Imagine saying hello to someone on Skype and having to wait 40 minutes to hear their reply.
This may sound like the type of Skype conversation you might have with someone halfway around the world in 1972, if it existed. But this type of conversation happened many times during a Mars simulation earlier this year. From March to July, a small group of volunteers spent their time in a ‘space pod’ on the Mauna Loa volcano for the HI-SEAS project, Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. The 6 participants lived in cramped quarters, eating only dehydrated food and experiencing a 40 minute delay in internet communications, to simulate what it would be like to live in a Mars colony. This is an important step toward the day when humans eventually reach Mars,which could be as soon as 2030, so everything in the simulation must be extremely realistic. As one of the project’s participants, Ross Lockwood, reported, “we consider the entire habitat a pressurized environment, which means we can’t open a window or crack a door if things aren’t comfortable. If we step foot outside, we need to be inside of a spacesuit.” The B.C. scientist hopes to one day apply to become a real astronaut, saying “You just have to live your life hoping that, if an interesting door opens, you can maybe sneak your foot in there before it closes.”
The everyday experience of HI-SEAS was filmed and the participants vlogged throughout the experiment, reporting on their emotional states in different situations. The researchers conducting the mission gave the participants projects and tasks to work on during their time. These included about 60 ‘space walks’, when they would wear spacesuits and go outside onto the mock Martian land to do things like soil tests and taking 360 degree pictures. As can be expected this turned out to be very difficult in the boxy suits, and not being able to perform basic motor skills such as taking a picture left the ‘astronauts’ very frustrated. One participant found a way to take pictures by using a stylus on an iPhone which was attached to an Olympus camera. The results of these emotional tests will be used, now that the experiment is over, to make tools for space walks easier to use when actually in space.
As well as emotional stress, there was also an element of danger to the mission, as there would be on Mars. Although the researchers wanted to keep the participants safe, the nearest hospital in case of medical emergency was about an hour and a half away by airlift. The participants reported having a heightened sense of personal defence, taking every precaution to avoid even a sprained ankle, which could become much worse in the pod without a doctor.
Mental health is also an issue when dealing with four months of living with the same six people in under 1000 square feet of space, smaller than an average house. Measures were taken by the conducting researchers to try to limit these effects, such as requiring all the participants to have a personal project to keep them busy, such as biological/geological field research, or even artistic endeavours. They also threw parties, made an obstacle course, and kept in shape by running on a treadmill in the dome. Despite these distractions, isolation still took its toll. “Isolation really has a bigger impact than people imagine. At this point I’m looking back and I don’t remember particular days,” said Lockwood. “There’s so much of a lack of stimulus that everything blurs together, and not just in a figurative sense.”
Do you think you could spent such a long time isolated with only a few other strangers? We’ve all felt lonely at one point or another, especially as teenagers with all those hormones. But how does that compare to being physically isolated in a place like Mars, without any family or friends at all? Would it be hard, living for four months without feeling the sun on your skin, eating ice cream, smelling freshly baked cookies, hearing birds chirp, or petting your cat? I definitely think it would. Earth really is an amazing place. It might be cool to be a Martian, but as the candidates are narrowed down for those who will actually be colonizing Mars and leaving Earth forever, it makes me think about how lucky we are to live on this planet. Speaking of which, choosing those candidates really is an interesting matter. As we look at going into space, that vast unknown, our own planet is becoming smaller in a sense, with people from all over the world joining the push to explore outwards. Maybe you’ll go to Mars one day with someone from Sweden, Ghana, or Bhutan–who knows? As we expand our view of the universe, our world gets smaller. But whether or not you aspire to be Captain Kirk and explore the unknown, remembering to appreciate some of the little things you see every day can’t be overlooked.