Crew emerges from Hawaii Mars simulator
Mauna Loa team of six spent months together
HONOLULU — After eight months of living in isolation on a remote Hawaii volcano, six NASA-backed research subjects will emerge from their Mars-like habitat Sunday and return to civilization.
Their first order of business after subsisting on mostly freeze-dried and canned food: feast on freshpicked pineapple, papaya, mango, locally grown vegetables and a fluffy, homemade egg strata cooked by their project’s lead scientist.
The crew of four men and two women was quarantined on a vast plain below the summit of the world’s largest active volcano in January. All their communications with the outside world were subjected to a 20-minute delay, the time it takes for signals to get from Mars to Earth.
They are part of a study designed to better understand the psychological effects that a long-term manned mission to space would have on astronauts. The data they gathered will help NASA better pick crews that have certain traits and a better chance of doing well during a two- to three-year Mars expedition.
The space agency hopes to send humans to the red planet by the 2030s.
The project is the fifth in a series of six NASA-funded studies at the University of Hawaii facility called the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. NASA has dedicated about $2.5 million to the studies at the facility.
Crew members were mostly excited and optimistic when they entered the facility in January, but had some trepidation.
“My biggest fear was that we were going to be that crew that turned out like Biosphere 2, which wasn’t a very pretty picture,” mission commander James Bevington said in January.
Biosphere 2 was a 1990s experimental greenhouse-like habitat in Arizona that turned into a debacle. It housed different ecosystems and a crew of four men and four women in an effort to understand what would be needed for humans to live on other planets. The participants were supposed to grow their own food and recycle their air inside the sealed glass space.
But the experiment soon spiraled out of control, with the carbon dioxide level rising dangerously and plants and animals dying.
The crew members grew hungry and squabbled so badly during the two years they spent cooped up that by the time they emerged, some of them were not speaking to each other. Unlike the Biosphere 2, HI-SEAS is an opaque structure, not a see-through one, and it is not airtight.
The HI-SEAS crew was not confined to the dome but they were required to wear spacesuits and whenever they went outside the dome for geological expeditions, mapping studies or other tasks.
Other Mars simulation projects exist around the world, but Hawaii researchers say one of the chief advantages of their project is the area’s rugged, Mars-like landscape, on a rocky, red plain below the summit of Mauna Loa.
The university is already starting to make plans for Mission 6, the final study funded by the U.S. space agency.
NASA-supported crew members cart materials next to the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation on Mauna Loa volcano, on Hawaii’s Big Island.