Yearlong simulated Mars mission ends: What did we learn?

Six scientists have completed a yearling mission on Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano, where they lived in a simulated habitat to study the viability of living on Mars.

Six scientists who experienced simulated life on Mars from atop a barren volcano in Hawaii emerged from their yearlong isolation Sunday.

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) was the longest experiment of its kind conducted by NASA, and the second longest on Earth. The Mars-500 project, a joint experiment between Russia, the European Space Agency, and China, sealed six volunteers away in Moscow in 2010 for a record-setting 520 days.

As NASA and other space agencies aim for Mars this century, the six scientists that exited a two-story dome on the Mauna Loa volcano Sunday were confident they could handle life on the fourth planet.    

“I can give you my personal impression, which is that a mission to Mars in the close future is realistic,” Cyprien Verseux, a crew member from France, told the Associated Press. “I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome.”

The crew lived in a dome powered by solar panels. In the 36-foot-diameter living space, there was a kitchen, dining area, bathroom, lab, exercise area, and common areas, as well as bedrooms and a workshop.

“The tight quarters reflect the living conditions of future Mars explorers, who will have to spend several years together, including at least six months of travel both to and from Mars,” writes The Christian Science Monitor’s Lonnie Shekhtman, after she interviewed the crew members via email and video four months ago.

The researchers only reprieve from their cramped quarters was excursions in their spacesuits onto the basalt rock surface of the volcano, which resembles Mars’s stark landscape.

The goal of HI-SEAS was to learn how group dynamics unfold under stressful conditions, including ones explorers could encounter in space and on Mars.

“This fourth planet from the sun is an inhospitable desert, with an average temperature of -81 degrees Fahrenheit, massive dust storms, and harsh radiation from the sun that can't be deflected by the planet's weak magnetic field, nor absorbed by its flimsy atmosphere,” writes Ms. Shekhtman. “Physically, exploring Mars will be a challenge. Psychologically, too. Astronauts venturing into deep space together for the first time could grapple with feelings of isolation, depression, and personality conflicts.”

Christiane Heinicke, a crew member from Germany, said Sunday that the crew overcame one important practical challenge: they found their own water in a dry climate.

"Showing that it works, you can actually get water from the ground that is seemingly dry. It would work on Mars and the implication is that you would be able to get water on Mars from this little greenhouse construct," she told the Associated Press.

Life in Hawaii wasn’t a breeze, however. The crew said they felt removed from their families and all of Earth, citing the terrorist attacks in Paris in November. Their communication with the outside world included a 20-minute delay, to simulate communication to and from Mars.

Psychologically and emotionally, life in deep space is expected to be a challenge. Studies of crew members on the International Space Station (ISS) revealed that isolation may have negative effects on astronaut performance, as the Monitor’s Joseph Dussault reported last week.

“They get to miss the feeling of wind on their faces,” Gloria Leon, a University of Minnesota psychologist who advises NASA on astronaut selection, told 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.”

Astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a total of 520 days aboard the ISS, including most recently a stint of 342 days, said when he returned to Earth in March that adjusting to back to life here was difficult.

And it could take many more Scott Kellys, each spending a year in space, before NASA feels confident that such a long mission is safe for humans.

“We’re looking at as many as ten,” Doug Wheelock, a NASA astronaut and the incoming director of NASA’s office at Star City, the Russian space agency’s headquarters outside of Moscow, told Time magazine.

“And to get a good data set we need a good mix of subjects, which means women and men, older crew members and younger ones, veterans and first timers. There’s a lot we have to learn,” he said.

And there’s nothing like returning to Earth (either from space or from a simulation dome). The six researchers Sunday were excited to get in the ocean and eat fresh produce and other foods not available to them in the dome.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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