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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.
And driving up to the site on Mauna Loa, it's easy to see why they chose this location.
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.
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.
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.
You don't have a lot of privacy and personal time and we all have so much going on.
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.
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.
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.
So, one disadvantage would be the food.
They were faced with a number of conditions similar to those that astronauts encounter on space missions.
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.
They could only eat freeze dried and shelf stable foods.
On this side we have one of each of our meats. So we have sausage, beef, chicken, turkey.
Here we have our electrical system for the hab.
Life in the dome is powered by solar panels, and resources, including water, were restricted.
So, we have a timer here that helps us keep track of how many seconds and minutes we spend in the shower.
Each person was allowed just 8 minutes of shower time a week.
Mission support this is HI-SEAS engineer Zak and I'm requesting assistance.
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.
Most of the time though they were confined to the 1000-feet-square feet dome.
Here you have the only window of the habitat.
We're doing a type of composting that's called Bokashi.
Each person had their own individual project to keep them busy.
I do all my testing in here in the lab and Martha's actually got her garden here.
From research on microbiology and hydroponics to work on robotics and 3D printing. And then there were daily group routines, including exercising together.
Besides dinners we also make excellent desserts.
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.
There's really no place in the hab where you can stand and not be heard.
Zak, how's my coffee coming?
It's not quite ready yet, but do you want cream or sugar?
Yesterday, the simulation came to an end. To celebrate the crew took a jump back to earth. And, they're all still smiling.
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.
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.
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