Under the unearthly glow of a vast white dome, a group of scientists are conducting experiments on unfamiliar terrain. For 12 months, they have lived in isolation, learning how to survive in the challenging and hostile environment of Mars. But these would-be astronauts are not actually on the Red Planet.
As summer was just winding down, a team of six researchers embarked on one of NASA’s most creative missions yet. But instead of boarding a rocket and jetting off into space, they traveled to the slopes of a volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island.
There, they entered a detailed simulation of Mars — a bizarre setting that would be their home for the next year.
For decades, NASA has been perfecting the technology that it hopes will ultimately send mankind to Mars. But what about the human impact of such a lengthy and extreme mission?
At the HI-SEAS habitat on Mauna Loa, scientists have been emulating the conditions of a trip to the Red Planet — with surprising results.
So how did these six men and women react when forced into the close quarters of a simulated mission for 12 months? And what lessons can be learned that might make space travel easier in the years to come?
As it turns out, the biggest obstacles were the things that nobody expected.
Ever since scientists first used telescopes to observe the surface of Mars, many have dreamed of exploring this strange, red planet. And when the Viking 1 lander successfully touched down in June 1976, that dream must have seemed even closer than before.
But almost 50 years later, we are still waiting for it to become a reality.
Although we have successfully landed astronauts on the Moon, we are a long way off from being able to do the same on Mars. But why?
Well, part of the problem, of course, is distance. While it took Apollo 11 just over eight days to reach its destination, a manned trip to the Red Planet would last around seven months.
The second problem, according to experts, is the conditions that astronauts would face once arriving on Mars. With the technology to mount a return mission still in its infancy, much speculation has centered around colonizing, rather than just visiting, the Red Planet.
And while such a mission is the stuff of science-fiction dreams, it would be far from a walk in the park.
On the surface of Mars, temperatures average around -81°F but can drop as low as -220°F. Meanwhile, deadly radiation poses an almost-constant threat.
As a result, any human colonists would need to spend the majority of their time locked inside a carefully-controlled habitat, surviving on what little they could carry or grow.
With excursions into the harsh atmosphere outside the habitat limited, colonists would be forced to spend most of their time in close contact with their fellow astronauts. And so, experts believe, the challenges are likely to be just as much psychological as they are physical in nature.
But how exactly might these bizarre living conditions affect someone heading to Mars?
As humankind prepares to conquer the next frontier and send a manned flight to Mars, this question has become more pertinent than ever. At the moment, a number of private companies are vying to launch the first successful mission — with NASA arguably dragging its heels a little.
And while all of them are heavily investing in research about the physical logistics of such a feat, few have properly considered the mind-boggling mental aspects.
That’s why NASA decided to create the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. Essentially, the idea was to recreate a Martian environment on Earth, complete with a domed habitat for any “astronauts” to call home.
And where better to locate it than on the weather-beaten, bare-rock slopes of the state’s Mauna Loa volcano?
First used in 2013, the HI-SEAS dome is located some 8,200 feet above sea level and covers an area of roughly 1,000 square feet.
Inside, the facility is divided into two levels, with communal spaces including a kitchen, laboratory, bathroom, dining room, and exercise zone on the ground floor.
Meanwhile, on the first floor, a series of individual sleeping units offer the only privacy that inhabitants of HI-SEAS are likely to enjoy.
Designed to accommodate up to six residents, the cramped dome accurately recreates the close-quarters living environment that real astronauts are forced to endure for months at a time.
According to the HI-SEAS website, the facility is located in an environment similar to that found on Mars — adding another layer of realism to the experience.
By exiting via a simulated airlock, would-be astronauts are able to explore an apparently Martian terrain, conducting similar experiments to those that would be carried out on the Red Planet.
And it's not just the physical and geological challenges of Mars that HI-SEAS replicates in every detail. Thanks to a clever communications system, the facility is also able to mimic the mental isolation of astronauts living in space.
For example, any emails come complete with a 20-minute delay, and there is no access to the Internet or phones.
On August 28, 2015, a group of six scientists entered HI-SEAS for the facility’s most grueling experiment yet. For a total of 12 months, they lived inside the dome, experiencing minimal contact with the outside world.
To stay occupied, they conducted experiments in the Martian-like landscape surrounding their tiny, claustrophobic home.
So what happened? Well, in some ways the participants’ experience inside HI-SEAS was not unlike the realities of quarantine faced by millions around the world during the coronavirus pandemic.
During the daytime, they immersed themselves in their studies or carried out chores such as washing dishes and cleaning their clothes.
Practically speaking, comforts were limited, with hot showers a rare luxury and water consumption tightly regulated across the site. And meals were not exactly gourmet, instead consisting mostly of freeze-dried ingredients.
Sometimes, the participants would be treated to a homegrown salad leaf, cultivated inside the facility. But mostly, fresh food was unavailable.
For exercise, the six men and women took turns on a treadmill located inside the dome, or trekked up and down stairs while wearing heavy packs. In their spare time, meanwhile, they chose to listen to music, read books, or play games.
One of them, Tristan Bassingthwaighte, even started a business designing T-shirts.
After their 12-month stint was up, the scientists emerged from HI-SEAS and returned to the outside world. And while they all survived to tell the tale, the experiment highlighted many issues associated with living conditions in space.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the isolation that drove many of the participants round the bend.
