On the way to Mars, Neil Scheibelhut stopped by Wal-Mart for mouthwash and dental floss. “We’re picking up some last-minute things,” he said via cellphone from the store.
Scheibelhut is not actually an astronaut leaving Earth. But three hours later, he and five other people stepped into a dome-shaped building on a Hawaiian volcano where they will live for the next eight months, mimicking a stay on the surface of Mars.
This is part of a NASA-financed study, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or Hi-Seas for short. The goal is to examine how well a small group of people, isolated from civilisation, can get along and work together.
When astronauts finally head toward Mars years from now — NASA has penciled the 2030s — it will be a long and lonely journey: about six months to Mars, 500 days on the planet, and then another six months to home.
“Right now, the psychological risks are still not completely understood,” said Kimberly Binsted, a professor of information and computer science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the principal investigator for the project. (She is not in the dome.) “NASA is not going to go until we solve this.”
Several mock Mars missions have been conducted in recent years. A simulation in Russia in 2010 and 2011 stretched 520 days. Four of the six volunteers developed sleep disorders and became less productive as the mission progressed. The Mars Society, a non-profit group that promotes human spaceflight, has run short simulations in the Utah desert since 2001 and is looking to do a one-year simulation in the Canadian Arctic beginning in 2015.
Hi-Seas has already conducted two four-month missions, and next year, six more people will reside for one year inside the dome, a two-storey building 36 ft in diameter with about 1,500 sq ft of space. It sits in an abandoned quarry at an altitude of 8,000 ft on Mauna Loa.
To simulate the operational challenges, the crew members in the Hi-Seas dome are largely cut off. Their communications to the world outside the dome are limited to email, and each message is delayed by 20 minutes before being sent, simulating the lag for communications to travel from Mars to Earth and vice-versa. They can check a few websites, like their banking accounts, to ensure that their Earth lives do not fall apart. There is also a cellphone for emergency communications.
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; and Zak Wilson, 28, a mechanical engineer who worked on military drone aircraft at General Atomics in San Diego.
“I dream about being an astronaut, and this might be the closest I ever get,” Dunn said.
Wilson had previously done a two-week stay at the Mars habitat in Utah. Scheibelhut had worked on the first Hi-Seas mission as part of the ground support crew.
For their time, each received round-trip airfare to Hawaii, a $11,500 stipend, food and, of course, lodging.
At the outset, the six appear to get along fine. “Right now, everything is wonderful,” Scheibelhut said. He said he recognised that there would be unpleasant patches. “Eight months — you’re going to have conflicts you’re going to have to work out,” he said.
But Scheibelhut, 38, an Army veteran who served a year in Iraq in 2004, said, “I’ve been through worse.” On this mission at least, no one will be trying to kill him. “I hope,” he added.
The goal is to maintain cohesion among the crew members, but that too can lead to problems. The researchers will also be looking for signs of “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, there can be a stretch when routines turn into tedium without end. “That third quarter can be a bit of a bummer,” Binsted said.
But first, there was the stop at Wal-Mart.
Dunn bought a pair of slippers. Wilson picked up super glue and workout shorts. Binsted bought some supplemental food supplies.
Elsewhere, Lenio, the commander, was shopping for a ukulele.
“We’ll start a band,” said Scheibelhut, who had brought his guitar.