Hawaii — After a year of Mars simulation, the NASA crew from the HI-SEAS program was free to exit the domed habitat without spacesuits to greet family and friends and take a break from living with the same people in a reduced space for a year. The program focused on crewmembers cohesion and performance to prepare for missions that are going to explore Mars in 2030.

The simulation is the longest ever performed and proves that there are always conflicts in groups if they interact for a long time, especially if they live together in a reduced space. On Friday, August 28, six scientists started the fourth HI-SEAS, Hawaii Space Exploration Analog, and Simulation program, that consisted in pretending what a real crew of astronauts would experience if they lived on the red planet’s surface for 365 days.

NASA, Mars, Dome
The exercise was very strict, and participants could only leave the dome for Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA’s) wearing spacesuits to explore the surroundings of their base “on Mars.” Image credit: Credit: Calla Cofield/Space.com.

The HI-SEAS simulation took care of every aspect to make the study of people’s behavior in a real mission to Mars as real as possible. The participants could only eat food that was able to keep for a year, meaning there were no fresh vegetables and fruits on the menu. 

Communications were allowed, but they simulated the delay they would experience if the crew was actually on Mars, which is about 20 minutes. Phone calls were impossible, access to the Internet was limited and only showed text, and contact with family and friends was occasionally made.

The dome was 36-foot-wide and 20-foot-high, which is 11-meters-wide and 6-meter-high. It was powered by solar energy and had two floors. The first one featured a lab, a kitchen, a typical workplace, an exercise area, a dining room and a bathroom. On the second floor, there were six small bedrooms and a bathroom.

The NASA-funded study was carried by the University of Hawaii, and it is the longest simulation of its kind after a Russian mission that lasted 520 days, the BBC reports. Image credit: Calla Cofield/Space.com.

Participants could only keep in shape on a treadmill or stationary bike in the exercise area, and they only went out of the dome a couple of times in 6-hour EVA’s. Going outside did not have a scientific purpose, according to Tristan Bassingthwaighte. He said they went out to explore the surroundings, to walk around and have fun to help interactions and life in isolation.   

The crew consisted of three women and three men: four American, one German and one French. The crew commander was Carmel Johnston, an expert in soil science; Christiane Heinicke was Chief Scientific Officer & Crew Physicist and Sheyna E. Gifford was the Health Science Officer and Habitat Journalist. The Chief Engineering Officer was Andrzej Stewart; Cyprien Verseux was the crew biologists and Tristan Bassingthwaighte was the team architect.

Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation program: Finding  a way to reduce conflicts among crews

The primary scientific objective of the 2015-2016 simulation was to learn about crew cohesion, and how people might deal with the psychological toll of a real mission to Mars, which would last at least three years.

Researchers monitored the crew using cameras, body movements trackers, electronic surveys and other resources to gather data regarding cognitive, social and emotional factors that could interfere with the team’s performance.   

NASA, Mars, Dome
Image credit: University of Hawaii/HI-SEAS.

Kim Binsted is HI-SEAS principal investigator, and although she cannot discuss specific conflicts that took place during the one-year-simulation —both to protect the crew and because the study has not been finished— she said that disagreements in a team are something inevitable.

Binsted stated that NASA would like the team behind HI-SEAS to tell them what was exactly behind a certain conflict, but that is not the case in the human interactions of a crew that lives isolated. She added that there would be conflicts in long-duration missions.

The HI-SEAS investigator explained that what is imperative when studying the group of scientists, that have to live and work together for a long time, is how to come back from conflict and get individuals and teams to a high-performance level.

Binsted said that selecting and training people for solving conflict situations is something possible to do, in contrast, to select and train people to not have disagreements for more than 900 days is not.

Commander Johnston confessed she felt a particular responsibility to help the crew members to keep a good attitude and high spirits, besides making sure the work was being done. She said everybody has good and bad days and trying to cheer up someone when she was also feeling down was a difficult task.

Discovering how people deal with stress

Some of the troubles the crew had to face while living in the dome was fixing the plumbing shut down, Bassingthwaighte said. The group of scientists spent two weeks showering with buckets because they disassembled nearly the entire system to find out what the problem was. They later discovered that a filter needed to be changed.

For Heinicke, the most challenging part was to realize they could not order extra parts or supplies for her laboratory. Verseux and Gifford shared the same concern. Image credit: P0nyStark

Johnston said her biggest challenge was to learn how people dealt with stress and stated that the crew member’s different cultures made this issue the most difficult one.

But the exercise is over, and all six scientists are now among family and friends. When they were asked if they would go to a Mars mission if they were given the chance they all said yes.

Source: Science