On January 19, 2017 six participants, which had been selected for a special NASA mission, entered a ‘dome’ located on Big Island in Hawaii. The project was hosted by The University of Hawaii, on behalf of NASA, and its aim is to determine the psychological effects of long term isolation. The living conditions were designed to reflect those that would be necessary for future missions to Mars. The ‘space’ accommodation, which housed the four men and two women, was approximately the size of a two bedroom apartment. During their stay they were allowed no physical contact with the outside world and their communication with NASA was delayed by 20 minutes, which is the same amount of time it would take during a mission to Mars.
In excess of 700 applicants were put through a detailed screening process, requiring background and personality checks and several full length interviews. The team which was selected included: engineers, a biomedical expert, a computer scientist and a doctoral candidate. Crew members for expeditions to Mars will need to be in the best of health, both physically and mentally, sufficiently qualified and with an ability to solve problems as they arise. NASA plans to send a crew to an asteroid in the 2020s and Mars by the 2030s, which will take a minimum of 2-3 years to complete. The dome experiment has proved successful in showing NASA ways in which the crew will need to be supported during their journeys.
The dome where the crew stayed is operated by the University of Hawaii, and called Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). Two previous NASA missions have taken place here, lasting a year and eight months respectively, to determine food requirements and how to build a healthy rapport with crew members. There are sleeping quarters for each crew member, kitchen, bathroom and a laboratory in the dome, and meals consist mainly of freeze dried and tin foods and snacks. The landscape on Big Island is similar to the one on Mars, with its rugged terrain. To maintain the crew’s sense of isolation, food packages were dropped off a short distance from the dome and robots sent to retrieve them.
Although not confined to the dome, the team were required to wear spacesuits when going out. The outings were mainly for mapping the landscape, geological exploration or other tasks related to what the experience would be like on Mars. Each participant was also equipped with a monitor, worn around the neck, which measured their mood as well as their proximity to other crew members. Virtual reality devices were also provided to simulate comforting experiences and surroundings. As the end of the mission was approaching, even though they had enjoyed the experience, the crew members were all eager to get back to their everyday lives.