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Crew From NASA’s Yearlong Mars Simulation Finally Emerges From the Dome

Would-be Martians say aloha to a challenging experiment

An "astronaut" walks outside of the HI-SEAS dome on Mauna Loa. (HI-SEAS)
smithsonian.com

After a year of complete isolation, six strangers inside a cramped, uninsulated dome on the side of a Hawaiian volcano have emerged. No, this isn't a tale of survival. The crew members just completed an experiment to test whether humans could take the psychological rigors of living on Mars.

As Space.com's Calla Cofield reports, the six crew members were participating in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue and Simulation project, or HI-SEAS. They lived together during the mock mars mission in a self-sufficient habitat for 12 months, limiting their contact with family and friends and spending their days in isolation that, at times, proved challenging.

HI-SEAS is all about preparing Earthlings for long-duration life on Mars. Since the planet is nearly 34 million miles away, it won't exactly be easy for red-planet inhabitants to interact with folks back home. Each HI-SEAS mission pits a crew of six against the isolation and lack of stimulation of a manmade habitat that simulates how people might live in on Mars. Resupply missions were rare, and participants had to don spacesuits when they left the dome.

As Nadia Drake reports for National Geographic, it's a life that would challenge the most self-sufficient person. Not only is there a 20-minute communication delay (simulating similar delays that might exist on Mars), but conditions in the 1,200 square-foot dome are tough. Crew members must survive everything from hot and cold temperatures to freeze-dried foods, not to mention the grueling reality of being isolated from friends and family. Drake notes that at least two of the six people inside experienced family deaths during their isolation. And the crew members had to improvise everything from Yahtzee games to dance-offs to keep their morale up. (For a further glimpse of daily life inside the dome, check out Calla Colfield's travelogue on Space.com.)

The concept of sending people to planet-like areas on Earth to train is as old as the space program itself. But HI-SEAS differs from some other variations of what are called "terrestrial analogues" within the world of space travel. Unlike simulations that, say, send astronauts underwater to mimic low-gravity movement or pit future crew members against caves or desert landscapes, HI-SEAS was specifically designed to study the psychology of space travel. Given that the team experienced several mini-emergencies, like when their water system broke, it offered analysts a rich way to study not just how strangers behave when they're thrown together in a strange environment, but how they interact once they've been given a challenging mission to complete.

The yearlong mission was the third for the group, which is funded by NASA's Behavioral Health and Performance initiative and administered by the University of Hawai'i and Cornell University. In the spirit of exploration, the crew was tracked with everything from motion trackers to cameras while they were in the dome. Now that they're out, they'll be debriefed and sent home—to a daily life that will presumably be forever transformed by all that time in the dome.

So the idea of living in total isolation with strangers may still not seem that appealing. (If it does, don't worry—HI-SEAS is recruiting for another mission now.) But when humans do finally head to the red planet, they'll take the lessons of HI-SEAS—Yahtzee, broken baths and all—along with them. When it comes to science, what's a little inconvenience now and then?

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