Mission to Mars

There's a research station in Hawaii being used as a long-duration Mars and moon exploration project.
Inside Science Contributor

Hawaii. The tropical paradise with relaxing beaches, lush forests, and plenty of tourists. It's probably the last place on Earth that resembles the harsh environments of Mars or the moon … Or is it?

Kim Binsted, principal investigator, HI-SEAS, said, "So the habitat is a geodesic dome. It's got about 1,000 square feet of interior space, and it's set on a disused quarry in the middle of a field of lava flows on the side of Mauna Loa, which is the largest mountain on Earth. And the area around it is very stark. There's no plant life that you can see. There's no animal life except for the occasional spider that shows up. And there's no signs of human activity.

"HI-SEAS stands for Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. And what it is, is a small habitat that's similar to what a Mars habitat might be like, on Mauna Loa on the Big Island. And there we do these long-duration simulations of what it would be like to explore the surface of the red planet."

From 2013 to 2018, Binsted and her team ran several different research projects out of HI-SEAS. One of these looked at behavioral health and performance for a crew on a mission to Mars.

"So, essentially how do the crew work together and how do they maintain a high level of performance as they're doing these exploration tasks? Because if the crews start to not get along, that performance is going to go down. So, we need to understand how they continue to work together and how they can improve their end performance.

"There is no ideal of an astronaut. So, when you're picking a crew, you can't just say, 'Well, here's the perfect astronaut, we're going to pick the six people who are closest to that.' That doesn't work. Instead, what you want to do is pick a more diverse group that comes to the table with a set of professional skills, a set of practical skills, but also a set of psychological and group work skills that they can contribute to make this a toolbox that the crew as a whole can call on over the course of the mission to resolve conflict and solve problems."

Although HI-SEAS was originally planned as a Mars simulation, it has also been used for a moon simulation project. While Mars and the moon may be physically different, the limitations that both pose to astronauts are actually quite similar.

"Water is very restricted," Binsted said." So, the crew were limited to eight minutes of shower time per crew member per week, although our crew being very astronaut like in their psychology, actually voluntarily brought that down to one minute of shower time per person per week.

"All of the food is shelf-stable. So most of it's dried or freeze-dried, some canned but very little because it's heavy. And they can't go outside unless they're wearing a spacesuit."

Both the U.S. and Russia have announced plans to send humans to Mars in the next 20 to 30 years. NASA also has plans to send astronauts back to the moon as soon as 2030.

If we are to establish some kind of semipermanent presence on Mars or on the moon, there are plenty of logistical and safety concerns to work through before it can be considered a possibility.

"The way NASA handles risks on human missions is this: They have a great, big, long list of risks for any given mission profile, whether it's to the moon, Mars, an asteroid. And for each of those mission profiles, each risk is either colored green, which means we've got this; yellow, which means the risk is still there, but we accept it; and then there are the red risks. So as long as there are red risks on the list, that mission will not happen. So, what NASA and what we're working on right now is trying to turn as many of those red risks green or yellow as we can."

Getting the green light to go for any mission is a challenge – something Binsted is used to.

"The simulations are absolutely fascinating. I participated in one myself. I spent four months at the FMARS station up in the Canadian High Arctic. And that's actually what got me interested in this area of research because what I found was there was a lot we could learn. These high-fidelity simulations, there's a lot going on. They're complicated in a way that missions are complicated, which is great," concluded Binsted.