Last Friday, three women and three men entered a solar-powered dome in Hawaii.
They will not emerge for a year.
The crew members of the fourth Hawaiʻi Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission will live in isolation for a year to simulate the experience of long-duration space travel. The facility is located on the slopes of Mauna Loa on the Big Island. Previous HI-SEAS missions have lasted four to eight months.
Funded by NASA, the current mission will build on this previous research regarding how the crew members interact with each other and perform their duties. The crew will be monitored using cameras, body movement trackers, electronic surveys, and other methods.
“We need to understand how to pick crews and how to support crews while they’re on the mission in order for us to get to Mars and back safely,” HI-SEAS Principal Investigator Kim Binsted said in a press release.
Video: The Daily Conversation
The Crew Commander is a soil scientist who will be researching food production in a simulated Mars environment. Other crew members include a physicist and engineer from Germany; a medical writer/STEM advocate; an aerospace engineer who at one point worked for Lockheed Martin; an astrobiologist who is an expert in biological life support systems for Mars exploration; and an architect who will be designing a next generation conceptual Mars habitat.
The isolation facility, a geodesic dome, is located at an altitude of 8,000 feet. The site has very little vegetation. It is not home to any rare, threatened, or endangered species, and doesn’t host any archaeological sites or cultural practices. It’s got a diameter of 36 feet and a volume of 13,570 cubic feet. The ground floor — which hosts the kitchen, dining room, full bathroom, and the lab — has 878 sq. ft. of usable space. The second floor is 424 sq. ft. and hosts six small bedrooms and a half bath. A 160 sq. ft. workshop, which was converted from a 20-ft. high steel shipping container, is attached to the habitat.
Tests such as these are necessary for the possibility of manned exploration to Mars. It’s estimated that a round-trip Mars mission would take three years to complete. Simulated missions here on Earth track crew members’ cognitive skills and their performance throughout long periods of isolation. Additionally, it’s vital to test equipment in a controlled environment — the 2014 mission tested 3D printed surgical tools, for example. Plants were grown under special lights; trash was recycled into usable materials. There’s no Target or Trader Joe’s on Mars, so explorers have to make do with whatever they have. They’re eating meals made with dehydrated food (which actually looks tastier than I would have thought), and plan to grow more food as they go along. They also need to learn to manage their own health and safety, and solve whatever problems might come up using the skills and tools they already have.
Read more: What happened to our fascination with space?
The crew members aren’t totally isolated from the rest of Earth, however — they’re keeping in touch via Twitter. Very impressive, considering there are rooms in my own house where I can’t connect to Wi-Fi.
The Curiosity rover is already on Mars, scoping out the surface and sending data back to Earth. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., a division of the California Institute of Technology, built the rover and manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The JPL is home to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, a Class 10,000 ISO 7 cleanroom with horizontal airflow and return, in which Curiosity was built and inspected before it journeyed to the Red Planet.
Curiosity’s findings are important for the future of Mars exploration — during its first hole drill, it was discovered that the Yellowknife Bay area was once a habitable environment. NASA is also monitoring Curiosity’s equipment and wheels to see how long they can last before they become unusable — again, it’s not possible to acquire fresh supplies after a hypothetical crew lands on Mars.
So, could you hack it?
I admit that a yearlong isolation sounds tempting … it’s sort of nice to fantasize being shut off from the rest of the world when I read depressing news stories, when my bills arrive every month, and when I’m stuffed into an airplane coach seat during a delay on the tarmac with a screaming infant seated behind me.
But I’d miss my family, my friends, and my pets. I would miss traveling. I would get restless with no change of scenery. I crave “alone time” and I’d get very anxious having to see the same five people day-in and day-out. I don’t particularly want to leave behind the familiarity of Earth and climb into a rocketship that will blast me through the atmosphere and take me to an unknown terrain.
In addition to all that, I admit that what put me over the top was a photo (see above) of the crew members’ tiny sleeping quarters. NOPE. I’ll keep my queen-size bed and my spotty Wi-Fi and my monthly credit card bills, thank you very much.
InSight will place a single geophysical lander on Mars to study its interior. Previous Mars missions have examined the surface of Mars, but InSight will dig deep below the surface to study the planet’s building blocks and investigate its earliest evolution.
Don’t fear, there’s plenty of room on the chip … the Orion EFT-1 mission, which launched almost a year ago, carries a chip with 1.3 million names etched on it. But the deadline is Sept. 8, so hurry!