A mission to Mars conjures up thrilling ideas: traveling through space, colonizing a new planet, building a future across the galaxy. Beyond the technology required to achieve such a monumental feat, scientists realized we needed to study the psychological aspects of such a voyage as well: the isolation, confinement, and distance from family and friends.
NASA is funding research run primarily by the University of Hawaii to see how humans respond to these conditions in simulated Mars missions. Called HI-SEAS, or Hawai‘i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, the fourth mission is currently underway, and takes place for an entire year. The six crew members talked about what it’s like to live in their Habitat, which is on the northern slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano on the Island of Hawaii, and how their research will benefit the astronauts who do travel to Mars.
According to Crew Commander Carmel Johnston, there are multiple aspects of their research that will benefit Mars astronauts. “All sorts of lessons in crew dynamics, crew-ground support, interpersonal relations, cooking, growing plants, harvesting water… pretty much everything that we are researching will go toward better informing and preparing future Mars missions,” she says.
The team behaves as if they’re on Mars: they’re confined to their Habitat, a dome home, and only go outside in approved expeditions, wearing spacesuits. They have limited access to the Internet: only email and a few government websites. There’s no social media, no phone calls, no Skype. There’s also about a 20-minute delay, as there would be with astronauts sending messages from Mars to the Earth when the planets are close to their maximum distance apart.
“Sometimes it is difficult to see the sun shining outside and to know we cannot just grab a jacket and hop outside,” says Christiane Heinicke, Chief Scientific Officer and Crew Physicist.
“I’ve learned it is incredibly difficult to express yourself with a 20-minute delay via email even to people you know,” says Sheyna Gifford, who is the Chief Medical and Safety Officer as well as the Crew Journalist. “It’s very easy to read into emails, and people tend to. We’re going to have to come up with a more ideal communication medium for long duration space missions because email sucks for communicating anything more than just facts.”
Even on a simulated Mars mission with such restrictions, the crew is often reminded they’re still on Earth.
“Oh I’m totally aware I’m on Earth,” says Tristan Bassingthwaighte, Crew Architect. “There’s atmosphere, the sky is blue, gravity is completely normal, and radiation will give me a tan rather than every kind of cancer you can imagine. I’m way safer here, and I know it. That doesn’t matter so much though, because we’re a Mars simulation focusing on social and psychological stressors, not environmental similarities.”
“Even though this is a simulation, the stresses are real, the small team dynamics are real, and these are the parts that NASA wants to know about,” says Andrzej Stewart, Chief Engineering Officer.
Isolation is a large component of what NASA is exploring through the mission.
“On the ISS, even though those astronauts are in orbit and away from their families, they can still pick up a phone and using satellite technology call people back on the ground. Going to Mars is going to be a whole new level of isolation for the astronauts and the effects we’re feeling are the same real effects they will feel on Mars,” says Andrzej.
“They’ve done studies showing that isolation is equivalent to physical pain, and it really is. Isolation is tricky, and the cure for it is people,” says Sheyna. “Keeping in touch and having people keep in touch with you all the time is the cure for that and putting good mechanisms in place for that for our long duration cruises is one of the key lessons we’ve learned.”
They’ve learned that the people who are on the mission are vital to its success.
“Seeing the same 5 people for a year would be very hard if those 5 people were disrespectful and uninteresting, but my crewmates are fascinating people,” says Cyprien Verseux, Crew Biologist.
“You need people who are good at getting along with others, people who have a sense of the whole team and not just themselves,” says Andrzej.
“The human factors of a Mars mission are going to be a huge consideration. You want to send the most dynamic and genuine people you can,” says Tristan. “And twice as many snacks as you think you’ll need, snacks rule.”
The six crew members will be on their mission until the end of August 2016.