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Six People Are Locked in a Dome on a Volcano, Pretending to Live on Mars

The HI-SEAS Mars simulation is keeping crew members in isolation.

by Daniel Oberhaus
May 21 2015, 4:20pm

HI-SEAS Habitat via HI-SEAS

All week, Motherboard contributor Daniel Oberhaus has been exploring life (and death) at those isolated space analogs from around the world that have become integral in planning for long-duration space flight. This is part four of five.

On the north slope of the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawaii sits a small geodesic dome funded by the University of Hawaii, Cornell and NASA since 2013. For the last six and a half months, this dome has been home to six crew members, part of the third, and penultimate, round of isolation missions planned there.

Relative to other Mars simulations, HI-SEAS falls somewhere in between the rigor, isolation and general stress levels of Concordia and Mars 500. Unlike Mars500, however, HI-SEAS is simulating what life would be like once its crew has reached Mars—the travel aspect is not incorporated into the mission design.

HI-SEAS is the testing ground for a number of different experiments, ranging from testing 3D printing for use in space (and also printing repair parts for the habitat) to the physical effects of stress and isolation on the body. For the most part, the crew operates independently, with everyone largely focusing on their own research projects, although this has not hampered their capacity for cohesion. Three days a week the group conducts activities involving challenges that measure how well the crew works as a team and as individuals, providing the data to NASA as part of a series of 40 reports that are submitted to researchers at the agency each week.

Additionally, the group is assigned a geology task every two weeks in which they must don faux space suits to explore and map out the terrain around the habitat. It's a task that, according to Lenio, requires the crew to operate in a more coordinated manner.

HI-SEAS Crew for the Third Mission; image via Neil Scheibelhut

In terms of their isolation from the rest of the world, the crew at HI-SEAS are not able to receive visitors during their stay, however they do have some means of making contact with those who are off base. Their two primary forms of communication are email and Voxer, which is a voice-messaging system set to a 20-minute delay to mimic actual transmission delays from the Red Planet. While this is certainly more communication than was allowed for Mars500 participants, who ran experiments (and played lots of Counter Strike) inside a capsule in the middle of Moscow for 520 days, some of the crew members at HI-SEAS told me that not being able to see or have a conversation with their families has been one of the hardest parts of the mission so far.

"I miss such ordinary things like the sound of children playing in the park or even hearing dogs barking," crew member Jocelyn Dunn told me via email. "We have one yoga instruction video that has some of these background noises and it's like heaven!"

For crew member Sophie Milam, the most difficult part of her experience at HI-SEAS has been learning about troubles back on 'Earth' and realizing her inability to do anything about them.

"The hardest thing has been learning about family members and friends that are not doing so well health-wise, or people from my social circle getting injured or killed," said Milam. "It makes me a little paranoid, [but] I make sure that if they ever need to talk to me about something hard or potentially sad they know the lines of communication are open and that I have a good support system within the dome family."

For others at the base, such as Martha Lenio, the HI-SEAS mission commander for the current iteration, the isolation hasn't been much of a problem so far.

"I lived in Ghana for six months and could only get dial up connection at an internet cafe once a week for about an hour," said Lenio. "[At HI-SEAS] I have access to the internet every day whenever I like it, so compared to that this is actually much easier."

For Dunn and several other members on her crew, the real concern is the lack of personal space and privacy. With only 993 square feet of living space, most of which is communal, the module seems to get smaller with each passing month. It's impossible to have a private conversation unless you head to the shipping container turned food storage attached to the module, affectionately referred to as the "seacan." These confined quarters can also make sleeping difficult, especially because many of the crew members operate on wildly different schedules due to the nature of the specific experiments that they happen to be performing.

"The walls are thin so sound travels freely through the dome," Dunn told me. "Headphones and earphones are a must have—sometimes I even wear both, earplugs with headphones over the top, so I hear nothing but my music."

HI-SEAS habitat tour.

When they're not performing their experiments, the group finds ways to kill the time much like other Mars simulations. They play board games that last for weeks. They watch movies, read (Dunn had to specifically request that VICE articles be cached for her since it is typically blocked on NASA networks) and even golf, splitting the communal upkeep on a rotating basis. Meals are generally informal affairs, with crew members able to take breakfast and lunch at their leisure. Dinners are cooked in rotation by the crew members, who take on the role of chef about once a week, and serve as more of a communal affair for the crew.

The crew also maintains a steady exercise regimen, something which would be a must for the first Martians to prevent bone and muscle loss during extended stays in reduced gravity. While the HI-SEAS crew is at a significantly lower risk for bone and muscle atrophy, the exercise regimen is just as much about fostering team cohesion as it is about working up a sweat.

"If we were really on Mars, that would be a life or death sort of situation"

"Sometimes people will go for a run, a bike, or do their own yoga session if they're not feeling up to the full workout, but it's actually been pretty fun and motivating to do the group ones," Lenio told me. "Tony Horton from the P90X workout videos feels like a seventh crew member for us now."

Due to their isolation, the crew is heavily dependent on the whims of the island's weather. The HI-SEAs facility relies on solar energy to function during the day and saves excess energy in batteries that are utilized during the evening. As such, energy conservation has become a major factor that influences daily life—cooking, warm water, science equipment and electric exercise machinery are always only usable weather permitting.

Hawaii is a place of extreme weather, so the crew has had to find creative ways to deal with bouts of sunless days. The crew has access to back up hydrogen fuel cells as well as a gasoline generator in the event of a battery malfunction or several days without sun. About halfway through the mission, the crew experienced several days of poor weather and were unable to use their solar batteries.

Over the course of the next week, the crew relied heavily on the backup power supplies to maintain their basic systems, such as freezers for urine and saliva samples, composting toilets and communication equipment. These took precedence over other luxuries, so for several days the crew functioned with little to no heat, cooking, lights, or movies in the habitat. By the end of the week, they had reached an impasse—the generator was no longer charging the batteries and they were running critically low on backup fuel. Unable to fix the problem themselves, they had to wait out the storm until a member of the support team could come to fix these systems.

"If we were really on Mars, that would be a life or death sort of situation," said Lenio. "Here we did everything we could to extend our resources until help could arrive and were successful with that. However, if we weren't, it's not like we would have died, so the same stress level [as you experience on Mars] isn't there."

When I spoke with the crew, they were just marking their 200-day anniversary at station, relishing in the fact that they were inside of 40 days remaining until they could once again rejoin the normal world this June. According to the crew, their experience at HI-SEAS has profoundly changed them in myriad ways, although perhaps most significantly in their attitude toward future missions to the Red Planet.

"My thoughts actually did change on how I feel about being a participant in a 'real' long duration mission," said Dunn. "Going on a multi-year Mars mission is really a huge sacrifice that I wasn't sure if I was willing to make, [but] my thinking has evolved from being on the fence about it, to actually wanting to explore Mars. This has been such an incredible, satisfying experience, and it's just fake Mars. I don't think I'm ready for a one-way trip, but assuming it's round trip, then sign me up!"