Astro Dome

Eight Months in the Mars Habitat

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By Ahmad A. Malik

Hours before extraction on June 13, Martha Lenio was shaking slightly. She was nervous – reporters, cameras, and a helicopter skydive awaited outside the dome atop Mauna Loa Volcano she had called home for eight months. As commander of the Hawai’i Space Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission, Lenio, along with her five crewmates, would parachute out of a helicopter in front of a sizable audience. Simulating an actual return to Earth from a visit to Mars was a way to end the mission with a flourish.

Lenio’s nerves settled after a series of delays that helped calm the moment’s craze. She left the habitat and proceeded to the helicopter. After gliding to the ground, she was met with a breakfast buffet.

“It was just amazing being able to feel the wind and sun on my skin and not through a visor to look through, as we would have in the spacesuits,” said Lenio. “Seeing Mauna Kea in the morning light on a gorgeous, beautiful day with fresh food – some pineapple – it was amazing.”

Combining a desolate landscape with daunting remoteness, HI-SEAS is a NASA-funded mission designed to study the human element of space travel. HI-SEAS, now in its second year, had procured a $1.2 million grant to assess questions relating to crew selection and cohesion for future long-duration space missions. Consisting of a series of missions lasting four, eight and twelve months, HI-SEAS called for a group of six volunteers willing to live together in a confined habitat, just 36 feet in diameter, with limited contact to the outside world for months on end. They came from a variety of scientific and engineering disciplines. Lenio, for instance, is a mechanical engineer.

“This theme is trying to detect issues that arise in terms of crew cohesion and performance, and detect them early enough that we can take action and solve problems, or at least ameliorate them, before they become too serious,” said Kim Binsted, a University of Hawaii researcher who is the principal investigator of HI-SEAS.

The primary focus is on team interactions in an isolated environment. The mission has other research pursuits, funded separately but also aimed at advancing the cause of space exploration with analog testing. At any given time there are a half dozen projects being conducted at HI-SEAS. The project’s funding was recently renewed through 2018.

“Most analogs are one-off,” said Binsted. “They’ll do the mission and its over. And that is interesting and can produce anecdotal information, but to have data you need repeated missions run under similar circumstances. So that was where the idea for HI-SEAS came from.”

The study was run from the habitat atop Mauna Loa. Here, the six crew members – three women, three men – were restricted to the dome as if they were on the surface of Mars. They had a twenty-minute communication delay with the outside world and could not step outside without spacesuits. This particular location on the Big Island of Hawaii was chosen for its geological similarity to a young Mars and its remoteness.

“We were looking for a place that was visually isolated, yet accessible,” Binstead said “So when the crew looks out their window, they don’t see any human activity, any animal life, and very little plant or insect life. It really looks like a scene from Mars.”

Hawaii is an optimal location for the study given its weather – while it’s chilly at 8,000 feet, it is stable with little temperature variation. That enables long-duration missions without the kind of logistical challenges of other remote locations such as Utah or the Canadian high arctic.

The mission had an early setback. NASA awarded the grant but notified Binstead that research funds couldn’t be used to construct facilities – even in a case where the facility was the research. Binstead found a savior in Henk Rodgers, chairman of the Blue Planet Foundation, who purchased and equipped the habitat and rented it to HI-SEAS as a private individual.

Over the course of the recent eight-month mission, the participants contributed to the overall objectives as well as individual projects inside the habitat.

“One of the things NASA’s looking for is ‘third quarter syndrome,’” said Lenio. “On an isolated long duration mission, the first half of the mission you’re excited and everything is new, and then you hit the halfway point and there’s still a long way to go and the shininess rubs off. We never really experienced that. But then, almost to the day, the fourth quarter ended up being really high-stress. I could see it happen in a lot of other crew members – you could see the end in sight, and people were kind of telling me their plans after they get out.”

Each participant was involved in a series of extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) to simulate sample collection or to repair faulty systems. Lenio recalled a time in late February when it was dark for nearly a week, and the solar panels that powered the habitat were not charging its batteries. To resolve this, a crewmember went EVA and bypassed the power around the battery so that, inside, they could continue using critical equipment – for example, the refrigerator keeping the samples cool.

“When that happened, we caught it very quickly. With very little direction from myself, everyone fell into roles for troubleshooting and making the situation better,” said Lenio. “Seeing us function so smoothly as a team in a crisis situation – that was really great.”

Members of the crew were fitted with sociometers that measured their proximities to each other along with light and voice levels, in an effort to study crew interaction. Additionally, the common area of the habitat was monitored by video cameras. If the crew was fighting, researchers wanted to know about it.

The solar panels reflected Earth endeavors as well. By design, the habitat has to be sustainable, given the restricted payload of the spaceship. “Everything is reduce, reuse, recycle – a nice mantra for Earth, but it is really the first commandment on Mars. A lot of the technologies and procedures we’re developing are relevant on Earth as well,” said Binsted. “The habitat itself is very culturally and environmentally sensitive. It was extremely important to us to make sure that the habitat had zero impact on the site, and when we take it away at the end of the mission, the site will be exactly as it was when we got there.”

Binsted got word of three more years of funding as the recent mission drew to a close. Though sleep-deprived, she’s optimistic and hard at work in ensuring the success of the mission’s remaining studies.

“We want to remove or reduce the challenges that are preventing us from going to Mars,” she said. “So some of those are technical challenges, some are logistical challenges, and some are human challenges. I hope what the public sees is that we’re crossing items off the list in terms of human challenges, so that when the President decides it’s time to push the button and send us to Mars, we’ll be ready.”