Six NASA-backed research subjects, who took part in a psychology experiment which began in January and had them living in isolation on a remote volcano in Hawaii, will come out of their Mars-like habitat on Sunday and return to civilization. The crew entered a geodesic dome on Mauna Loa, which is one of Hawaii’s five volcanoes, and the world’s largest, back during the first month of 2017 and remained there for an eight-month simulation activity.
The experiment they were conducting was part of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) project. The project has been operating long-duration planetary surface missions to investigate crew composition since 2012.
The crew consisted of four men and two women and was quarantined on a vast plain below the summit of the giant volcano.
The study was designed to gain a better understanding and to get a bit of a feel for how astronauts would respond mentally, physically, and most importantly, psychologically to a long-term, manned space mission. NASA wanted to see how isolation in an inhospitable environment would affect future settlers on Mars. A lot was experimented with, everything from being forced to live in the cramped habitat of the dome, to having to rely solely on packaged food, not to mention dealing with the fact that they would have virtually no contact with another living soul.
Trying to create an atmosphere as similar as possible to what life on Mars would be, all of the communications the crew would have with the outside world would subject to a 20-minute delay — the time it takes for signals to get from Mars to Earth.
NASA is counting on the data that was gathered during this mission to help better pick crews that have certain traits and a better chance of doing well during a potential two-to-three year Mars expedition. Determining the individual and team requirements for long-duration space exploration missions will be crucial if NASA plans to send people into space.
“Long term space travel is absolutely possible,” says Laura Lark, HI-SEAS V IT specialist. “There are certainly technical challenges to be overcome. There are certainly human factors to be figured out, that’s part of what HI-SEAS is for. But I think that overcoming those challenges is just a matter of effort. We are absolutely capable of it.”
The hope is that humans will be ready to be sent to the red planet by around 2030.
During this particular mission, the Hawaii team wore specially-designed sensors to gauge their moods and proximity to other people in the small dome they inhabited. The dome itself, measured only 111-square meters.
The devices they wore helped show the psychological toll the experiment was taking as they were able to monitor the voice levels of the crew and could sense if people were avoiding one another. Also detectable was whether or not crew members were next to each other and arguing. In addition to the devices worn, the crew had to also put on special suits for whatever trips outdoors they were to take, which altogether were infrequent.
The crew played games designed to measure their compatibility and stress levels. Whenever they began to feel overwhelmed by being in such close proximity to each other, they were able to make use of virtual reality devices to escape to tropical beaches or other familiar landscapes.
The project is the fifth in a series of six NASA-funded studies at the University of Hawaii facility called the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS.
To this point, NASA has dedicated approximately $3.13 million to the studies at the facility.
[Image by University of Hawaii/AP Images]