Leaving the dome: Scientists emerge from year-long isolation in NASA project simulating life on Mars

John-Michael Schneider 08.29.2016

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One year ago, a physicist, a pilot, an architect, an astrobiologist, a journalist and a soil scientist stepped into a 10-by-six metre isolation dome located near Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano.

Yesterday, the six-member team emerged from the dome.

Funded by NASA, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or “Hi-SEAS” is used to test what effects isolation might have on a future Mars crew, and is part of NASA’s goal to send a human to Mars by 2030.

The recent year-long mission was the longest and most recent of three NASA-backed Mars simulations, with the previous two lasting eight and four months.

Sheyna Gifford, one of the crew members, waited with anticipation on Sunday as the mission came to a close. The group could only communicate through email, and messages were delayed by up to 23 minutes in each direction to simulate the amount of time it takes for a signal to reach Earth from Mars.

“The hatch is opening in 11 minutes. Soon, for the first time in a year, I’ll be able to exchange words with someone outside this dome in real time,” Gifford wrote in an online diary entry.

During the simulation, the team had to survive with scarce resources; they brought in everything they needed at the beginning of the mission, including flatbread, powdered cheese, and dehydrated vegetables. They were also allowed to leave the dome occasionally to walk on the volcanic land, but only while wearing heavy spacesuits.

But the physical test of life on Mars might not pose as much of an obstacle for a future mission than the social and psychological conditions of the crew. Before a human ground mission on Mars even starts, a team will spend seven months in a claustrophobic pod hurtling through space.

 

According to Kim Binsted, Hi-SEAS’ lead investigator at the University of Hawaii, the recent mission was a test of human “cohesion and performance,” and throughout the year the crew was intentionally subjected to emergency simulations such as power outages and broken equipment. Given the small space, the team had very little privacy.

They also reported having vivid, waking dreams — Gifford calls them “Earth-flashes.” Near the two-month mark, she described moments of feeling like she was back on Earth, experiencing everyday life:

“The fleeting scene would be completely immersive: I would hear, see, smell, and feel the place I was standing, down to the warmth of the pita sandwich in my hand. Then, I would blink and it would be gone.”

She speculated that the human brain might create vivid fantasies to compensate for a plain, unchanging environment.

During a similar experiment by European Space Agency in 2011 that lasted 520 days, the participants reported sleep issues and psychological problems caused by “dullness” day after day.

French crew member Cyprien Verseux said he became irritated by small changes in the dome, describing how he reacted after the team installed a new water pump.

“The sound is slightly different from that of the previous pump, and it felt strange,” he explained. “A simple, barely noticeable difference in the sound of a water pump made me react, because all the sounds I usually hear are extremely familiar.”

Throughout the course of the stay on “Mars,” the NASA crew talked a lot about soil during dinner, arguing as scientists often do about definitions and subtypes. Besides, the conversation was relevant to maintaining the pea and kale crops they had cultivated.

But on the evening of July 15, 2016 the team remembered silence during dinner. Verseux had just informed them about the terror attacks in Nice, and was refreshing his computer for updates. With limited access to static websites, and no way of connecting to social media, the information came mostly from friends through email.

But Verseux found a way to make light of his frustration, joking sarcastically about the fragmented reports he had received.

“Based on the emails I’ve received from French fellows, I will come back to a post-apocalyptic France traveled by jobless people fighting cops in the flooded streets of Paris, while teenagers catch pocket monsters with their phones,” he wrote shortly after.

The arrival back to the real world comes with challenges as well. While being in isolation has the advantage of not getting sick, the lack of exposure means that the group’s immune systems have not had a chance to produce antibodies against a year’s worth of cold and flu viruses.

The Hawaii group are nonetheless optimistic that future teams will be able to find ways to deal with the psychological challenges of a Mars mission.

“I can give you my personal impression which is that a mission to Mars in the close future is realistic,” Verseux said during a recent press conference. “I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome.”

Hi-SEAS is recruiting willing people for their next isolation tests in Hawaii in January 2017 and January 2018. Each simulation will last eight months.

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