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'The 3am stop at a remote station miles from home is a moment you will remember for the rest of your life.'

Inside a Russian experiment to make life possible on the Moon or Mars

By 0 and 0 and 0
03 May 2016


The longest experiment at BIOS lasted 180 days and was held in 1972-1973. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya, The Siberian Times 

Begun in the Cold War more than half a century ago, the experiment anticipated the Hollywood dilemma faced in The Martian by Matt Damon when he is stranded on the Red Planet: how to create oxygen, water and food to survive in a hostile environment? 

Here in a scientific institute in the city of Krasnoyarsk, BIOS-3 is the third generation solution to a problem scientists first began working on in 1965 at the behest of the father of Russian space exploration, Sergei Korolyov.

As far away as you could get from the West's prying eyes, it was the subject of intriguing Soviet-era tests, shutting humans inside the closed ecosystem for up to 180 days, in the expectation of future long space missions. 

space exploration BIOS-3

space exploration BIOS-3

space exploration BIOS-3

space exploration BIOS-3

space exploration BIOS-3
Inside the BIOS-3 station, Krasnoyarsk. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya, The Siberian Times 

Senior engineer Nikolai Bugreyev, 74, is nicknamed the 'Siberian Martian' for spending a total of 13 months inside BIOS-3. As a 'bionaut' he twice celebrated New Year in this unique ecosystem. 

'I lived in this compartment. It's really small but it was enough, it's just 5 square metres. There was a table, bed, a shelf for clothes, and that was it, you don't really need anything else,' he said. 'You could see outside of the round window, there were colleagues walking there, researchers, they were waving to us. But we couldn't really speak because you couldn't hear anything through the walls. We used a special phone if need was. Relatives would come at the weekends.

'Bionauts were working all day long, there was no time to miss family and home - so we didn't have any conflicts. We went to bed covered with wires, and there was a doctor sitting on the roof of the station. He monitored the devices every night. 

'Yet there was no, even tiny, deviations in the health of researchers as a result of the experiment. Quite the opposite - healthy food, routine, favourite job - what else do you need to be happy and healthy?

'If a bionaut wanted to leave the station, he or she could do that even without talking to his colleagues,  But no one was even thinking of giving up.' 

space exploration BIOS-3

space exploration BIOS-3

space exploration BIOS-3
Previous experiments at BIOS-3 in 1973 and 1984. Pictures: Nikolay Bugreyev

Having proved  the sustainability of an ecosystem to maintain human life, there are hopes of new research as Russia along with the US and other countries start to plan for long distance missions in space. Dr Alexander Tikhomirov, executive director of International Centre for Study of Enclosed Environmental Systems of the Institute of Biophysics, in Krasnoyarsk, gave us a tour of this unique facility.

'BIOS-3 is an autonomous enclosed life-support system,' he said. 'Construction works were completed in Krasnoyarsk in 1972. A hermetic room about 315 cubic meter large (14x9x2.5m) was built in the basement of the institute.

'The room was separated in four equally large spaces that were connected by hermetically sealed doors. One of them was a so-called household compartment where people could have some rest, talk to peers, take measurements, monitor the work of the system. It also had a kitchen and a bathroom.

'Three other compartments were designed to regenerate the environment. Two had plants; wheat, oilseeds and vegetables grew. They provided a balanced diet in terms of biochemical elements. Plants were carefully selected so that you do not get bored of them, on one hand, and to provide all the necessary nutrients, on the other.'

space exploration BIOS-3

space exploration BIOS-3
Dr Alexander Tikhomirov. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya, The Siberian Times 

The diet comprised wheat, soy beans, salad, chufa (cyperus esculentus), carrot, radish, beetroot, potato, cucumbers,  cabbage, and onion, which were grown in a greenhouse, with artificial lighting. Not forgetting rumex patientia - also known as 'garden patience' or 'monk's rhubarb'': but all the plants were specially selected. 

Miniature wheat has shorter stalks allowing a reduction in waste, for example. Chufa, or Central Asian grass, was used to produce oil.

BIOS-3 started functioning in 1972 and a number of long-term experiments were conducted here using human guinea pigs. 

