NASA's idea of a Mars ‘reality show’

What happens when you stick six wannabe astronauts in crammed quarters in the middle of nowhere for months? A NASA-funded study seeks to find out.

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It might not look like much, but this will be home sweet home for four months. HI-SEAS

Take six adults. Lock them in a solar dome in an abandoned quarry. Give them each a super-small bedroom. Keep them there for four months. Watch.

It might sound like a new reality TV show, but it's what's currently happening on the northern slope of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano as part of NASA's Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission.

The mission, a joint project between several universities led by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, seeks to find out what happens when six "astronaut like" crew members live in close quarters for extended periods of time.

"Over the course of the study, researchers from the outside will evaluate the crew's communications strategies, crew workload and job-sharing, and conflict resolution/conflict management approaches to determine the most important factors for success of a long duration space mission," according to the HI-SEAS Web site.

The faux crew members will pretend to live on the surface of Mars, right down to needing to put on space suits when they go outside.

Their home for the duration of the study is a geodesic dome measuring 36 feet in diameter. According to the HI-SEAS site, "the ground floor has an area of 993 square feet (878 square feet usable) and includes common areas such as kitchen, dining, bathroom with shower, lab, exercise, and common spaces. The second floor loft spans an area of 424 square feet and includes six separate staterooms and a half bath. In addition, a 160-square-foot workshop converted from a 20-foot-high steel shipping container is attached to the habitat."

"Staterooms" might be pushing it a bit, considering how small the sleeping chambers look in this photo. Think NASA got its inspiration from Joss Whedon's "The Dollhouse"?

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The, um, "staterooms." HI-SEAS

Study participants who will sleep in these tiny chambers were chosen in a process similar to the one NASA uses to selects its astronauts. They include an adjunct professor of psychiatry for the Indiana University School of Medicine; an emergency medical technician for analog habitat and spacesuit research; an officer in the United States Air Force Reserve; a research associate and Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Space Systems of the German Aerospace Center; an experimental physicist; and a chemical engineer.

Not only do the Hi-Seas studies seek to find out how people act when living on the surface of Mars, they're interested in seeing how they behave on the journey to the planet itself. A trip to Mars is expected to take 150 to 300 days, so it's important crew members don't get all squirrely during that time.

While this is the first of three upcoming missions to look at what might happen "when people stop being polite and start getting real" during lengthy trips to space (it follows a project last year that examined what would-be Mars explorers would eat), it's not the first time such projects have been undertaken.

As part of the Mars500 project, the European Space Agency locked six men into a 200-square-meter space at Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems for 105 days in 2009 to see what would happen (apparently they practiced their poker skills and made drums out of plastic containers).

The ESA, along with the Russian Academy of Science and Chinese space agencies, did it again in June of 2010 with six different study participants, who stayed inside the tiny space for 520 days. At the end of that nearly 17-month project, the researchers primarily discovered issues related to sleep cycles getting out of whack, which could affect cognitive functioning on long missions.

The next Hi-SEAS experiment, which is slated for August, will cram crew members together for eight months, and the final study, scheduled for June 2015, will keep them together for a full year. The program is funded by a $1.2 million grant bestowed upon UH Manoa by NASA -- probably a lot less than CBS' budget for "Big Brother." If only we could convince them to broadcast it.

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The kitchen. HI-SEAS

About the author

Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for Crave and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.

 

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