Vol­un­teers try life­style in ‘moon cabin’

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - PAGE TWO -

Two months ago, post­grad­u­ate stu­dent Liu Hui traded in store-bought food for long days of pick­ing veg­eta­bles, milling flour, and eat­ing bugs.

“All in­gre­di­ents needed to be handpicked and cooked fresh,” Liu said. “Our ev­ery­day meals in­cluded to­ma­toes, green pep­pers, egg­plants and worms.”

The bio­med­i­cine stu­dent from Bei­hang Univer­sity was among the first group of four vol­un­teers, two men and two women, to spend 60 days in “Yue­gong-1,” or Lu­nar Palace, a sim­u­lated “space cabin” in Beijing.

The Lu­nar Palace is meant to in­crease China’s knowl­edge and tech­ni­cal skills while help­ing the coun­try’s sci­en­tists un­der­stand what hu­mans need to live on the moon.

Liu and three vol­un­teers, all civil­ians and post­grad­u­ate stu­dents from Bei­hang Univer­sity, en­tered the cabin on May 10. On Sun­day, they were re­placed by a sec­ond group, also two men and two women, who will stay there for 200 days. Af­ter that, the first group will re­turn for an­other 105 days.

The ex­per­i­ment, code- named “Yue­gong-365,” is Bei­hang’s sec­ond at­tempt to see how the Biore­gen­er­a­tive Life Sup­port Sys­tem, in which an­i­mals, plants and micro­organ­isms co­ex­ist, works in a lu­nar en­vi­ron­ment. Wa­ter and food can be re­cy­cled within the sys­tem, cre­at­ing an earth­like en­vi­ron­ment. A suc­cess­ful 105-day trial was con­ducted in 2014.

Liu Hong, chief de­signer of “Yue­gong-1,” said the pur­pose of the new pro­gram is to test the sta­bil­ity of the BLSS when “as­tro­nauts” take turns liv­ing in the cabin, fac­ing black­outs and other un­ex­pected events.

“It felt like liv­ing in outer space,” Liu said af­ter the trip. “The BLSS sys­tem was the sole life­saver we re­lied on.”

Each “as­tro­naut” oc­cu­pied a cu­bi­cle about three square me­ters in area, sim­i­lar to a cap­sule ho­tel, ac­cord­ing to Liu. Each cu­bi­cle holds a small bed and a fold­ing chair. There is a locker on the wall and a desk nearby.

Liu said that data on ev­ery­thing the vol­un­teers did in the cabin was mon­i­tored and stored dur­ing their time in the cabin, in­clud­ing the food and wa­ter they con­sumed, their ex­cre­ment, work and leisure time, phys­i­o­log­i­cal in­dexes in the morn­ings and in the evenings, and even their mood swings.

Liu Zhi­heng of the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences said: “The BLSS is ab­so­lutely cru­cial to probes to the moon and to Mars.

“The lat­est test is vi­tal to the fu­ture of China’s moon and Mars mis­sions and must be re­lied upon to guar­an­tee the safety and health of our as­tro­nauts.”

To get enough pro­tein, the vol­un­teers raised yel­low meal worms, which are ed­i­ble and con­tain high lev­els of pro­tein. They are also rich in phos­pho­rus, potas­sium and iron as well as trace el­e­ments.

The worms helped elim­i­nate old leaves on wheat stalks and veg­eta­bles, Liu said. The car­bon diox­ide they ex­haled also served to pro­duce a green­house ef­fect.

The vol­un­teers pre­pared the worms by fry­ing them in veg­etable oil or mix­ing them into flour, which was made into buns.

In ad­di­tion to daily sci­en­tific work, the vol­un­teers found ways to en­ter­tain them­selves.

“We loved play­ing chess,” Liu said. “Throw­ing darts was also a great way to re­lease stress and liven up the at­mos­phere.”

One of Liu’s fa­vorite ac­tiv­i­ties was to ride spin­ning bikes.

“I worked out in the plant cabin filled with fresh air,” Liu said. “The ac­tiv­ity not only helped me re­lax, but also pro­duced car­bon diox­ide needed for the green­house ef­fect.”

The vol­un­teers did have mo­bile phones, com­put­ers and the in­ter­net.

“We watched the prime time news on China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion at night ev­ery day,” said an­other vol­un­teer, Hu Jingfei. “We kept in touch with our fam­ily mem­bers with mes­sag­ing ap­pli­ca­tion WeChat and email.”

“Yue­gong-1” con­sists of a main liv­ing space and two green­houses for plants. The liv­ing struc­ture cov­ers 42 sq m, the size of a small ur­ban apart­ment, while each of the green­houses is 3.5 m high and 50 to 60 sq m in area. The sys­tem al­lows four vol­un­teers to con­duct re­search while their ba­sic needs are met.

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