A year ago, a group of six volunteers embarked on a NASA mission, which required them to stay in isolation inside a special dome-like habitat on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. Designed to replicate the living conditions on Mars, the fourth phase of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS 4) attempted to gauge the crew’s performance and cohesion during deep space voyages.
It has been exactly 365 days since the volunteers set foot in the solar-powered geodesic shelter, and have only recently emerged after a year of complete isolation. Funded by NASA, the experiment was conducted by researchers from the University of Hawaii. According to the team, the location with its barren, rocky terrain was chosen because it closely resembles the surface environment of the Red Planet.
During the year-long project, the crew was allowed to venture outside only after donning simulated spacesuits. Their only real contact with the rest of the world was through emails, whose arrivals were delayed by around 20 minutes as would happen when emails are sent between Earth and Mars. The experiment helped scientists determine the effects of long-term isolation on the group’s performance and morale.
According to the team, earlier simulations lasted anywhere between four to eight months, making the current one the longest in the HI-SEAS series so far. The crew comprised of six volunteers from the United States, France and Germany, including an MD, an architecture student, a physicist, a soil scientist, a space researcher and an astrobiologist. Speaking about the mission, the team’s astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux said:
I can give you my personal impression which is that a mission to Mars in the close future is realistic. I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome.
Despite spending a year inside a sealed dome with nothing to eat except freeze-dried food, the participants were surprisingly cheerful and optimistic, which in turn points to the viability of long-duration manned space travels in the coming decades. Carmel Johnson, one of the volunteers who stayed in the 11-by-6 meter dome for the last 12 months, said:
It is kind of like having roommates that just are always there and you can never escape them… so I’m sure some people can imagine what that is like, and if you can’t then just imagine never being able to get away from anybody. We were always in the same place, always with the same people.
The volunteers also had to conduct experiments of their own. For instance, they were required to try and extract water from the dry, rocky soil. This ability, the scientists believe, could ensure the crew’s survival on the Red Planet. Christiane Heinicke, a researcher from Germany and one of the team members, added:
Showing that it works, you can actually get water from the ground that is seemingly dry. It would work on Mars and the implication is that you would be able to get water on Mars from this little greenhouse construct.
One of the major challenges during this year-long mission was boredom. To deal with it, the participants found innovative ways of entertaining themselves, such as learning to play the ukulele and even give each other lessons on salsa dancing. The team is being debriefed, now that the experiment is over. According to the scientists from the University of Hawaii, the results of the research will be published within the next few months.