What it's like to spend 8 months on a fake Mars mission

Last weekend, a group of six people emerged from a white dome on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, feeling the fresh outside air for the first time in eight months

This was the crew of HI-SEAS — an experiment simulating what it might be like to live on Mars for an extended period of time. Run by the University of Hawaii, the analogue mission is funded by NASA, to learn what it takes for people to live together in a confined space for months. For the experiment, crews lived in a white dome in Hawaii for eight months, working together on projects and simulating a deep space expedition. Crew members were not allowed to leave the habitat, unless they were wearing a space suit.

This crew entered the dome in January, undertaking the fifth HI-SEAS mission so far. We spoke with Laura Lark, one of those crew members, to learn what it was like to say goodbye to Earth and live like a Martian for nearly a year.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What’s your background and what prompted you to join this mission?

I actually do not have a space-related background. I’m a software engineer, and before joining the mission I worked at Google for five years. I had to quit to take my job as a crew member with HI-SEAS.

Laura Lark
Image: University of Hawaii

For a long time, I wanted to join an analogue mission. I had read about many of them, including NEMO and HI-SEAS, and was interested but had no idea how you got picked to be a crew member, so I just kept an eye on it. Then at one point they put out a call for applications, so I applied.

So do you have ambitions of being an astronaut someday?

I think we all do on the crew. It was kind of funny, actually, all of the Americans on the crew got their rejection letters from the last round of astronaut selection while we were in the dome.

But this is probably the closest to being an astronaut I’ll ever get. Plus, joining the mission makes a real contribution to human spaceflight. The research that comes out of HI-SEAS is going to be critical for putting together the right teams to go to Mars or any other deep-space mission.

How did you find out you got accepted and what did you need to do to put your life on hold for 8 months?

I found out by email in the middle of the night, so the first thing I did was wake up my husband to tell him, and the second thing I did was go back to sleep. Then it was really kicking off preparations — so reading up on what I need, figuring out a little bit about who my crewmates were, quitting my job, telling my family, and transferring my regular responsibilities to my husband.

For me, the biggest part was quitting my job and making sure that my husband had access to my accounts. In a way, it was much easier for me than it was for my crewmates because I am married, so my other half is staying on Earth. The only really unusual things were not having access to the internet from the dome. Getting email forwarding set up, making sure my husband had all my passwords and login information. But other than that, it wasn’t all that different than packing for a really long trip.

What were you allowed to bring with you?

We each were allowed to bring two suitcases of anything non-perishable. I think anything non-food and non-beverage. I ended up bringing a suitcase and a half, and also my violin, because I felt that half a suitcase was a fair trade for a violin. So I had about half a suitcase of warm clothes, half a suitcase of other clothes, and half a suitcase of craft supplies. I brought a lot of paints and pencils and paper, yarn and fabric — things that I could use to make what I needed if I found it wasn’t available.

What about books?

I brought a Kindle with books on it.

What was it like inside? What were the most difficult parts for you?

I think for me the most difficult part was being cut off from Earth, so we had no live communications. All of our communications were on a 20-minute delay [Editor’s note: to simulate the communication delay of radio signals traveling from Mars to Earth], so we could email and share files on a delay. But things like voice calls or Skype or even live chat don’t work. So this manifests in a couple of ways. One is staying connected to the people you love on Earth and the other is solving problems when you don’t have the information you need, and that was definitely challenging.

The HI-SEAS habitat
Image: University of Hawaii

I was the mission specialist in IT, so I was responsible for keeping the IT-related systems in the habitat working. When we had network issues, for example, I would be troubleshooting with our external support, but all of our communications are on a 20-minute delay, and it’s pretty difficult to figure out exactly what information you need to send. Any miscommunication has a pretty large cost in terms of time.

I think the more surprising things were the things I didn’t miss. For example, I thought I would really miss going outside, but really that was pretty easy to adapt to, and I found that I didn’t miss being outside all that much. Likewise, I thought I would really miss fresh food, but that also didn’t turn out to be such a big deal.

