Tom Kizzia, author of The New Yorker article, “Moving to Mars,” currently lives in Homer, Alaska. He has also written for the Anchorage Daily News, The Washington Post, and CNN. Kizzia is known for his books, The Wake of the Unseen Object and Pilgrim’s Wilderness. In his article, “Moving to Mars,” Kizzia uses anecdotes to predict what traveling to Mars with no return date would mean. To begin, Kizzia compares journeys to Australia with the journey set to happen to Mars in the possibly near future. The two are oddly similar; they are both dangerous expeditions to cold, seemingly inhabitable places. The main difference is, of course, that traveling to Mars takes years and one must go through space and leave planet Earth. Kizzia continues by detailing an adventure in Hawaii on the Mauna Loa volcano, the second biggest montain in the solar system. There, a dome exists to prepare astronauts for what a life on Mars could be like. A crew of six was set in October to live in isolation in a dome similar to the atmosphere of Mars until June. After closely describing this amazing act of isolation, Kizzia zeros in on the reality of moving to Mars. Kizzia examines the issue from both sides, deciding that we are closer now than ever.
Preparing for the longest, loneliest voyage ever.
On a clear, cold day in March, 1898, a converted seal-hunting ship named the Belgica gave up struggling against the pack ice of the Bellingshausen Sea and resigned itself to the impending Antarctic winter. The ship was carrying a scientific expedition with an international crew, rare in that phase of polar exploration: nine Belgians, six Norwegians, two Poles, a Romanian, and an American, the ship’s doctor. The expedition’s organizer, a Belgian naval lieutenant named Adrien de Gerlache, had handpicked officers and scientists for their expertise; the mariners who slept in the forecastle had been signed up more casually. None had been selected for character, resilience, or survival instinct. The crew had expected the Belgica to winter over in warmer latitudes. No ship had ever spent a winter locked in the Antarctic ice.
An eerie despondency settled over officers and crew as the days grew short and ice groaned against the hull. Low on coal and lacking proper gear, they sewed winter coats out of blankets. Conversation trailed away, and dinners of tinned meat were greeted with derision. Starting in May, the sun disappeared for two months, and the crew gradually fell apart. A young Belgian geophysicist succumbed to a weak heart, and was buried through a hole in the ice. De Gerlache and the ship’s captain, Georges LeCointe, wrote out their wills and retired to their rooms. One crewman, convinced that the others wanted to kill him, hid away at night, while another tried to leave the ship, announcing plans to walk home to Belgium. Even the ship’s cat withdrew and died. The American doctor, Frederick A. Cook, wrote in his journal that a “spell of indifference” had afflicted him and his shipmates. “Around the tables, in the laboratory, and in the forecastle, men are sitting about sad and dejected, lost in dreams of melancholy,” he noted. “We are at this moment as tired of each other’s company as we are of the cold monotony of the black night and of the unpalatable sameness of our food.”
Cook later became infamous for faking two heroic firsts, the conquest of the North Pole and the ascent of Mt. McKinley. But that winter on the Belgica was an occasion of genuine heroism. Assisted by the ship’s Norwegian first mate, Roald Amundsen, Cook instituted an exercise routine on the ice, walks around the ship known as the “madhouse promenade.” He introduced a “baking treatment” for the men with the lowest morale and the weakest heartbeats, which entailed seating them before the warm glow of the ship’s coal stove. He insisted that the crew start eating the vitamin-rich meat of penguins, which even he described as tasting like a mixture of mammal, fish, and fowl parts, roasted in blood and cod-liver oil. He helped organize entertainments, including a beauty contest among illustrations torn from magazines, with voting categories such as “Alabaster shoulders,” “Supple waist,” and “Irreproachable character.”
With the return of summer, Cook and Amundsen rallied the crew for a monthlong effort to saw a channel to open water. De Gerlache and his men returned to Europe as heroes, and Amundsen—who later achieved renown as a polar explorer—credited the doctor with saving their lives. But the Belgica’s experience became a cautionary tale for the planners of future expeditions to the poles. When Richard Byrd set out, in 1928, to establish a camp in Antarctica, his supplies included two coffins and twelve straitjackets.
A century after the Belgica’s return, a NASA research consultant named Jack Stuster began examining the records of the trip to glean lessons for another kind of expedition: a three-year journey to Mars and back. “Future space expeditions will resemble sea voyages much more than test flights, which have served as the models for all previous space missions,” Stuster wrote in a book, “Bold Endeavors,” which was published in 1996 and quickly became a classic in the space program. A California anthropologist, Stuster had helped design U.S. space stations by studying crew productivity in cases of prolonged isolation and confinement: Antarctic research stations, submarines, the Skylab station. The study of stress in space had never been a big priority at NASA—or of much interest to the stoic astronauts, who worried that psychologists would uncover some hairline crack that might exclude them from future missions. (Russia, by contrast, became the early leader in the field, after being forced to abort several missions because of crew problems.) But in the nineteen-nineties, with planning for the International Space Station nearly complete, NASA scientists turned their attention to journeys deeper into space, and they found questions that had no answers. “That kind of challenging mission was way out of our comfortable low-earth-orbit neighborhood,” Lauren Leveton, the lead scientist of NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance program, said. Astronauts would be a hundred million miles from home, no longer in close contact with mission control. Staring into the night for eight monotonous months, how would they keep their focus? How would they avoid rancor or debilitating melancholy?
