Mars isolation study in a Hawaii volcano: What are we learning?

The NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation is the latest in a series of 'Mars' missions designed to prepare astronauts for the harsh realities of prolonged space travel.

After a year of isolation, six scientists will emerge on this coming Sunday from a dome sitting on the largest volcano on Earth.

The crew of the NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) has lived in the two-story dome for a year, navigating communication issues and personal conflicts in almost total isolation. Theirs was the longest Mars simulation mission on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reports. 

The mission is just one of many which aim to prepare astronauts for the harsh realities – both physical and psychological – of prolonged space travel.

Mauna Loa is a near-perfect analog for the barren Martian landscape. The volcano’s high elevation prevents plant growth, and like Mars, the surface is covered in volcanic basalt rock. The fourth HI-SEAS team has survived this desolate environment for months, eating only freeze-dried astronaut food.

Crew members are required to wear spacesuits whenever they leave the dome until the mission ends on August 28. In an attempt to replicate communication delays between Earth and Mars, mission control stalls all outside messages by 20 minutes. HI-SEAS simulations are operated by the University of Hawaii.

Small-group isolation scenarios tend to be a breeding ground for personal conflict. But the most recent HI-SEAS crew seems to have averted the issue.

"I think we've done remarkably well, compared to a lot of research I did for my Master's about what can happen in environments like this," crew architect Tristan Bassingthwaighte, a doctor of architecture candidate at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa told The Christian Science Monitor in a recorded video interview in March. "We don't have nearly as many of the reclusive tendencies that I thought would happen."

Psychological research in prisons strongly suggests that solitary confinement can have a negative impact on decision-making and emotional health. The same is likely true in deep space: studies of crew members on the International Space Station have found that on prolonged space journeys isolation may have negative effects on astronaut performance.

“They get to miss the feeling of wind on their faces,” Gloria Leon, a University of Minnesota psychologist who advises NASA on astronaut selection, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “They miss the smells of nature, or the smell of food cooking. On a Mars voyage, Earth will be out of view. It will be the equivalent of twilight, looking out of the porthole. So there will be boredom – monotony, really – in terms of the environment.”

In an effort to mitigate these effects, NASA has committed to preparing astronauts for the challenge through many programs beyond HI-SEAS in Hawaii. There's the agency’s Human Exploration Research Analog, or HERA, located at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas, which also simulates life in a long-term space habitat. As it turns out, the science fiction film “The Martian,” about NASA astronaut Mark Watney, who is stranded on Mars after accidentally getting left behind by his crew, pretty much got it right

On NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations 21, or NEEMO, researchers conduct geological studies and test communication technology in simulated antigravity. These tests require astronauts to dive to space-like conditions in the ocean off the Florida coast.

But analog missions can’t simulate every aspect of prolonged spaceflight. Microgravity, for example, may cause a number of physiological effects over months and years.

“I don’t think any analog sufficiently prepares the astronauts,” Dr. Leon says. “Each analog has different components that are equivalent in some way to a Mars mission, and the one consistent factor is confinement. But what you don’t get in these analogs is the kind of danger that a space voyage entails. If there’s a real serious emergency in an analog, a person can leave.”

That said, analog missions still yield new and valuable insights. Recent studies have examined how gender differences, both physical and socially constructed, play out in isolated space crews. About 50 percent of the last accepted class of astronauts, Leon notes, were women. Other studies consider factors like sleep deprivation, as NASA seeks to make more informed decisions about crew selection and maintenance.

“Research moves forward as technologies move forward,” Leon says. “It's possible now, through brain imaging, to study changes in brain structure over extended periods of time. And the more data you have, the better you can understand how people can function together over long periods of time.”

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