Real Life on Fake Mars

Images courtesy of University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

Hear a soundbite from the crew, watch a video about the habitat, and see additional photos with the interactive version of this story here.

Angelo Vermeulen HI-SEAS FLUX Hawaii
Angelo Vermeulen wearing the MX-B simulated spacesuit. Photo by Yajaira Sierra-Sastre.

Crewmember Zak Wilson enters a brightly lit airlock, where plants grow in coffee cans hung on pegs, and residents flock to feel natural sunlight. He steps into a bright yellow HAZMAT suit and zips it up, entirely encased as he looks out through its clear plastic mask. He opens a heavy door, stepping out with another HAZMAT suit-encased crewmember onto red, rocky terrain. They venture into a nearby lava tube, take notes, map out its unique features, then walk back to their home—for now, a bright white dome appearing as a mere dot along the slopes of Hawai‘i Island’s Mauna Loa.

In the last few years, Mars has suddenly appeared within reach of human grasp. NASA plans to launch its first mission to the red planet, a short-term research trip, in the 2030s. In 11 years, Mars One, a private venture, expects to have deployed a crew of four to begin colonization, filming a reality TV show as they go. But those who know most about what life on Mars may really be like are crewmembers who have spent stints holed up in habitats in the Canadian Arctic, Russia, Utah, or Hawai‘i Island for various Earth-based projects researching habitation on Mars.

Since October 2014, six “astro-nots,” including Wilson, have been living in a dome on Mauna Loa’s eastern slope, a location selected for its strong resemblance to Mars’ extraterrestrial terrain (barren red landscape, shield volcanoes, lava tubes). These six sojourners are the crew of Hawai‘i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) Mission III, one of four missions funded by NASA, ranging in length from four months to a year. The first mission was an independent phase that focused on food—what the crew ate, how they made it. The current series of three is focused on crew psychology, with five institutions, including University of Michigan and John Hopkins University, collecting data on what causes fissures or cohesion within the group. Mission III is the longest yet, ending June 12, 2015. Crewmembers include a combat veteran-slash-microbiologist, an aerospace engineer, and an intelligent-robotics researcher. All were chosen for their astronaut-like backgrounds and personalities. They live daily life as if actually surviving and researching on Mars.

The things they experience, and the difficulties they encounter, will directly impact protocol and plans for NASA’s pending mission. Principal investigator Dr. Kim Binsted, a professor at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, is focused on how the different crews of each of the missions develop relationships and effectiveness over time. One thing that she is on the lookout for is symptoms of a third quarter effect, when it has been theorized that crewmembers will experience depression and lethargy.

Another factor impacting the crew is the 20-minute delay in communications with “Earth” that astronauts on Mars will encounter. (It will be the first time in human space travel that this will occur.) “There is a really strong tendency for communication breakdown between an isolated team and the crew at home,” Binsted explains, and the delay will only exacerbate that. Frustrations may arise, miscommunication could proliferate, and dangers to the crew would increase. On an already challenging host planet with lower gravity, dangerous solar flares, and lack of easily accessible food or water, this could mean mission incomplete. But if this research does what it aims to do, such human complications may be prevented.

Neil Scheibelhut copyBeyond missions or objectives, what HI-SEAS also shows is the reality of daily human life on Mars. Crewmembers exercise with resistance bands, clean their compostable toilet, play board games, attempt repairs with a 3-D printer, conduct individual research projects. Each gets a single, eight-minute shower per week (the minimum found necessary in order to maintain morale). Much of the day is dedicated to meals. The crew lives off a food stock similar to what NASA would provide, including freeze-dried meals, dried fruits and vegetables, potato flakes, flour, powdered milk, and canned meats, as well as the occasional fresh produce grown under LED lights on loan from the Kennedy Space Center. They bake bread in the toaster oven and take turns making meals. Holidays are celebrated with inventive feasts. While recording a virtual tour of the habitat, crewmember Jocelyn Dunn introduces the cramped kitchen this way: “Here we are in the HI-SEAS kitchen. It’s really the heart and soul of the mission.” On a hot plate to her right, a gumbo prepared by Wilson simmers away.



We asked crewmembers to imagine that they got called on a real-life mission to Mars. The following is our correspondence.

You just got the exciting news that you’re taking a real-life, one-way trip to Mars. What three things do you bring?
Jocelyn Dunn: Slippers, MacBook Pro, and Chapstick.

Zak Wilson: A 3D printer—I could manufacture parts on my own instead of having to wait for a resupply.

Neil Scheibelhut: Camera, iPad crammed with games, cowboy hat, and boots. If I had to only take one of those, it would be the hat.

What is one thing you will miss about Earth?
Dunn: Besides people, I would miss going to the beach. Even while here on simulated Mars, I yearn for the feeling of the sun warming my skin and for the refreshment of swimming in the ocean.

 Annie and Lucie on EVA HI-SEAS
Annie Caraccio and Lucie Poulet on an EVA during HI-SEAS Mission II.

How do you expect to get that all-essential H20 on a planet with no reservoirs or running water?
Scheibelhut: There are actually many, many ways to obtain and reuse water. Besides reusing water brought along on the trip to Mars, urine can be cleaned and reused. In addition, water can be extracted from other forms of waste, like paper products. Once astronauts reach Mars, it will actually be easier. The polar ice caps found on Mars have literally tons of water that can be melted, cleaned, and consumed. Ice can also be found within the soil and extracted. And, in the rare case when water cannot be extracted from the soil, the soil itself can be used to create water. The red color we see all over Mars is due to the presence of large amounts of iron oxide. Through a series of chemical reactions, the oxygen trapped in the soil can be united with hydrogen (which is also plentiful on Mars in other forms) to create water.

What are you going to do to manage waste?
Lenio: Anything organic should be composted and reused as soil. I’ve been using a type of anaerobic composting system called Bokashi to turn our food waste back into soil, and have been successfully using it to grow new food for us.

Hollywood glamour of interstellar life aside, what do you think day-to-day life will actually be like?
Wilson: I think a large amount of time will be spent on maintenance and other fairly mundane tasks like tending to gardens. The level of technology required to sustain humans on Mars is quite high, and the consequences for a systems failure is potentially catastrophic. Large gardens would be required to permanently sustain people on Mars, particularly without resupply from Earth.

Unlike Earth, Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field or dense atmosphere to deflect most solar flare radiation. How do you plan to survive the threat of solar flares?
Sophie Milam: One of the standard practices for astronauts in danger of solar flares is something our early ancestors would have agreed on:  If danger is coming, run and hide in a cave. On a spaceship or space station there isn’t a cave per se, but there is a very solid, very small area specially reinforced to protect astronauts from harmful radiation. Around our habitat, there are systems of lava tubes and caves that are analogous to real Martian terrain. Astronauts on Mars will have to position their habitats close to these kinds of structures and outfit them as a kind of emergency shelter.

Back to planet Earth. Having been part of HI-SEAS, would you sign up for that one-way trip to colonize Mars with Mars One?
Allen Mirkadyrov: Probably not. I have many responsibilities to other people who depend on me, so I could not consciously volunteer for an inevitable death.

Milam: Given what I have heard about Mars One, I don’t believe I would. But I would sign up for a one-way mission to Mars. I believe that a sustained presence on Mars is the most realistic view of the future because of the health problems that come from extended durations in micro- and low-gravity.  A there-and-back mission would take around two years, and the kind of damage done to your physiology would not allow you to live a normal life when you got back to Earth. By staying on Mars, people would not have to readapt to a higher gravity, and their continued presence will ensure continued interest and exploration beyond Earth, which I believe is very important to humans.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This story is part of our Apocalypse Issue.