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Life inside NASA's plastic dome that simulates life on Mars

A Martian "astronaut," part of the HI-SEAS experiment, embarks on an extra-vehicular activity.
A Martian "astronaut," part of the HI-SEAS experiment, embarks on an extra-vehicular activity.

Zak Wilson lives on Mars. Or, at least, that's what he sometimes imagines.

"My life is about as close to living on Mars as is possible on Earth," he says. "At times, it's easy to forget where I actually live — the view out my window is undeniably otherworldly."

For the last three months, Wilson has been living with five other people in a 1,500-square-foot plastic dome on the barren slopes of Mauna Loa, Hawaii. They subsist entirely on freeze-dried or dehydrated food, put on plastic "space suits" every time they want to step outside, and endure a 20-minute delay on virtually all communications with the outside world — to simulate the time it'd take to send a message from Earth to Mars. The six of them will be in this lab for eight months in total — and will never see any other humans.

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The HI-SEAS habitat, home to six people for eight months. (HI-SEAS)

This is all part of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) — a NASA-funded experiment that investigates how social isolation and other aspects of life on Mars might affect people, in preparation for a possible mission to Mars in future decades. The current eight-month HI-SEAS mission comes after a pair of previous four-month missions in the same habitat.

Why would someone sign up for eight months in a plastic dome, away from friends and family? "I applied to HI-SEAS because, ultimately, I would love nothing more than the chance to go to Mars," says Wilson, a satellite engineer, who's been blogging about his experience and recently emailed with me to describe life under the dome. "At best, this mission is a practice-run for the real thing. At worst, this is the closest I will ever get to it."

Why six people are simulating a mission to Mars in Hawaii

"The main purpose is to study how crew members interact when living and working together during long duration, isolated missions, as well as how to select crew members for such missions," Wilson says. "In addition, there are six other studies focusing on psychology, group dynamics or some combination of the two. Generally they involve some kind of task or game and filling out surveys about our interactions with other crew members — there are about 40 of these tasks per week."

hi-seas 3d printing

A hook, printed by Wilson as part of his individual research. (Zak Wilson)

"On top of those, we all have our own individual research areas as well. I’m looking at the utility of 3D printing in isolated environments. So far, I've printed a whiteboard marker holder, a hanger for our shower timer, food bag clips, an iPhone tripod mount, parts for board games, Christmas cookie cutters, a star for the top of our Christmas tree, and replacement parts for a watch band."

"Other people's individual projects are looking at the microbiome, growing food under LEDs, robotics, Earth-Mars transfer orbits, and correlating cortisol and stress levels with exercise, sleep, and eating habits."

What daily life is like on "Mars"

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The dome's work and exercise areas. (Zak Wilson)

"I expected to be bored some of the time, but this really has not been an issue at all," Wilson says. "My main role here has been chief engineer, so my time has mostly been spent dealing with the energy, climate control systems and the IT network. I find myself working a fairly typical 9-5 schedule and doing a bit less work on the weekends. But our time is not formally scheduled like it is for astronauts on the ISS, because it is expected that a Mars crew will be given much more autonomy."

"As far as leisure, movies, TV shows, and board games are by far the biggest free time group activities. Game of Thrones and Settlers of Catan are the current ones of choice. We also spend quite a bit of time reading, and doing individual projects."

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The dome's bedrooms. (HI-SEAS)

"Additionally, we generally spend at least an hour per day working out as a group, since — like real astronauts — we aren’t getting much exercise as part of our daily routine in this confined living space. We are just finishing the P90X fitness program, and many of us use the treadmill or stationary bike as well."

"I honestly did not expect us to get along as well as we do," he adds. "We spent just a couple of weeks together in training before the mission, so we didn't know each other all that well. But it seems that the selection committee did an excellent job selecting us, and we probably got a little lucky as well. We've all have gotten along great so far."

"Still, spending so much time with the same people, in limited space, is certainly a bit strange. The only way to escape from people is to go into your room and close the door, but this doesn't isolate you from the sound of the rest of the crew, so some of us use ear plugs or headphones."

