For the next eight months, a team of six will reside in a 1,000 sq. foot dome located by the north side of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. By doing so, the HI-SEAS project, sponsored by NASA and led by the University of Hawaii, hopes to simulate life at a space station on Mars.
The project, which kicks off Wednesday, is the second of three missions sponsored by NASA aiming to study human performance and psychology over the course of long-duration isolation missions. During the process, there will be limited outside communication – meaning no phone calls and no Skype. The participants are allowed to email, although there is a 20 minute delay in getting and sending messages, since that is how long it takes for a message to travel fro Earth to Mars and visa versa.
Martha Lenio, the mission’s commander and the first woman to lead a Mars simulation, was recently interviewed about the project. According to her, the dome is roughly 36 feet across and two stories. The grand level is comprised of a kitchen, dining area, lab, washroom and working space, while the tiny bedrooms are located upstairs. Although small, they realistically simulate the amount of space that is available at a station on Mars.
Life in the “station” is also very modest. Everyone is allotted only eight liters of water a day for drinking, showering, cleaning, etc. This roughly translates to eight minutes of shower times a week. Food must also be self-stable for two to three years – anything from freeze-dried fruits and vegetables to meat. Unfortunately, during a long-duration space mission, astronauts typically get food fatigue, which eventually makes everything begin to taste the same. To counteract this effect, the team has a very extensive spice kit as well as a set of premade meals. Similarly, a study is currently being performed by Cornell to discover foods that the team will not get tired of.
However, the biggest problem during these types of missions is depression. Due to isolation and the lack of overall communication, it is easy to grow frustrated. For others, living in close proximity with a group of people is a recipe for disaster.
Lenio, however, is sure that having women on board might help with the overall cohesiveness and dynamic of the team. In all-male crews (or predominantly male), people tend to fight over the alpha position. Thus, for this particular project, the team will be balanced with 3 male and 3 female members. If all goes well, we will be one step closer to a successful landing on Mars by 2030.
Although, we still may not be ready to stay indefinitely, at least we can traverse the planet for a fixed amount of time.