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These six people simulated a mission to Mars on a Hawaiian volcano

June 14, 2015 at 5:00 PM EDT
A NASA-funded study is focusing on the psychological impact of a potential mission to Mars. For the past eight months, six people have been living in a self-sustaining 1,000 square-foot dome on the Mauna Loa Volcano in Hawaii, cut off from the outside world. It is the longest space-travel simulation to take place in the United States. Saskia de Melker reports.

SASKIA DE MELKER: High on the slopes of the Mauna Loa Volcano in Hawaii, six people — three men and three women — have been living inside this dome, completely isolated, for the last eight months.

NASA and the University of Hawaii are funding and leading the project known as the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation or HI-SEAS for short. The ultimate goal? To study social interaction among crew on long term space missions, like the one to Mars that NASA hopes to launch in the 2030’s.

SASKIA DE MELKER: And driving up to the site on Mauna Loa, it’s easy to see why they chose this location.

KIM BINSTED: The site is very geologically similar to a young Mars. There’s no signs of human life, there’s no signs of animal life, very little plant or insect life.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Kim Binsted is the principal investigator for the HI-SEAS study. We caught up with her via Skype from her home on the Big Island of Hawaii.

KIM BINSTED: NASA certainly has a lot of technical concerns to consider, but also there’s problems to do with the human side of the equation and that’s what we’re trying to address. So, things like how do you pick a crew so that they’ll continue to work together well over the 2.5 to 3 years of a Mars mission. And how do you support them so that, to be honest, they don’t want to end up wanting to kill each other.

JOCELYN DUNN: You don’t have a lot of privacy and personal time and we all have so much going on.

SASKIA DE MELKER: To test their individual and team behavior, the crew completed numerous daily surveys, tasks, and computer games. They also wore devices called socio-meters that measure the distance between them and the volume of their voices.

KIM BINSTED: If two people are standing very close to each other, the volume of their voices is very high, you might assume they’re having a fight. And similarly if two people have never come near each other, then maybe they’re avoiding each other. Those might be warning signs for a problem that is developing amongst the crew.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Their communication with the outside world was limited and on a 20-minute time delay. But the crew did make and share periodic video diaries of their experiences.

SOPHIE MILAM: So, one disadvantage would be the food.

SASKIA DE MELKER: They were faced with a number of conditions similar to those that astronauts encounter on space missions.

JOCELYN DUNN: So, here for example is the green and red bell pepper and then we just put hot water and soak them for a while to rehydrate.

SASKIA DE MELKER: They could only eat freeze dried and shelf stable foods.

JOCELYN DUNN: On this side we have one of each of our meats. So we have sausage, beef, chicken, turkey.

ZAK WILSON: Here we have our electrical system for the hab.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Life in the dome is powered by solar panels, and resources, including water, were restricted.

JOCELYN DUNN: So, we have a timer here that helps us keep track of how many seconds and minutes we spend in the shower.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Each person was allowed just 8 minutes of shower time a week.

ZAK WILSON: Mission support this is HI-SEAS engineer Zak and I’m requesting assistance.

SASKIA DE MELKER: On the rare occasions when they went outside, crew members had to first request approval from ‘Ground Control’ and wear spacesuits while exploring the volcano’s Mars-like landscape.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Most of the time though they were confined to the 1000-feet-square feet dome.

PARTICIPANT: Here you have the only window of the habitat.

MARTHA LENIO: We’re doing a type of composting that’s called Bokashi.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Each person had their own individual project to keep them busy.

NEIL SCHEIBELHUT: I do all my testing in here in the lab and Martha’s actually got her garden here.

SASKIA DE MELKER: From research on microbiology and hydroponics to work on robotics and 3D printing. And then there were daily group routines, including exercising together.

ALLEN MIRKADYROV: Besides dinners we also make excellent desserts.

SASKIA DE MELKER: Cooking together — perhaps the biggest challenge for crew members wasn’t being separated from the rest of the world, but the inability to separate from each other.

ALLEN MIRKADYROV: There’s really no place in the hab where you can stand and not be heard.

ALLEN MIRKADYROV: Zak, how’s my coffee coming?

ZAK WILSON: It’s not quite ready yet, but do you want cream or sugar?


SASKIA DE MELKER: Yesterday, the simulation came to an end. To celebrate the crew took a jump back to earth. And, they’re all still smiling.

KIM BINSTED: Even when you choose very low drama people and we’re not a reality show, problems will arise. So what we’re looking for is not a way to eliminate all problems from happening but a way to choose people and to train people so that they know how to respond to conflict and can do that in a really resilient way.

SASKIA DE MELKER: It will take some time before all  the observations and data collected during the study will be synthesized. But another HI-SEAS experiment will be starting soon. In August, a new crew of six will enter the dome. This time for an entire year.