So, we want to send people to Mars someday. It will be dangerous. There will be numerous challenges and hazards: radiation, a poisons atmosphere, the fact that we may have to bring almost everything we will need to survive there with us. NASA scientists are working on a slew of technologies to protect astronauts from most of the threats and challenges they'll face both on the journeys to and from Mars and on the surface. But what about the astronauts themselves? How will they faire psychologically, and how will they get along with each other and work together when they are confined to fairly small living spaces and their spacesuits? NASA has just finished a program to test these elements called HI-SEAS (the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation).
The idea of this program was to subject a select group of people to a simulated Martian habitat, both inside and out. For eight months this group lived and worked in this environment that consisted of a dome, a solar array, and the slope of a volcano with almost no life on it. The only way the participants could leave the dome was in a simulated space suit. The only things they could eat or drink were supplies they brought with them when they entered the dome.
The group left their dome for the first time in eight months without space suits on Saturday. "When we first walked out the door," says Jocelyn Dunn, a 27 year-old doctoral candidate at Purdue University and a participant in the study, "it was scary not to have a suit on. We've been pretending for so long." And it was a pretty good simulation: At 8,000 feet on the side of a volcano when the team looked out the dome's portholes, all they could see was lava fields and mountains. There was almost no plant life. To simulate the fact that it will take radio messages seven minutes to get between Mars and Earth, due to the extreme distance, the team could only communicate with the outside world using email.
But this wasn't just some kind of space-themed hazing. The Data gathered by tracking the emotions and performance of the study's participants in this isolated environment could prove invaluable to ground crews during future manned space missions when they need to discern if a crew member is becoming depressed or if the team of astronauts is having problem with their group dynamics. "Astronauts are very stoic people," says University of Hawaii professor Kim Binsted, principal investigator for the study, "very level-headed, and there's a certain hesitancy to report problems. So this is a way for people on the ground to detect cohesion-related problems before they become a real issue."
"When you're having a good day its fine," Dunn reports. "It's fun. You have friends around to share in the enjoyment of a good day. But if you have a bad day, it's really tough to be in a confined environment. You can't get out and go for a walk ... it's constantly witnessed by everyone."