How the Mars habitat works

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A rendering of the HI-SEAS habitat. (Blue Planet Research/Bryan Christie Design)

"Our food is limited, water supplies are rationed, and we have limited power, just like a Mars crew would. The habitat is highly instrumented, both for our tracking and so that mission support can keep an eye on things remotely," Wilson says.

"We get most of our power from solar panels that charge storage batteries during the day, though we also have a hydrogen fuel cell system and gasoline generator as secondary and tertiary power systems. But if we have a cloudy day, it can mean that we have to eat instant microwave dinners and turn out lights early to ensure that we have enough power to make it through the night. We have to constantly monitor our batteries and adjust our behavior accordingly. "

"Then there's the water system. Our rationed water means we take a couple so-called 'navy showers' per week (about two minutes per shower) and use wet wipes in between."

"Our toilets are composting, and it's not a huge surprise that emptying them (and dealing with them in general) is pretty unpleasant."

Communication with the outside is limited

hi-seas communication

The message Wilson sees when he tries to visit any website that isn't whitelisted. (Zak Wilson)

"Email is our main method of outside communication — and our emails are delayed 20 minutes in each direction to simulate the delay in sending a radio signal from Earth to Mars, or vice versa," Wilson says. "We're frequently in communication with our mission support staff, as well as friends and family."

"We can use the internet, but it's very limited. To simulate the time delay, the system blocks all websites, and we can only access a selected few that we've requested to be added to a whitelist. To get added, they have to be fairly static (i.e. no chat features, and relatively infrequent updates), so we're entirely dependent on mission support or friends and family to get news. I definitely miss Netflix and Pandora — it’s easy to take online streaming for granted."

"We also have window covers that we put up whenever we have people come up here to bring us more food (every two months), more water (every few weeks) or take away our trash (again every few weeks), so that we never see anyone who is not on the crew. There is no live, real-time communication with anyone outside the crew."

The food is "excellent"

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Wilson's BBQ beef sandwich, tater tots, peas, and beans. (Zak Wilson)

"All our food is shelf stable, meaning that it can stay fresh for at least two years. Mostly, we are eating freeze-dried or dehydrated meat, fruit and vegetables," Wilson says. "We also have a large selection of rice, pasta, beans, flour, spices, cereal and snacks."

"In general, the food we’ve made here is excellent. We take turns cooking dinner, so we only have to cook one per week — and most of us do not mind spending a large part of our cooking day working on dinner, and getting inventive at times. And we make a lot more from scratch than many of us are used to: we bake all our own bread, for example, and I recently spent the better part of 11 hours making BBQ beef and chicken sandwiches with tater tots, all from scratch. I eat better here than I did living on my own."

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The HI-SEAS crew members unpack supplies. (Zak Wilson)

"That isn’t to say there aren’t difficulties. It takes a bit of practice to get used to translating a normal recipe to the ingredients we have, and the texture of what we make often leave a bit to be desired — it's easy to end up with mush."

Trips outside the dome are rare

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Crew members take part in a geology expedition. (Zak Wilson)

"It’s a strange experience being so restricted in your movement and never having a change of scenery. Every time I look out the window it is the same, maybe with a few more clouds. I’m going to go eight months without going more than a mile or two from my bed," Wilson says.

"I do get to go outside about once per week on what are called extra-vehicular activities (EVAs). Whenever we go outside, we have to sit in an 'airlock' for three minutes to simulate depressurizing on Mars, and we wear mock spacesuits, which are modified hazmat suits."

"Most of our EVAs are engineering checks, and are fairly short — less than 15 minutes or so. But we've also been assigned some geology tasks (e.g. mapping the terrain or collecting rock samples) that require longer EVAs of an hour or two."

"The spacesuits isolate us from the environment so we don’t feel the breeze or fresh air, and they hinder our vision. The terrain here is also extremely rough, and the suits are cumbersome and slow us down. They definitely take some of the fun out of leaving the dome, but most of us still look forward to going out for a walk in this surreal landscape that really never gets old."

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(Zak Wilson)

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