correlation with May the 4th Be With You), when the team dressed in makeshift Star Wars costumes.

Poulet touched on areas of the experiment that are considered standard for the common person, such as showering and bathroom items. There are no showering capabilities at the ISS, so wet wipes were used. The toilets are composting toilets, using microbes to accomplish decomposition.

"Allowance for showering was eight minutes per week, but my personal average was four minutes," Poulet said.

Communication was especially difficult, with only email coming into the station, and a 20-minute time delay.

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Some of the challenges faced in the simulation were not just inconvenient, but physically difficult. Without the same gravity as on Earth, astronauts would have to do two hours of exercise every day while in the space station to maintain muscle mass, though a very confined space means limited exercise equipment is actually available.

Poulet said that no matter what, when astronauts return to Earth, they will have lost some muscle and bone mass. Circumstances can be further complicated by spacesuits, which were worn during the simulation.

"They are very heavy and hot," Poulet said. "If you fall down in a suit, it can prove almost impossible to get up, and assistance from a crew member can be necessary."

Even with all the difficulties Poulet described that face an astronaut, the younger audience was still inspired to become astronauts themselves.

When Poulet asked, "Who still wants to be an astronaut?" almost 100 percent of the younger audience raised their hands in excitement.

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