If you could be locked in a dome for eight months, next to a volcano, would you?
Three men and three women did, embarking on a simulated mission to Mars in the longest dedicated space travel simulation in the United States.
The crew now lives in a 36-foot long dome on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, the largest volcano on Earth. The terrain is barren, volcanic – Martian.
“This isn’t the Hawaii of beaches and palm trees. They don’t see animals, plants, signs of human activity,” said Kim Binsted, principal investigator on the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa study.
A week into the experiment, mission commander Martha Lenio, from Waterloo, Canada, said she most misses the sunlight and wind. The crew can only leave the dome while wearing simulated spacesuits.
But at least the company is good.
“The five people I’m locked in with right now are excellent,” Lenio said.
She can only communicate to the outside world via email, with a 20 minute delay each way. That’s the same delay on the Red Planet, which is about 140 million miles from Earth, on average.
However, what the dome can’t simulate is Martian gravity, which is one-third that of Earth. And there’s no radiation hazard. Otherwise, the environment is pretty close to what astronauts would experience on Mars.
The study, which is conducted with funding from NASA, looks at how astronaut crews function during long isolation. While eight months may seem like a long time, future Martians will need to budget about three years, according to NASA estimates.
“The main research that they're the guinea pigs for is team psychology research,” Binsted said.
The crew spends much of its day filling out psych surveys and performing maintenance. They wear biosensors so their physiology can be studied.
Beyond that, they exercise, cook (freeze-dried or dehydrated) and conduct research experiments. That includes expeditions outside to study geology.
Lenio is researching indoor gardening and water recycling, while another crewmember is studying how microorganisms inside the crew change over time.
“The food, despite being freeze dried, has been excellent so far,” Lenio said. “We’re all competing a bit for chef supremacy.”
The crew is provided remote support from mission control, including a doctor to check psychological well-being. Still, Binsted said it’s not unusual to see depression and lethargy.
The crew receives a stipend of $11,000 for their 8-month journey. And, of course, room and board.