On Sept. 17, six volunteer crew members emerged from eight months of isolation. Their quarantine, part of a NASA-backed study by the University of Hawaii, could one day help humanity plan a drama-free Mars mission.
The shelter wasn’t exactly luxurious. Sleeping spaces were small, food mostly came in freeze-dried pouches or cans, and communication with the outside world was purposefully delayed 20 minutes to simulate vast interplanetary distances.
And outside? The forbidding, rocky landscape of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano surrounded them. If that wasn’t discouraging enough, actually going outside was strictly limited: teams only and spacesuits mandatory.
If we want to send humans to Mars, it’s going to mean asking them to spend a long time alone — at least a year. And with even relatively simple, robot-based Mars missions costing a few billion dollars, we don’t want personality problems derailing a mission. This study will help NASA learn how to help people get along during their long spaceflight.
The group used a variety of methods to track their emotional states, from journals to voice recorders. They also tested ways to de-stress, like using virtual reality to take a trip to a tropical beach.
“We’ve learned, for one thing, that conflict, even in the best of teams, is going to arise,” principal investigator and professor Kim Binsted told the AP. “So what’s really important is to have a crew that, both as individuals and a group, is really resilient, is able to look at that conflict and come back from it.”
Binsted couldn’t share any details about this year’s crew but said in an email that past crews have dealt with things like miscommunications, the stress of problems back home, and — yes — what to do when a favorite food runs out.
This was the fifth of six planned missions. For their efforts, the newly-freed crew was rewarded with a buffet of food, including fresh pineapple, mango, papaya, and doughnuts. None of it appeared to have been freeze-dried.
NASA hopes to send humans to Mars as soon as the 2030s.