MAUNA LOA, HAWAII – Sheyna Gifford scoops up a handful of reddish volcanic rocks, buries her nose in it, and takes a long, deep breath.
“Wow,” she says. “There’s no planet like home.”
Gifford, a physician and journalist, just completed a year-long simulated Mars mission that required her and five crewmates to live in a two-story dome placed 8,200 feet (2,500 metres) up the slopes of Mauna Loa—the fourth iteration of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, project.
Sunday, August 28, was the first time the crew had left Mars-on-Earth without spacesuits since last August. For 365.5 days, they worked together, lived together, cooked together, hunkered down and shivered through relentlessly chilly days together. No visits from friends, no phone calls to family, no one to rely on but each other.
Gifford holds up her hand in the dewy wind blowing across the mountain and lets it catch the breeze. “This feels good,” she says. (Also see"Astronauts Embark on a Training Mission Deep Beneath the Earth.")
It’s been a long year being constantly enclosed, and re-entering the world means not only grappling with an onslaught of reporters, but also dealing with a slew of normally mundane sensations that are somehow much more meaningful.
Among those: fresh air.
“It smells like my memory of the ocean. Now the question is, how accurate is my memory? Memory is very fallible. The only way to know if I’m right is to go there immediately. Let’s go,” Gifford says.
Then she looks over to the tables where her fellow “lavanauts” are enjoying their first fresh fruit and at least one pizza in a year.
“They’re eating food, and I’m smelling dirt,” she says, grinning.
This mission marks the longest amount of time a crew has spent on Hawaii’s version of Mars on Earth. Previous simulations in the NASA-funded study, run by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, have lasted for either four or eight months. The next missions, set to begin in 2017 and 2018, will each go for eight months.
Each time, researchers select a six-member crew then challenge them to survive in a solar-powered, uninsulated dome that comes equipped with all the luxuries (or lack thereof) one might find in an actual interplanetary habitat.
The crew enjoyed amenities such as composting toilets, freeze-dried meat, and limited medical supplies (fortunately, no major injuries occurred). They also lived with a 20-minute communications delay with people outside the dome, and personal living spaces smaller than the closets at nearby resorts. Entertainment included rousing rounds of Yahtzee and some reluctant salsa dancing. Crew members recommended bringing a Kindle and a ukulele to combat boredom, among other things.
The mission can’t fully simulate what it’s like to be on Mars—Earth’s gravity won’t cooperate with that, for one thing.
“If you’re the kind of person who can’t really suspend disbelief—who knows there’s air in the airlock, who’s more than happy to walk out that door—you’re probably not the kind of person who would want to come on this mission,” says Andrzej Stewart, the mission’s chief engineering officer. “You have to suspend disbelief a little bit to really get the full experience.”
But projects like HI-SEAS can help scientists learn how small groups work together in the context of a journey to deep space. What makes a particularly effective crew? When and why do things fall apart? What are the psychological effects of being isolated from one’s friends and family? How can crews be trained to tolerate stressful environments?
“This is about crew cohesion and performance, so how do we keep a crew cohesive? How do we select a crew and train a crew so that they can be resilient?” says HI-SEAS principal investigator Kim Binsted, who was the first person to greet the crew as they unzipped the hatch and stepped into unsimulated reality.
“What we’ve found is that there’s no magic bullet to prevent conflict, it’s how you deal with it and how you respond to it. Not just as individuals, but as a group.”
That’s true in real life, too, notes crew commander Carmel Johnston, who is a soil scientist by training. “But how you deal with that in a dome or in a confined space is much different than if you can just walk away,” she says. “We want to learn everything that can go wrong before it goes wrong in space and prevent it from happening.”
Simulation Inside a Simulation
At least two crew members experienced deaths in their families while they were in the simulation. Others missed out on weddings and births. Holidays came and went, celebrated through text message, email, or recorded video messages.
This crew, though, had the advantage of testing a new virtual reality component. For the first time, researchers enabled a VR environment within the habitat that would let crew members both construct their own realities and experience 30 different VR environments and messages sent from back home.
Some of those messages, said researcher Peggy Wu, took the form of family members enjoying a Thanksgiving meal—a recorded scene in which, with the help of faraway friends, the crew could immerse themselves. The point, Wu says, is to see whether VR could be used to help facilitate connection and alleviate the stress that comes from isolation on deep space missions.
Though she’s just beginning to sift through the full year’s worth of data, reports from the first half of the simulation look promising. Crew member Tristan Bassingthwaighte certainly had a good time making his own VR environment, which took the form of an elaborate tree house.
“I took one of the biggest house models that was available, put it up there, and just started going crazy,” says Bassingthwaighte, an architecture graduate student. “Made a giant lounge full of natural art and a waterfall with a tiger guarding it. Put a couple of frogs there, a man-den with a bar and a pool table, a bunch of tubs out on a balcony, the back of the house has a bunch of waterfalls and a pirate ship—just anything I can do for fun … took me like three weeks.”
Aside from VR, personal time and space were at a minimum. Escaping the domehab meant venturing outside in a full space suit and contending with miles of crumbly, sharp volcanic scree. Gingerly picking one’s way through that jumble of rocks is tricky at best, but with a full spacesuit on, It could be disastrous. Still, for Bassingthwaighte, one of those excursions was his only real alone time—he wandered around with his radio off, singing along loudly to AC/DC and Martin Sexton for a few hours.
“That was probably the most alone I’ve been for the whole year,” he says. “You need to unwind and have time to yourself. People are social creatures, but not all the time.”
There’s no question that the physical demands of spaceflight are immense. Living on Mars with its unbreathable atmosphere, lack of liquid surface water, and toxic soil will challenge the hardiest of astronauts. But the psychological demands of deep space travel are also immense. Days off are rare, and there’s the constant, undeniable pressure of being humanity’s ambassadors to the cosmos.
"We represent the people of Earth,” Gifford says. “You all couldn't come here, so we came for you."