Six volunteers – including two with connections to Washington state – have begun eight months of being cooped up in a Hawaii habitat that’s meant to simulate life on Mars.
The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation project, known as HI-SEAS, is one of several long-running experiments that use earthly environments as a training ground for future Red Planet expeditions. This is the fifth simulated mission to be staged on the slopes of Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island, 8,200 feet above sea level.
The University of Hawaii at Manoa has conducted the simulations since 2012, thanks to $1.2 million in NASA funding. The best-known simulation lasted for a year and ended last August, paralleling the “Year in Space” mission conducted by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station.
NASA re-upped with a $1 million grant for Mission 5, plus Mission 6 in 2018.
During the simulation mission, the volunteer crew will be confined to a 36-foot-wide geodesic dome, except when they don bulky mock spacesuits for treks across Mauna Loa’s Mars-like terrain.
Researchers will study the crew members’ interpersonal dynamics as well as their responses to logistical challenges. Communications from the habitat to the outside world will be delayed by 20 minutes to simulate the light-speed latency that Mars explorers would face.
“This is the best and most obvious place to do this research,” Kim Binsted, HI-SEAS’ principal investigator, said in a University of Hawaii video. “Both because of the physicality – as you can see, it looks like weʻre on Mars – but also because of the range of expertise available at the University of Hawaii. We’ve got some of the world’s top planetary scientists. We’ve got some of the world’s top astronomers.”
The commander of Mission 5 is James Bevington, a freelance researcher with degrees from the University of Tennessee, the University of Georgia and the International Space University.
“Iʻm looking forward to building relationships with my crew. I fully anticipate coming out with five new best friends,” he said.
Crew engineer Ansley Barnard is a Nevada native and University of Washington alumna who has worked for NASA and Boeing on advanced composite structures. She’s also designed aerodynamic body work for Indy race cars, and worked for Ford before joining HI-SEAS.
“Iʻll be looking at optimizing our power and water resources uses,” she said. “Iʻm excited to understand the engineering problem, because the habitat is an impressive facility and it really is quite a complicated unit.”
Another crew member, Laura Lark. is a computer scientist who grew up on a small farm in Washington state’s Whatcom County and spent five years as a software engineer at Google.
Other members of the crew include Portuguese-American engineer Brian Ramos, Lockheed Martin systems engineer Joshua Ehrlich and British astrobiologist Samuel Payler.
With little fanfare, the crew members hopped out of a van on Thursday afternoon and exchanged high-fives. “Yay, we’re here,” Lark said. “Make a line, make a line.”
The six marched into their habitat to begin the simulated mission, and Binsted closed the door behind them.
“All right,” Binsted said with a shrug. “Let’s go.”
In addition to HI-SEAS, analog missions to Mars have been conducted at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station, on Canada’s Devon Island as part of NASA’s Haughton Mars Project, and in Russia as part of the Mars-500 Project.
NASA’s current plans call for sending astronauts to Mars and its moons in the 2030s. Last year, SpaceX founder Elon Musk laid out a more ambitious timetable that envisions sending settlers to the Red Planet by as early as the mid-2020s.