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A manned mission to Mars and back: fiction or reality?

The Guardian and The New York Times recently reported that six people will reside inside a geodesic dome for eight months situated on a volcano in Hawaii. These six people are part of a NASA-financed study called the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation or Hi-Seas which looks at how people will interact and work with one another when cut off from civilization. NASA hopes that the study will mimic what really happens when astronauts travel to Mars, which it has estimated to occur in 2030. “It will be a long and lonely journey: about six months to Mars, 500 days on the planet, and then another six months home,” NYT reports.

Kimberly Binsted, a professor of information and computer sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the principal investigator for the project told NYT, “Right now, the psychological risks are still not completely understood and not completely corrected for.” This is not the first time that Hi-Seas has been conducted—two four-month missions have already taken place and the simulation will be tested on six more people next year.

How does Hi-Seas imitate the operational conditions of actual Mars flight?

NYT describes the dome as “a two-story building 36 feet in diameter with about 1,500 square feet of space.”  Participants in Hi-Seas will be isolated from the outside world—communication is allowed only via email, where “each message is delayed by 20 minutes before being sent, simulating the lag for communications to travel from Mars to Earth and vice versa,” NYT reports. A reply will take 40 minutes to arrive. However, these lag times reflect the worst-case scenario. In actuality, as Mars and Earth move closer together, so these gaps in time are shorter.

Participants, however, could access certain websites to check their bank accounts and can also use a cellphone to make emergency calls. 

Who are the participants and how were they selected?

Dr Binsted said that out of the 150 people who applied for the study, the six chosen for the study resembled real NASA astronauts with regard to experience and background.

“The commander is Martha Lenio, 34, an entrepreneur looking to start a renewable-energy consulting company. Other crew members are Jocelyn Dunn, 27, a Purdue University graduate student; Sophie Milam, 26, a graduate student at the University of Idaho; Allen Mirkadyrov, 35, a NASA aerospace engineer; Zak Wilson, 28, a mechanical engineer who worked on military drone aircraft at General Atomics in San Diego; and Neil Scheibelhut, 38, an Army veteran who served a year in Iraq in 2004,” NYT states.

The chosen six were selected “after a six-day camping expedition in the Rockies, which tested not only their survival skills, but their ability to get on as a group,” The Guardian reports. After the expedition, participants voted on whom they wanted to be part of the team and who would be their leader.
In this initial phase of the study, the participants seem to get along very well, but as Mr Scheibelhut, whom NYT states was part of the first Hi-Seas mission, notes that eight months together in an enclosed space such as the dome will lead to conflicts which have to be resolved.

During the mission, the researchers will keep an eye out for ‘third quarter syndrome,’— “At the beginning of the mission, the experience is new and exciting. Then, in the second quarter of the mission, people fall into routines. Near the end, people can look forward to getting out and returning to the real world. In the middle, there can be a stretch when routines turn into tedium without end,” states the NYT report. 

Since the Hi-Seas study involves mimicking a real-life Mars mission, participants “will be busy performing various scientific work, including excursions outside the dome in spacesuits.”

While the researchers will try “to get as much science out of them as possible,” for their efforts, the participants will be paid a stipend of $ 11,500, a round-trip airfare to Hawaii, food and accommodation. Besides this, one of the participants, graduate student Jocelyn Dunn, will also collect data for her doctoral thesis.

Martha Lenio, the leader of the group, will be looking at how the energy production systems function as well as food production and water conservation, The Guardian states.

But the question remains—can Mars serve as an alternate to Earth in order to preserve the human species? Lenio told The Guardian that humans could probably live on Mars for 10 or 20 years, but things will catch up with us—“We would generate too much waste, not be able to create enough food or fuel and run out of usable water,” she says.

However, she adds that planning a mission to Mars isn’t entirely without benefit. “We wouldn’t even know about the holes in the ozone layer or the rate of deforestation in Brazil without the measurements we were able to do from space looking back on ourselves,” she told The Guardian.


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