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NASA is sending 6 strangers to Hawaii to practice living on Mars

…without killing each other.

Ever have a horrible roommate? Now, imagine that roommate on a trip to Mars. NASA wants to avoid that. 
(Javier Zarracina/Vox)
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Before NASA sends humans to Mars, it has to figure out this really, really basic problem: How do you get six or more people to live in a very confined space, on a desert, without naturally occurring oxygen, for a year, without wanting to kill one another?

It’s ironic: NASA can successfully launch a rocket to Mars and land it, but if the crew hates their roommates, the mission will collapse.

This isn’t an abstract problem. In the past, simulated space colonies have gone horribly wrong. The seven-person Biosphere II project in 1994 eventually split into warring factions that refused to speak to one another.

That’s not ideal. So to prepare for an eventual Mars mission, NASA has been running simulations for the past several years on top of an isolated volcano in Hawaii.

The mission is called Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS for short. On Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, six “astronauts” live in a simulated Martian environment for eight months or more. The location resembles the geography of Mars, as you can see below.

Today, NASA and the University of Hawaii are launching the fifth round of the mission. This afternoon, Hawaii time, six participants will enter the facility for an eight-month stay. (If this all sounds familiar, it’s because in August 2016, NASA completed the fourth round of the mission, which lasted for a year.) The new crew includes two women and four men. You can read more about them here.

Imagine living in that tiny white dome for eight months — with five other people.
University of Hawaii

On the mountain, they do everything an astronaut on Mars would do. Every time they go outside their tiny 1,200-square-foot habitat to conduct geological fieldwork, they have to don a spacesuit. Similarly, radio transmissions to “Earth” are delayed 20 minutes in both directions, just like they would be on the Red Planet. They eat only prepackaged, freeze-dried space food. What fun.

A former HI-SEAS crew member wears a huge spacesuit to pick up rocks in Hawaii.

If you’re thinking, “Who on Earth would want to spend eight months in a tiny tent with strangers,” know that 700 people applied to take part in the mission, as the Associated Press reports. (NASA also regularly recruits participants for a study where people are confined to a bed for months to simulate the effects of microgravity on the body. Vice sent a reporter to check it out. It sounds awful.)

The first floor of the habitat.
The second floor of the habitat.

The hope of the mission, as principal investigator Kim Binsted explained to the AP, is “to figure out how best to select individual astronauts, how to compose a crew and how to support that crew on long-duration space missions.”

In the last round of the mission, NASA experimented with virtual reality to help alleviate loneliness, and gave the astronauts a VR headset so they could see their family eat a Thanksgiving meal together. It’s not home. But as National Geographic News reported, preliminary data suggests it helps.

On this mission, NASA and the University of Hawaii will be using virtual reality for team-based exercises “to predict individual and team behavioral health and performance and multiple stress.” They also report, in a press release, that they will be continuously monitoring the facial expressions of the crew mates to gain better insights on what circumstances are optimal for cooperation.

The studies are vital, because even the simulated Martian environment can be a lonely and frustrating place, as the New Yorker described last year:

The HI-SEAS crew members have not been immune to homesickness, or to the pressures of monotony and enclosed space. Sometimes one will schedule an E.V.A. just to take a walk outside, or will sneak into the attached supply container to record a private voice mail. The days proceed with little variety apart from the sound of wind or rain on the dome. After passing the midway point, the crew started joking self-consciously about what researchers call the “third-quarter phenomenon,” when energy sometimes flags. Monotony and boredom can be a threat to any expedition’s well-being.…

…The mind grows stressed, and makes mistakes, as it searches for new stimulus.

A mission to Mars has the potential to be a conflict-ridden, lonely journey. And it’s not that NASA astronauts can just tough it out. Loneliness is increasingly seen as a risk factor for disease and mental decline. And these astronauts are going to need to be in peak mental and physical shape to make it through the journey. Because, as we’ve explained, at every turn it will be dangerous.

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