Mars research subjects to emerge Sunday after 8 months of isolation

Members of Mission 5 walk across lava next to the University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation facility on Mauna Loa. After eight months of living in isolation, six NASA-backed space psychology research subjects will emerge from their Mars-like habitat Sunday. The participants are in a study designed to better understand the psychological impacts of a long-term manned mission to space. -- University of Hawaii photo via AP

By CALEB JONES, The Associated Press

HONOLULU — After eight months of living in isolation on a 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 fresh-picked pineapple, papaya, mango, locally grown vegetables and a fluffy, homemade egg strata cooked by their project’s lead scientist.

The four men and two women were quarantined on a vast plain below the summit of the world’s largest active volcano in January. All of 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 space mission 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 planet by the 2030s.

The team wore specially designed sensors to gauge their moods and proximity to other people in the 1,200 square-foot dome where they have lived.

The devices monitored, among other things, voice levels, and could sense if people were avoiding one another. It could also detect if they were next to one another or arguing.

The crew members played games designed to measure their compatibility and stress levels. And when they got overwhelmed by being in such close proximity to one another, they could use virtual reality devices to escape to beaches or other familiar landscapes.

The project’s lead investigator, University of Hawaii professor Kim Binsted, said that the crew members also kept written logs about how they were feeling.

“This is our fifth mission, and we have learned a lot over those five missions. We’ve learned, for one thing, that conflict, even in the best of teams, is going to arise,” Binsted said. “So what’s really important is to have a crew that, both as individuals and a group, is really resilient, is able to look at that conflict and come back from it.”

The project is the fifth in a series of six NASA-funded studies at the University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation facility, or HI-SEAS. NASA has dedicated about $2.5 million to the studies at the facility.

“So the previous three missions, the four-, eight- and 12-month missions, those were primarily looking at crew cohesion and performance,” Binsted said. “On this mission and going forward we are looking at crew selection and composition.”

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 greenhouselike 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 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 one another. Unlike the Biosphere 2, HI-SEAS is an opaque structure, not a see-through one, and it is not airtight.

The HI-SEAS crew members were not confined to the dome but they were required to wear spacesuits whenever they went outside the dome for geological expeditions, mapping studies or other tasks.

Other Mars simulation projects exist around the world, but researchers say that one of the chief advantages of the Hawaii project is the area’s rugged, Mars-like landscape, on a rocky, red plain below the summit of Mauna Loa.

The crew’s vinyl-covered shelter has small sleeping quarters for each member plus a kitchen, laboratory and bathroom. The group shares one shower and has two composting toilets.

To maintain the crew’s sense of isolation, bundles of food and supplies were dropped off at a distance from the dome, and the team members had to send out a robot to retrieve them.

The team’s information technology specialist, Laura Lark, said that she thinks a trip to Mars is a reasonable goal for NASA.

“Long-term space travel is absolutely possible,” she said in a video message from within the dome. “There are certainly technical challenges to be overcome. There are certainly human factors to be figured out.”

The university is already starting to make plans for Mission 6, the final study funded by the U.S. space agency.