The wind sweeps quietly across the barren, dry landscape. There is not a shrub in sight, not a tree, not a single blade of grass that the wind might disturb. Only barren grayish-red rocks.
The wind never touched us as we peered out of our only window, which was more of a porthole than a real window. We did hear it though as it swept across our white dome perched on the slope of the volcano.
We lived and worked for an entire year halfway up Mauna Loa under conditions similar to those that explorers on Mars will encounter. We called the 1,200-square-foot space that we lived in our “habitat,” and whenever we left it we had to wear spacesuits. We each had our own tiny room outfitted with a bed, a small table, a stool and a chest of drawers.
Cut off from civilization, we were dependent on ourselves and on each other. We had to perform any work that needed doing and fix anything that broke. All we had was the material contained in the storage unit dubbed the “sea can.” The nearest supermarket was months away. We received news “from Earth” electronically – with a 20-minute delay. That is about how long it takes for signals to travel the maximum distance of 240 million miles between the two planets.
To be honest, it took weeks for me to realize just what I had gotten into. By that time, I was an integral part of the fourth and longest study conducted by the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, HI-SEAS for short. The project was conducted by a team under Kim Binsted at the University of Hawaii and financed by NASA.
The purpose of the experiment was to understand the effects that a Mars mission would have on the human psyche, and to simulate and understand these effects on performance and mood. Make no mistake, sending humans to Mars is much more than just a technical challenge.
THE RIGHT MIX IS CRITICAL
No simulation can possibly recreate the dangers actually encountered on such a voyage. These are well-known, however, as a result of experience with the International Space Station (ISS), but it is important to understand that physical dangers pose only one of many risks inherent in space travel. Thus far, astronauts have rarely spent more than six months on the ISS. A manned Mars mission, on the other hand, would take about two and a half to three years; the flight alone would take about six months. This is why finding candidates who are able to form a cohesive team capable of working together at close quarters over time without getting on each others’ nerves and who are able to deal with extraordinary stress is a prerequisite for such a mission. One of the questions posed by the experiment was how to give support from Earth to a crew on Mars in resolving problems given the considerable time lag involved in communications.
The knowledge gained from this project will be useful to other groups working under what are called ICE conditions (isolated, confined, extreme). These include submarine crews and teams stationed in Antarctica. There have been more than a few incidents in which fights between crew members have scuttled or nearly wrecked an expedition. It has become something of a tradition for HI-SEAS crews to watch Mutiny on the Bounty together. A scientific mission to Mars might easily be doomed to failure if its members are unable to cooperate.
But how do you pick a team that remains cohesive over months and even years, while at the same time doing highly demanding research? It is obvious that the members of a Mars expedition have to be experts in their fields. Pilots are needed to navigate the shuttle or the rocket. The engineers and technicians must be able to maintain both the rocket and the habitat; they along with the physicians charged with caring for crew members must be absolutely competent. The researchers and scientists involved must know what they’re doing.
These were the considerations when our HI-SEAS-IV team was put together. Andrzej Stewart, a pilot and flight controller from the U.S., was our engineer; Sheyna Gifford, also from the United States, was our physician. Cyprien Verseux, our astrobiologist, was from France, and I served on the team as geophysicist and chief scientist. Rounding out our group were Tristan Bassingthwaighte, at the time working on a degree in architecture and specializing in next-generation space habitats, and Carmel Johnston, a soil scientist.
In an anonymous election, we selected Carmel to be our commander. In essence, in situations in which decisions had to be made quickly, she had the final say. In most cases, however, we made our decisions democratically. At 26, Carmel was the second-youngest team member; Sheyna, the oldest, was 37.
But professional qualifications tell only half the story. A team composed of the most brilliant scientists might be a disaster if they are all focused only on their own interests and can’t get along with their colleagues. In a setting in which a moment’s inattention can mean quick death, each individual is crucially dependent on his or her crewmates. This is why everyone has to be adaptable, empathetic, tolerant, and above all make the needs of the team the top priority – even if that puts an individual at a personal disadvantage. That is the only way that the crew can pull itself together after working out serious differences and continue with its mission.
Conflicts, such as those that we experienced, are unavoidable on a Mars expedition. Sometimes we argued over empty coffee cups left lying around, sometimes over how far we should venture onto dangerous terrain when we were deployed outside. No matter how carefully team members are vetted, it is impossible to prevent differences of opinion. But what distinguishes a good team from a bad one is that it quickly recovers from arguments and maintains a high level of performance over time.
A TROVE OF OUTDOOR EXPERIENCE
Each one of us brought to the project different personality traits, experiences, attitudes and work habits. Carmel, our commander, was a doer. Her motto might be summarized as, “Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today.” She was all business, solving problems and improvising as necessary. By her own admission, she would rather sleep outside in a sleeping bag under the stars than in a bed. As paradoxical as it may seem that she would voluntarily spend an entire year inside, her infinite trove of outdoors experience helped us immensely to endure life in our Mars habitat. We were cut off from civilization and forced to discover our internal resources and make do with the equipment we had brought along.
Her opposites, so to speak, were two team members who painstakingly analyzed each situation for potential weaknesses in our overall planning. They made every effort to ensure the safety of the crew – ironically, the majority of mishaps happened to them. But three other team members were perhaps the most important in terms of dealing with conflicts that arose. Two of them were born conciliators who argued rationally and posed probing questions whenever there were disagreements. And then there was Tristan, whose quick wit ensured that even tense confrontations were resolved with laughter.
