After living in a Mars mission simulation for one whole year, an international ragbag of test subjects from the HI-SEAS IV mission emerged from their dome on Sunday.
Since August 28, 2015, they’ve been living in a Mars simulation habitat on the slopes of Mauna Loa on the Big Island. This location was chosen because the soil is fairly close to the Martian landscape. The region's elevation also means there is no plant life.
The mission involved a French astrobiologist, a German physicist, and four Americans – a pilot, an architect, a soil scientist, and a doctor who doubled as a journalist. They had to live in extremely close proximity, with little privacy and limited resources. If they were to leave the dome, which measures 11 meters (36 feet) in diameter and 6 meters (20 feet) in height, they had to wear a spacesuit.
The aim was to understand the social and emotional effects of long-term space travel, such as voyaging to Mars, which could take up to three years of travel.
“The UH research going on up here is just super vital when it comes to picking crews, figuring out how people are going to actually work on different kinds of missions, and sort of the human factors element of space travel, colonization, whatever it is you are actually looking at,” said Tristan Bassingthwaighte, a crew member and doctor of architecture candidate.
After leaving the capsule, the team were welcomed by hoards of journalists keen to hear their stories. After living on powdered, dried, and tinned food for months and months, they also enjoyed their first luxury of Earth: pizza.
In the dome, they were allowed access to the Internet and could email their loved ones, however there was a 20-minute delay to simulate the delay in communication on a spaceflight. They also wrote frequent blog posts throughout the mission, which provided an interesting glimpse into the psychological stress of this type of mission.
In a post on August 11, crew member Sheyna Gifford wrote: “For a few months after the mission first began I would have sort of waking dreams – bright moments where, for an instant, I would be standing somewhere on Earth. New Orleans. Boston Harbor. A street corner in New York City where I used to buy falafel and watch people walk their dogs. The fleeting scene would be completely immersive: I would hear, see, smell, and feel the place I was standing, down to the warmth of the pita sandwich in my hand. Then, I would blink and it would be gone. I called them Earthflashes.”
Overall, the mission proved extremely successful and has provided NASA with crucial insights in preparation for their future manned missions to Mars.
“I can give you my personal impression which is that a mission to Mars in the close future is realistic. I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome,” said French crew member Cyprien Verseux.
The study was funded by NASA but conducted through the University of Hawaii. In terms of length, it’s the second biggest project of its kind. The European Space Agency and Russia conducted a similar isolation experiment in 2010 that lasted 520 days.