A Mars research crew is getting ready to leave the place that became their home for eight months. The HI-SEAS habitat was located in Hawaii, and it was meant to simulate the Martian environment for a future mission to the red planet.

The mission started back in January. One of its objectives was to test the mood of the crew and their cohabitation in such a reduced space since conflict is likely to emerge in such situations. Though a crewed mission to Mars is not near, it is important to develop the ways for the team to sustain itself in such a different environment, giving them tools to handle the psychological stress.

The HI-SEAS in Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Image Credit: BBC
The HI-SEAS in Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Image Credit: BBC

“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 professor Kim Binsted from the University of Hawaii. “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,” added Binsted who is leading the investigation.

Stress, isolation, and conflict are part of the space mission

In January, a group of scientists was sent to live eight months in isolation to a barren part of a Hawaii volcano. The location was chosen because it has a similar landscape to that of Mars. It was below the summit of the world’s largest active volcano, and the crew was integrated by two women and four men. They survived with freeze-dried food and with very limited contact with the outside world. All communications had a 20-minute delay because that is the amount of time it takes for signals to travel between Mars and planet Earth.

The crew lived in a 1,200-square-feet structure which is equivalent to a small 2-bedroom apartment. The challenge was to handle the situation since it is not easy to live away from the entire human species in a reduced space with little things to do and without being able to move freely.

Crewmembers Anne Caraccio and Tiffany Swarmer during the experiment at HI-SEAS. Image Credit: Space Safety Magazine
Crewmembers Anne Caraccio and Tiffany Swarmer during the experiment at HI-SEAS. Image Credit: Space Safety Magazine

NASA and the University of Hawaii teamed up in a series of experiments to gather data for future manned expeditions to the red planet. The data will help NASA to select the best candidates to send to space missions, testing the compatibility of the subjects and their resistance to isolation. The test not only relied on the personal experiences each one of the crew members, as it will also include a series of tasks that will help researchers know more about stress levels and mood if they separated from the rest of the crew and if they avoided a particular member.

The information on how the crew handled the isolation and the cohabitation during the last eight months hasn’t been provided yet, but it must be vital to NASA for its future projects, especially when it comes to picking the crew for long missions. NASA is hoping to send humans to Mars in 2030.

The crew will return to civilization on Sunday

The 6-people team will leave the facility this Sunday. The first thing they’ll do is to have a feast on fresh-picked pineapple, papaya, mango, locally grown vegetables and homemade egg strata prepared by the project’ lead investigator, professor Kim Binsted.

During the projects, the crew was monitored by devices that test the tone of their voice and whether they avoided each other. They could also detect if the crew members were fighting or arguing. The scientists also played games to measure the stress levels and the compatibility existing between them. They also had virtual reality devices in case they were overwhelmed and wanted to space to tropical beaches or other familiar landscapes. The crew had to write frequently about their mood and their feelings.

This project is part of a series of six NASA-funded studies in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation facility, or HI-SEAS. About $2.5 million has been invested by NASA at this facility of the University of Hawaii.

“So the previous three missions, the four, eight and 12-month missions, those were primarily looking at crew cohesion and performance,” Binsted said. “On this mission and going forward we are looking at crew selection and composition.”

The Mission Commander was afraid it would turn out like Biosphere 2, which was a disastrous 1990s experimental greenhouse-like habitat in Arizona. The crew was integrated by of four men and four women and the objective was to understand what humans needed to live on other planets. However, Biosphere 2 came out of control. The carbon dioxide level increased dangerously, and plants and animals started to die. The crew was hungry, and they were always arguing, that was exactly what they were trying to avoid in this new project.

Source: PHYS.ORG