Apr, 9, 2015

There’s Life on Mars: Behind the Scenes At a Simulated Martian Colony

The crew of HI-SEAS 3. From left: Neil Scheibelhut, Sophie Milam, Zak Wilson, Kim Binsted (project PI), Jocelyn Dunn, Allen Mirkadyrov, Martha Lenio.
   
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04/09/2015

There’s Life on Mars: Behind the Scenes At a Simulated Martian Colony

There are many ways to visit outer space. One way is to pretend you’re already there. Right now six research volunteers are doing just that, in a small dome perched on the side of the Mauna Loa volcano on the big island of Hawaii. From October of last year until this June, the third mission of the NASA-sponsored Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) project is undertaking the longest-running group simulation of life on a Mars colony. Previous Mars analog habitats have been enacted in remote, Martian-like landscapes across the Earth, including Utah, Canada, and Australia.

Life in a Mars analog is somewhere between a live action role-playing game and a conceptual art piece (think Tom Sachs, or Joseph Beuys living with a coyote), except dedicated to knowledge production about everything from resource management to group psychology.

Each Mars analog is a remarkably thorough simulacra of space exploration, complete with cramped quarters, solar power, limited water, shelf-stable food, and EVA missions in full spacesuits. Life in a Mars analog is somewhere between a live action role-playing game and a conceptual art piece (think Tom Sachs, or Joseph Beuys living with a coyote), except dedicated to knowledge production about everything from resource management to group psychology.

Scientific contributions made by Mars analog habitats like Hi-SEAS aren’t limited to creating actual colonies on the red planet: current Hi-SEAS research into fields such as advanced biometrics, 3-D printing and water conservation will be applicable to the way we live on Earth now. And a dystopian benefit must also be considered: should climate change continue to wreak havoc on the globe, in a century or so we might all need to know how to live on a hostile planet with limited resources.

A dystopian benefit must also be considered: should climate change continue to wreak havoc on the globe, in a century or so we might all need to know how to live on a hostile planet with limited resources.

We interviewed the current HI-SEAS crew to find out how you live when you’re pretending to be on Mars.*

Surprises:

Zak Wilson: I expected to be bored some of the time. I certainly was during my previous Mars analog. This has really not been an issue at all. I have more individual work than I have time to do it, and someone else is pretty much always up for doing something fun.

Martha Lenio: I’ve been surprised how easy it has been to stay fit – everyone here is fairly committed to working out and staying healthy, and it makes it so much easier to work out when we’re all on the same page.

“This experience is so outside the realm of normal life I think it was hard to mentally prepare for what I was getting myself into.”

Sophie Milam: I’m surprised by my high level of social involvement. I think that outside the dome I interact with far fewer people on a daily basis than I do here. I’m now also infinitely better at email communication and keeping in touch with those outside my normal social circle. It’s very difficult to communicate the way we want to and I’ve learned to be very deliberate with all of my loved ones outside so that there is little miscommunication.

Challenges:

Wilson: This experience is so outside the realm of normal life I think it was hard to mentally prepare for what I was getting myself into. Agreeing to only see the same five people, to not leave the confines of the hab and only eat shelf-stable food for eight months has been nerve wracking. I’m generally pleased with how I’ve handled it. I’ve gotten to know myself better and increased my confidence.

Milam: During one of my first EVAs I had a claustrophobic scare and it took me a while to calm down enough to continue the mission. During that time I had to really dig deep and find my motivation for going on. What I learned was that being an astronaut is about testing your limits and finding out which ones are just in your head and which ones are real.

Wilson: I think everyone is aware that this is a bit of a difficult living arrangement and does their best to be considerate, but the inability to be really alone can be hard – at least for me. The only way to escape from people is to go into your room and close the door, but this does not isolate you from the sound of the rest of the crew even with ear plugs or headphones. You can hear people talking in pretty much any part of the hab.

“During one of my first EVAs I had a claustrophobic scare and it took me a while to calm down enough to continue the mission. During that time I had to really dig deep and find my motivation for going on.”

Electricity:

Jocelyn Dunn: The most difficult part of the mission was in the beginning of March, when we had a few weeks of cloudy weather.  Since we rely primarily on solar energy to power our habitat, the weather often restricts our daily activities. In overcast weather situations, we don’t have enough power for cooking or for using the treadmill.  It was so dreary that my light-dark cycles were disturbed.

Lenio: We were ok during the outage, because we live on Earth, but it made me realize the importance of having passive back-up systems, at least, for things like air recycling, water purification, and light. You wouldn’t want to lose power on Mars.

Wilson: The composting toilets require a significant amount of power, so even a brief outage and the smell starts to spread to the rest of the habitat. It’s probably no surprise that dealing with them is unpleasant. But I think many of us overlooked what having composting would really mean until we are already into the mission. The prospect of changing a dirty diaper seems less objectionable than it did six months ago.

Showers:

Wilson: Our rationed water means we take a couple so-called “navy showers” per week, about 2 minutes of water usage per shower, and use wet wipes in between.

“I think many of us overlooked what having composting would really mean until we are already into the mission. The prospect of changing a dirty diaper seems less objectionable than it did six months ago.”

Dunn: I’ve been surprised that the water restrictions have not been as difficult as imagined.  We turn the water on and off to conserve; though I only use about 1.5 min of water flow per shower, I can still be in the shower for 5-10 minutes with intermittent water flow. After adjusting my behavior to these circumstances, I do not want to return to my previous ways of taking long showers that waste so much water!

A “Real” Mars Mission:

Dunn: When a “real” mission to Mars becomes feasible from the human health perspective, I hope that my generation is still able to join in this pioneering exploration.  It is possible that space agencies will send an aged crew to minimize the loss of life years due to DNA damage as well as bone and muscle loss that are currently part of the risks of long-duration missions. Until space technologies can provide better shielding of radiation, or biomedical technologies can repair DNA damage as it occurs, the journey to Mars will be a huge sacrifice for astronauts.

Wilson: Beyond the scientific discoveries about Martian planetary science and the history of our solar system that I’m sure will be made on Mars, and which I think would be reason enough to go, I think just the preparations for a Mars mission will lead to many useful inventions and discoveries. Among likely candidates are reduced launch costs for satellites, knowledge of in-orbit refueling, improved ability to deal with radiation, tele-medicine, water recycling, regenerative life support systems and confined space food production. In addition, I think it would be a useful tool for inspiring kids into science and engineering as well as helping to support a high-tech workforce.

 ”I want to eat a pineapple. A whole pineapple.”

Life After Mars:

Dunn: I’m gonna go swimming!  Feel the sunshine!  And I can’t wait for some big ole hugs from my family!  They’re meeting me here to do some island hopping when the mission concludes.

Milam: I plan on blending up a fresh smoothie, finding my bikini and parking my pale self in the sun somewhere.

Wilson: I think the grocery store is going to be a pretty amazing thing, having instant access to all these foods we haven’t had in eight months. Even just sitting outside in the sun and wind is something I’m really looking forward to.

Lenio: I want to eat a pineapple. A whole pineapple.

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HI-SEAS Mission 3 runs from October 2014 to June 2015. For more on mission progress, research developments and daily life in the colony, visit the HI-SEAS blog, regularly updated by mission personnel.

*Transcripts edited for content and clarity.