'The longest experiment was six months long: there were three participants, two men and a woman,' Tikhomirov said. 'They were not simply living there but doing certain tasks. There was an agronomist, an engineer and a doctor among them, all working to support functioning of the system.'

space exploration BIOS-3
Inside the BIOS-3 station, Krasnoyarsk. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya, The Siberian Times 

The system worked without livestock so the ecosystem did not involve animal proteins. 

'If animals were introduced to the system, we would need to enlarge it. It would be necessary not only to feed them but also to dispose of their waste. Butter and animal proteins were taken in tins. All the rest nutrients were produced in the system. Plants were used not only for food but also to produce oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide and support water cycle. There was a full water cycle, people had enough water.'

He explained: 'The last compartment contained chlorella. It is a single-celled type of green algae containing large amounts of chlorophyll. It functions well for a long period, breeds, absorbs carbon dioxide, and participate in the water cycle. It's main disadvantage was that it is not edible. 

'Chlorella was building up in the system and it was negatively affecting it, so they got rid of it and replaced it with a compartment with plants. This prevented a build-up of excessive waste.'

space exploration BIOS-3

space exploration BIOS-3

BIOS-3 is an autonomous enclosed life-support system. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya, The Siberian Times 

In all there were ten experiments with between one and three participants, Dr Tikhomirov said. 

The longest experiment lasted 180 days and was held in 1972-1973. Gas and water systems were completely enclosed, 80% of demand in food was also met within the system. Nikolay Bugreyev, an engineer at the same institute, spent more time inside than anyone else.

'Most importantly, it was proved that humans can live and work in an enclosed space for a long time with a full cycle,' said Dr Tikhomirov. 

'There were attempts to copy us but they failed. There are certain peculiarities in terms of technologies, for example the Americans wouldn't listen to us and tried to make everything themselves but didn't consider nuances of growing plants. It caused a disbalance in terms of oxygen and they were forced to stop the experiment.

'There were other problems, they liked it stylish and decorated everything with plastic, yet there are some emissions from plastic that build up in an enclosed system. It's not only dangerous for people but also for plants which start dying. 

'We had everything done in stainless steel. Not very attractive but very practical.

'Our foreign peers didn't consider a lot of factors. I can give you an example: it is necessary to grow plants in rows to ensure balance human breathe and the emission of oxygen by plants. Wheat germs produce some oxygen when they're new and a lot of it when they are mature. As they age, amount of oxygen decreases again. It means that it is necessary to use extra oxygen if you're growing plants all of the same age.

'We told them of it when they were doing their experiment, but they ignored our recommendations and created single-species single-aged systems.

'Initially, they didn't have enough oxygen and later they had too much of it. It was out of balance.'

BIOS-3 space exploration
'Similar experiments in the West are conducted on rats'. Picture: Nikolay Bugreyev

In Soviet times, there was no hesitation in experimenting with people from an early stage.

'Similar experiments in the West are conducted on rats. It is necessary to sort out lots of things, now there is such a thing as human rights. In Soviet times they were experimenting on people straight away,' - Dr Tikhomirov said. 'Today the Chinese are the closest to repeating our experiment but not completely. They haven't sorted out waste management as yet.'

Research here was hit first in the final years of the USSR when budgets tightened. 

'Later, the Europeans got interested in developing this subject. Grants from the European Union boosted the modernisation of BIOS. Then there was some extra funding from Russian sources.'

Today's experiments here are more limited in scope. 

'The aim of current experiments is increasing the sustainability of the system: making the air cleaner, growing more food at BIOS. Generally speaking, the aim is to recreate the Earth in miniature. Now we're slowly refurbishing BIOS, taking into account new technologies.

'But it is not yet clear if long-term experiments at BIOS will continue. It requires a lot of money and the government should get involved.

The institute is part of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Comments (2)

Thank you, Pamela!
Egor Zadereev, Krasnoyarsk, Russia
05/06/2016 23:36
Thank you for sharing your experiences and learnings. Your work was truly ahead of its time and continues to be leading edge eco-system research in reality. We can apply a great deal of this knowledge to improving our balance here on Earth as well as preparing for Deep Space and beyond. Plants are key to healing and regenerating our environment (and our health) from the devastation of so many decades of pollution (all forms including industry, agriculture, human "wants"). Great job and I hope you are able to continue your research.
Pamela Tetarenko, League City, USA
07/05/2016 07:19

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