Astronauts Tell All About Their One Year on “Mars”

In an unprecedented simulation, NASA learned that its astronauts are a bunch of overachievers

Carmel Johnston (left), crew commander, enjoys her first meal outside the dome. University of Hawai‘i News

On August 28, six astronauts emerged from an 11-meter-wide bubble of isolation into freedom. One immediately picked up a handful of dirt and smelled it.*

For an entire year, these brave souls had lived as if they were en route to Mars—no fresh air, no fresh food, no privacy, just six astronauts bound together in communal isolation. It was the much-anticipated conclusion of the NASA-funded Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) experiment, the longest “extreme-environment” isolation experiment ever held in the U.S. The simulation, which took place on the remote Hawaiian Mauna Loa volcano bed, was meant to test the social and psychological limits of the six crew members in anticipation of a future manned mission to Mars.

We caught up with NASA’s six astronauts to find out what it’s like to spend a year in cramped isolation. And boy, were they tested.

The robotic missions NASA has already sent to Mars have taken, on average, eight months to make the journey. Follow that up with a mission that involves landing on or orbiting Mars, plus another eight months for the return journey, and that’s a long time to be trapped with five other people. You might be able to plan (or you can try) for every variable that the ship might encounter using algorithms and engineers, but none of that will help you prepare for what happens to claustrophobic human beings under those conditions.

“Isolation has a way of magnifying the personalities that already exist,” says Carmel Johnston, crew commander of the experimental mission. “You can fake your personality for a couple weeks, at most, but over the long term, your true personality will come out in the end.”

The first challenge was figuring out what to do with themselves. The astronauts were generally free to perform whatever research they wished. “In the beginning, I mostly worked on my own research projects,” says chief scientific officer Christiane Heinicke, “including the extraction of water from the ground on Mauna Loa, which is about as dry as Martian soil, and a study designed to record the crew's sleep patterns.” Johnston ran several experiments growing plants in different conditions to see what would work best for cultivating on Mars, while Sheyna Gifford, crew physician and journalist, was kept busy with preventative medical care. As the mission wore on, the crew moved into more collaborative projects, from designing and building a Mars suit to making electricity with a bicycle.

Astronauts Tell All About Their One Year on “Mars”
Exploring the surface of Mars—er, Hawaii. Christiane Heinicke / HI-SEAS

For regular folk, spending 366 days in an 1,200-square-foot bubble might, at times, get boring. But remember, these are astronauts we’re talking about. “Boredom is a luxury that overachievers can rarely afford. We worked ourselves nearly to the breaking point. … Sleep was at a premium. Overexertion was a problem, never boredom,” says Gifford. Heinicke even managed to play the harmonica and learn French during her scraps of free time.*

Neveretheless, the crew did make time for R&R. They organized a weekly board game night, and a movie night to keep up with episodes of Doctor Who (boy, the inside of the Tardis must have seemed enviable). Turning freeze-dried astronaut food like powdered sour cream and dehydrated carrots into somewhat-edible pizzas, lasagna, tacos, crepes and even tiramisu became a communal social event. 

Crew members found privacy wherever they could. “We all had private bunks. There were several out-of-the-way places. And, if you really needed space, you could always put on a suit and go find some,” says Gifford. But for the most part, it was an exercise in getting along. “In a way, we were never alone, but isolated together,” she says.

The crew also went on 145 extravehicular activities (EVAs), which basically means “walks outside the dome.”* These required them to don spacesuits as if they were on the surface of Mars. This was not as glamorous as it sounds. “It would get pretty warm inside the suits, especially on sunny days,” Heinicke says. “Imagine seeing everything around you through an old window with some scratches on it. Everything you touch feels like the inside of your gloves. While you walk, a fan, your only source of fresh air, is constantly blowing next to your ear. Apart from the fan, you only hear your crewmates over a radio. You never hear your own footsteps. One of the first things I noticed coming out after the end of the simulation was the sound of dry rocks crunching under my feet.”

Crew members all said that it was the small, everyday things that they missed the most. One of the first things Gifford did after getting out of the simulation, for instance, was to smell a handful of dirt. For others, it was taking a hot shower or eating a piece of fruit. “The very first thing for me was to eat fresh raspberries,” says Heinicke. “Sometime later in the day we went swimming in a pool, which felt great after having saved every drop of water in the past year, but it also took some getting used to. I hadn't seen so much water in a long time and felt almost guilty about polluting it with my presence.”

Once the study's publishers analyze the results of the HI-SEAS experiment, they'll be released to the public. But there’s one thing the crew has already concluded: email sucks. During the trip, email was their only link to the outside. But sending and receiving it came with a 20-minute delay, just as it'd be if they were orbiting Mars (with that much lag, phone calls and video conferencing are impractical). That meant that to send a message and receive one back took 40 minutes, plus the time to write them. 

“E-mail is not a communication medium,” says Gifford. “It’s a marvelous fact-transmission tool, but if you try to substitute e-mail for every other form of communication—calls, Skype, texting—you and everyone will suffer emotionally, because it’s nearly impossible to make yourself perfectly understood or to perfectly understand someone else via e-mail. Frustration and arguments ensue. All told, we need better tools for communication in space.”

But in the end, despite the perils of email, the crew emerged optimistic about a future Mars voyage. “We can survive in space—and anywhere—if that’s what we want,” says Gifford. “We have to want it more than we want all kinds of conveniences and pettinesses, more than we want wars, but we can definitely have it.”

Editor's Note, September 22, 2016: This article originally stated that the crew emerged on August 29, not 28, and that their habitat was inflatable (it has an internal frame). It also stated that Gifford, not Heinicke, practiced harmonica and learned French, and that the crew had gone on 149 EVAs.

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