Instead, the experiment known as HI-SEAS IV revealed that it was their fellow humans who pushed the participants to the edge. And with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why.
With no sound-proofing or privacy to speak of, they were forced to live in conditions not dissimilar to student digs — but on a far more intimate scale.
But, of course, these people weren’t students — they were professionals in their 30s. Two of them, astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux and geophysicist Christiane Heinicke, had traveled from Europe in order to join the experiment.
The four others, the New York Post reported, were Americans drawn from a number of different disciplines.
Working alongside Andrzej Stewart, an engineer, and Sheyna Gifford, a doctor, were soil researcher Carmel Johnston and Bassingthwaighte, a space architect. Prior to the mission, the last had been studying in China and had applied to the program on a whim.
Within months, he found himself preparing for one of NASA’s most grueling experiments yet.
Before entering the dome, each of the participants were carefully screened by experts to ensure that they were mentally up to the task.
Along with the stresses of everyday life in isolation from the rest of the world, they would need to be able to cope with high levels of boredom as well.
“I was pretty sure that I would have a good chance of withstanding, but you can never know for sure,” Heinicke admitted in a 2020 interview with the New York Post. “We were warned that the stress would be very high, but what does that mean?
We just entered and learned along the way.”
Despite such preparations, though, shutting six people from different backgrounds in a confined space for a year was always going to come with its challenges. And even though the participants made an effort to be friendly with each other at first, things soon deteriorated.
And when that happened, of course, it was impossible for anyone to escape.
In the beginning, regular surveys indicated that the participants were getting along well. Heinicke said, “Everyone was trying to be good and be nice to everyone and try to establish a good relationship, setting a positive tone for the whole mission.”
But unfortunately, that friendly environment didn’t last for long.
As the months passed, the participants found it harder to stick to the pragmatic attitudes that had informed their earlier interactions. Heinicke added, “Over time you’re getting used to each other and you’re less keen on always showing your positive side and hiding your negative side.”
Then, a clear divide began to split the group in two.
According to the New York Post, Bassingthwaighte, Johnston, Heinicke, and Verseux took a similar attitude to life inside HI-SEAS, choosing to enjoy long walks during their few excursions outside.
But Stewart and Gifford, it seems, had a more rigid outlook, limiting their time away from the station to purely essential trips.
As this schism grew, the atmosphere inside the dome became tense. Bassingthwaighte said, “It wasn’t even two cliques as much as two tribes.
Soon, all your personal time was spent with people who weren’t driving you crazy.” And as they passed the halfway point of the experiment, things went from bad to worse.
“There have been studies done on ship voyages and any long-term experience of isolation,” explained Katherine Gorringe, a filmmaker who documented the HI-SEA IV experiment. “It always follows this four-quarter structure.
There’s always third-quarter syndrome [when things get bad].” By this point, the New York Post reports, even relatively insignificant issues were causing rifts between the participants.
Apparently, some of the scientists frustrated others by abandoning half-empty drinks around the facility, while others played music at a volume that grew irritatingly loud.
According to the New York Post, Johnston had a habit of stomping loudly on the stairs, while Stewart would use up much of the water allowance while washing his clothes.
Unsurprisingly, tensions in the dome flared whenever anything went wrong. With so many different perspectives involved, it was difficult for the participants to agree on how to tackle a specific issue.
And while some fought to take control of the situation, others grew exasperated with their peers’ authoritarian approach. Generally, though, the group was able to keep the peace.
“[Gifford] was a bit difficult for me because she has this need to be in control,” Heinicke explained. “We could have given up and be bitching at each other, but we managed to keep working together.”
Elsewhere, the German geophysicist’s approach to life at HI-SEAS highlighted another potential pitfall of interplanetary travel.
At some point during the experiment, Heinicke and Verseux embarked on a romantic relationship. And according to the New York Post, this development caused some concern amongst their fellow participants.
After all, what would happen to the project if the pair were to argue or break up in acrimonious circumstances?
Happily, they needn’t have worried. As it turns out, Heinicke and Verseux had put together some rules to safeguard them if things went wrong.
And NASA might want to take notes. In the future, relationships between astronauts will surely become par for the course as missions become more and more ambitious in scope.
Eventually, on August 28, 2016, the six participants left HI-SEAS and returned to the real world. But their time inside hadn’t exactly left them the picture of health.
Gorringe explained, “When we saw them walk out of that dome, it was pretty shocking. They were pale, had lost weight, their teeth didn’t look very good.”
Despite the ordeal, though, at least some of the participants were positive about their experience. Bassingthwaighte said, “I had a good time.
There were difficult times, but I went into the dome after living in Shanghai, with so many people and so much pollution and culture shock. Suddenly, I’m up on a mountain not paying rent and pretending to be an astronaut.”
So what did HI-SEAS teach us about the future of humans on Mars? Well, we now know that any potential astronauts will seriously need to consider their ability to live in close quarters with strangers for such a long time.
Meanwhile, Gorringe’s documentary, titled Red Heaven, has shone a light on an element of space travel that often goes overlooked.
Since HI-SEA IV, two additional experiments have been conducted inside the dome, although none have lasted as long as a year. And now, NASA is focused on analyzing data from previous missions.
With the race to Mars heating up across the globe, it may not be long before we see the lessons learned on Mauna Loa put to use in the real world — or worlds!