I think we all experienced the mission a little bit differently. Each person had things that they missed more than others. Taco Bell and McDonalds were often a topic of conversation at our dinner table towards the end of the mission.

What was day to day like inside?

We have a variety of tasks, so some of these are related to our roles as study subjects. So they’re tasks or activities that measure our communication and collaboration. There are surveys that we fill out to describe to the researchers how we’re feeling or measure our stress levels. Then there are tasks we do as part of the simulation, to make our lives as realistic as possible given they’re trying to study what life would be like on Mars. We were assigned geology field work; we performed [excursions] to go collect data; we process it; we write reports related to our specific roles that week.

Trekking outside the habitat
Image: University of Hawaii

Outside of that work, we have maintaining systems, chores, the sort of thing anyone would need to do to live in a place. After that, we have free time we can spend socially with each other.

What did you all like to do in your free time?

We certainly had more routine favorites. We enjoyed watching movies together. We had an optional game night once a week, where anyone who felt like they had the time could show up, and we’d pick a game based on what everyone wanted to play. Pictionary was a favorite in the crew.

How do you feel your team do together?

I do think we had a pretty successful mission. We really became a strong team and were very effective at our work together. At the beginning of the mission, we wrote a mission statement for our crew, and we had three priorities. One was team cohesion — we were all very committed to working on our relationships and working on our teamwork in an intentional way and keeping that strong throughout the mission. We prioritized getting good data — so getting the researchers the data they need about the mission to learn about human spaceflight and human psychology. We were also committed to high quality outreach — so communicating about the mission, about the science and about human space exploration to a variety of audiences. I think that we were very committed and made a lot of progress on each of those fronts.

Were there any challenges to living with the same people for months?

I think conflict is inevitable when you have a small number of people in an isolated and confined environment for so long. Really what’s important is how you deal with that conflict and how you maintain your relationships to prevent it in the first place. We put in a lot of effort to maintain our individual relationships with each other and our crew morale. So some of this was spending that social time together and making sure to pull people in.

We also tried to keep an atmosphere where people were free to bring things up. So occasionally we’d sit down and talk about pet peeves. If there was something annoying someone, that’d be a good time to bring it up. Everyone would try to accommodate their needs. When conflict does inevitably arise, we try to deal with it quickly, honestly, and openly, and kindly to resolve it so we didn’t have this thing hanging over our heads.

The crew of the fifth HI-SEAS mission.
Image: University of Hawaii

That was one thing we did pretty well. Everybody on the crew was very committed to resolving any issues that came up. If something did, you knew no matter who it was, you could say, “Hey I need to talk to you,” and they’d be right there with you working with you.

What was it like toward the end knowing the mission would soon be over?

It was definitely a different atmosphere. We all knew once the mission ended, we were going our separate ways and going back to our normal lives, so I think people were more inclined to spend time together socially. On the other hand, the workload really increased toward the end of the mission. We had final reporting; we were gathering last data from our experiments. So the stress ramped up a bit as well. But overall, at that point we had had so much practice working together that we were able to work together and get everything done on a timeline that let us get it done well and not ignore each other the whole time.

What was it like stepping outside for the first time?

I expected it would be shocking to step outside, but when it actually happened, it was exactly how I remembered it. The only very surprising thing was we spent so much time in the area around our habitat in our suits, which are pretty low visibility. They have these visors that are a little warped and pretty scratched so it can be hard enough to see where you’re going, nevermind see all the detail around you. So when we stepped out without the suits, we realized there was so much more detail to the landscape around us than we had been able to see.

How does it feel now that you’re out, and what’s next for you?

It’s a little bit sad. The mission’s done; it was a huge opportunity and a really cool thing we all got to participate in. But it’s also exciting now we each take what we learned from this and go on with our lives and continue to do our work and build our careers. I’m sure our paths will cross again.

I will say that interviewing is pretty hard without communication with Earth. So I ended up more or less waiting until I got out [to interview]. But that’s an exciting open question for me.

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