As the debate about life on Mars rages on, what’s it like to actually live on Mars? NASA sent six scientists to find out by inhabiting the closet thing to a Martian habitat they could come up with on Earth.
The team of scientists who doubled as psychology research subjects finally emerged several days ago after eight months of surviving the space agency’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) facility at the Mauna Loa volcano. Besides simulating human existence on the Red Planet, NASA wanted to further understand how astronauts are psychologically influenced by long-term missions—think extended periods of isolation that could potentially make some people lose it.
Hawaii’s Big Island is already far enough from human civilization, but getting the full-on Mars experience meant that there would be the same 20-minute communication delay that there would be with Earth if they were living in an extraterrestrial base. The two men and four women who occupied the 1,200 square-foot dome that was modeled as a potential Martian habitat had their mental health monitored with mood-gauging sensors that could sense when there was tension.
They played games that measured compatibility and stress levels and were required tosubmit written logs on how they were feeling. If you had issues with your college roommate, you probably wouldn’t want to volunteer for an experiment like this.
"This is our fifth mission, and we have learned a lot over those five missions. We've learned, for one thing, that conflict, even in the best of teams, is going to arise," said project lead investigator Kim Binstead. "So what's really important is to have a crew that, both as individuals and a group, is really resilient, is able to look at that conflict and come back from it."
At least NASA handed out virtual-reality headsets that could take them anywhere but the dome if they needed to get away.
As for the food, freeze-dried everything was on the menu, but crew member Joshua Ehrlich was able to cultivate plants inside the habitat, which had a kitchen (as well as a bathroom, lab and sleeping quarters). Even picking up the processed stuff required some measure of effort just like it would on Mars. The team had to send out a robot to retrieve packages of food and supplies as if they had been dropped off by a spacecraft, and when they did, they had to gear up in neon yellow space suits for the trek.
When humans actually take off for Mars, those 8 months will be more like 2 or 3 years. Astronauts selected for such expeditions must have it in them to withstand similar, if not more extreme, circumstances. Not just anyone can stay totally sane after spending that long on an alien planet.
Even after spending so long in isolation, not all of the scientists were that excited about the almost dystopian news blasts that are making us all want to get off Earth. Now that’s totally understandable.