This past weekend, three men and three women returned from a mission to Mars. Of course, their spaceflight wasn’t real — not yet — but they were the crew members of the NASA-sponsored Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), an eight-month long fake mission to Mars that took place on Earth.
For The Washington Post, Sarah Kaplan reports:
For eight months, three men and three women lived in a habitat half the size of a volleyball court, pretending it was a space station on Mars. Any time they ventured onto the rocky, barren slopes outdoors, they wore spacesuits. They had no phone lines to the outside world and all online communication, even messages to base camp, worked on a 20-minute delay — the same amount of time it would take a signal to travel between Earth and Mars. Their bedrooms were “glorified closets,” in [commander Martha] Lenio’s words. Their food came freeze-dried in plastic packets. Their toilets didn’t flush.
Such forced isolation with only a few other people and months of boredom for company are expected in any manned mission to Mars (or another planet). And it has space agencies around the world worried. Like the seafaring expeditions of Earth’s past, mutiny and madness are real dangers.
The recently-concluded mission was much shorter than the Mars-500 mission involving Russia, the European Space Agency and China. That mission, which ended in 2011, included a 520-day stint simulating a trip to Mars with a crew of six men. Those crew members had to grapple with minor jealousy over who received messages from loved ones in the outside world. Another mission in 2000 was marred after one man sexually assaulted the only women in their four-person crew, following a brawl between two men earlier the same day.
Despite these setbacks, the simulated Mars missions continue. “Long story short, we want to know how you pick a team, and then support a team, for these long-duration space missions so they won’t kill each other,” Kim Binsted, who runs the HI-SEAS project, in told Tenille Bonoguore for The Globe and Mail. “These are long-duration isolation missions … in a really harsh environment. This isn’t the swaying palm trees and beaches most people think of when they think of Hawaii. It’s very Mars-like.” This was the third simulated mission at the HI-SEAS habitat on the slopes of Mauna Loa on the island of Hawaii.
Most astronauts tend to insist that everything is fine with interpersonal relationships, so as not to endanger the mission. Instead of relying on answers to direct questions, Binsted and her team used dozens of surveys, a computer game, programs to analyze video and text messages from the crew and wearable badges that detected proximity to other people and vocal volumes — crew members standing close together and speaking loudly could be fighting. But Kaplan reports for The Post that the recently liberated HI-SEAS crew emerged "joyfully and still friends."
They celebrated with a skydiving trip chaperoned by the U.S. Army Parachute Team.