The topics that we discussed changed over the course of the year. But the cause of conflicts always remained the same: differing motivations. Some had volunteered for the experiment because they saw it as an opportunity for personal challenge and enrichment. Whenever the HI-SEAS researchers made additional requests, they readily complied without grumbling. If they had free time, they worked on personal projects.
On the other hand, others had joined because they hoped to improve their chances of becoming astronauts. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But it led two of the participants to try to get through the year with as little effort as possible. They resisted any work that had not been assigned to them from the beginning. In some cases, this led to arguments lasting hours about tasks that would have taken five minutes to complete.
It is doubtful that anyone seeking to travel to Mars would rather watch movies than explore the surface of the planet. But our experiences have shown that while astronauts on a real trip to Mars do not necessarily need similar character traits, they do have to be on the same wavelength when it comes to work.
Other factors frayed our nerves as well. For example, I found it hard not to be able to walk in a straight line for more than 36 feet or sleep with the window open. And I missed eating fresh raspberries. One thing that all six of us agreed on was that the endless stretch of volcanic rock made us miss the vibrant colors of living nature all the more. Even the city dwellers among us felt that way. Like the astronauts on the International Space Station or crews in a submarine, a Mars crew lives “inside” at all times – whether within the dome or “outside” in a space suit.
Because of this, we never felt the sun or wind on our skin. Likewise, although we saw our surroundings through the visor of our headgear, the real world was somehow beyond reach. The external wall of our habitat, the spacesuit, every stone: everything felt the same – mediated through the muffling bluntness of our gloves. Even if human beings land on Mars one day, we will unavoidably perceive it as outsiders.
Even in the habitat, after a few months everything felt the same. We knew every nook and cranny, every smell, every noise. A few of us had brought scented oils to give our noses a little olfactory vacation, but they didn’t help much. Paradoxically, measures like these that we thought might remind us of our previous lives ended up making us feel even more isolated. Among other things, we brought along a virtual reality program with which we could pretend to sit on a beach or walk through the woods or along city streets. These pastimes were a welcome change. But at the same time they reminded us that we were surrounded by desolate lava rock.
Our physical isolation from the Earth meant that we were isolated from its inhabitants as well. We couldn’t see them, smell them or touch them, but even worse was the fact that every word we transmitted or received was delayed by 20 minutes. No intimate or encouraging conversation can take place under those conditions. As a result, we tended to exchange only the most urgent messages. At the beginning, this arrangement functioned fairly well, but over time we lost our sense of connection to friends and family. And that loss was mutual. Although we “Martians” received selected news from home, we had only the barest inkling of what was really going on. At the same time, our families became increasingly unable to appreciate what we were going through. This process of disconnection is gradual and insidious. In my case it took almost nine months, toward the end of the much-feared third quarter, before I began to feel really alone and forgotten. By that time some of the crew members were dealing with emotional lows.
Most of us developed strategies to counter the isolation. In my opinion, those who played sports and worked hard each day were the most successful. It gave them a sense of inner satisfaction to dedicate themselves to a personal project and experience a sense of growth.
It is hardly a secret that workouts help to decrease stress. But on a trip to Mars it would serve a second function as well. Weightlessness and the effects of reduced gravity have a harmful effect on health, and so astronauts will have to engage in intensive exercise to retain bone and muscle mass.
We turned our forays outside the habitat into a hybrid of sports and work. For example, we experimented with extracting water from the extremely dry lava rocks, which are about as dry as those on Mars. We went “outside” in our spacesuits every two or three days. I think we can agree that walking on rocky, uneven terrain in a suit weighing up to 50 pounds at 8,200 feet qualifies as strenuous exercise. Toward the end of our mission our excursions lasted as long as six hours. We went on numerous research expeditions and explored about a hundred caves in the surroundings. After all, the point of flying to Mars is to unlock the planet’s secrets, not to stay in one’s little pod.
Exploration of this sort will be a major focus on Mars. For one thing, caves offer a certain degree of protection from cosmic radiation from which we on Earth are protected by our magnetic field and dense atmosphere. At the same time, they may harbor more moisture than the surface and even provide a refuge for living organisms. If such organisms ever existed on Mars, they would more likely have survived in caves.
The question of whether life exists or ever existed on the red planet is one of the key reasons for sending an expedition there. But even aside from that, human beings have always endured hardships in the service of understanding our own planet. Non-government initiatives such as Mars One or the ambitious plans for SpaceX show that many people are ready to take on the rigors of the dangerous journey. Presumably, liftoff is only a matter of time.
Studies such as HI-SEAS are designed to increase the chances that the first Mars crew will survive, and to create a setting in which its members can concentrate on seeking out signs of life rather than squandering their energies in conflicts and petty competition.
If it were possible for me to fly to Mars today, I wouldn’t hesitate – provided that I got along well with the crew and knew that I would get back in one piece. My year-long experience gave me a good understanding of the negative aspects of life away from Earth, and I know that I have what it takes. While my time on our Hawaiian Mars did not transform me into a completely new person, I have become much calmer in the face of enormous psychological stress. It now takes a lot to make me lose my equilibrium. For the privilege of delving into the secrets of an alien planet I would gladly forgo fresh raspberries for a few years.