Stuster began studying voyages of discovery—starting with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, whose deployment, he observed, anticipated the NASA-favored principle of “triple redundancy.” Crews united by a special “spirit of the expedition” excelled. He praised the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen’s three-year journey into the Arctic, launched in 1893, for its planning, its crew selection, and its morale. One icebound Christmas, after a feast of reindeer meat and cranberry jam, Nansen wrote in his journal that people back home were probably worried. “I am afraid their compassion would cool if they could look upon us, hear the merriment that goes on, and see all our comforts and good cheer.” Stuster found that careful attention to habitat design and crew compatibility could avoid psychological and interpersonal problems. He called for windows in spacecraft, noting studies of submarine crewmen who developed temporarily crossed eyes on long missions. (The problem was uncovered when they had an unusual number of automobile accidents on their first days back in port.) He wrote about remote-duty Antarctic posts suffering a kind of insomnia called “polar big eye,” which could be addressed by artificially imposing a diurnal cycle of light and darkness.
“Bold Endeavors” was a hit with astronauts, who carried photocopied pages into space, bearing Stuster’s recommendations on workload, cognitive impairment, and special celebration days. (He nominated the birthday of Jules Verne, whose fictional explorers headed to the moon with fifty gallons of brandy and a “vigorous Newfoundland.”) But historical analogies could take NASA only so far, Stuster argued. Before humans went to Mars, a final test should run astronauts through “high-fidelity mission simulations.” To the extent possible, these tests should be carried out in some remote environment, whose extreme isolation would bring to bear the stress and confinement of a journey to outer space.
One morning in February, I was lurching through lava fields in a white Dodge Ram truck, halfway up Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. Holding tight to the steering wheel, the driver, a University of Hawaii computer-science professor named Kim Binsted, told me that we were climbing the second-biggest mountain in the solar system. Mauna Loa is slightly shorter than its island neighbor Mauna Kea, but it is far more massive, rising gradually from deep below the surface of the Pacific to thirteen thousand six hundred and eighty feet above sea level. Binsted, who had a long side career in improvisational comedy, was soon quibbling with herself about the solar-system ranking—how to score the huge peaks in the Tharsis region of Mars?—but Mauna Loa’s claim is clearly impressive: if Earth were as dry as Mars, the mountain would rise nearly six miles from foot to summit. It is a slow-oozing shield volcano, like its Martian rivals, and the bleak terrain near the summit looks a lot like photographs of rough landscapes beamed from robotic rovers. The Johnson Space Center, in Houston, uses pulverized lava from its slopes to study potential agriculture in space colonies; its iron-rich basalt is a close analogue to the soil on Mars. As Binsted’s mentor, the NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay, put it, “Mauna Loa is our Martian mountain.”
Binsted stopped the truck where a chain blocked the red-cinder road and climbed out to open the lock. A sign said, “Isolation study in progress, please do not enter this area, or interact with the crew . . . Mahalo!” Beyond a rocky parapet near the eight-thousand-foot elevation, a two-story white vinyl geodesic dome came into view, perched on the mountainside like a gigantic golf ball sliced high into the rocks from a Kona resort. Multicolored lava fields fell toward the valley, where a thread of highway could barely be seen. Binsted asked me to whisper. Inside the dome, six volunteers were mimicking the life of astronauts on Mars for a NASA-funded test of team dynamics in space. They had been in the dome since October and would remain until June; at the moment, they were just a few days away from setting a North American record for a study of the effects of isolation and confinement.
Binsted wore a red polo shirt with the project’s logo: HI-SEAS, for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. Her short brown hair was barely cinched in a ponytail. As the principal investigator for the study, which is being run by the University of Hawaii, she had recruited and trained three men and three women, ranging in age from twenty-six to thirty-eight, preparing them for the austerities of travel to another planet. The dome is twelve hundred square feet, divided into a kitchen, an exercise area, and pie-slice sleeping quarters upstairs. Water is doled out as if it were being squeezed from the atmosphere by robots; each person is allowed eight minutes of shower time a week. The six crew members keep in touch with mission control only by computer, with a twenty-minute lag in each direction to simulate communication from Mars, and they leave the dome only on E.V.A.—extra-vehicular activity—wearing Velcro-sealed approximations of spacesuits. The crew members are engaged in small personal research projects and in team projects, mapping nearby geological features. All the while, they are themselves the subjects of the real research.
Binsted, five feet six and briskly friendly, speaks with the intensity of someone who drinks a lot of Diet Coke. She was born in New Jersey and grew up near Vancouver in the nineteen-eighties, during the post-Apollo period, when public interest in space travel had abated. She studied artificial intelligence and got a doctorate at the University of Edinburgh, where she performed in her spare time with a troupe called the Improverts. For her thesis, in computational linguistics, she developed software that generated puns. (“What do you call a Martian who drinks beer? An ale-ien.”) Even then, she thought of her work as a way to connect to a longtime side interest in space. A friend of hers, the writer Sarah Rose, said, “The first time I met Kim, twenty years ago, she told me, ‘When the aliens come, I want to be the first person they call.’ ” Binsted noted, “ ‘They’ was the researchers, not the aliens. I just want to point that out.” A marathon runner, she applied five times to NASA’s astronaut-selection program and once to Canada’s (she holds dual citizenship), each time making it past the medical exams and reference checks and into the “highly qualified” pool. On her most recent attempt, in 2013, eight new astronauts were chosen from a field of sixty-three hundred, and Binsted was not among them. At the age of forty-three, she figured that she had finally aged out. “I stopped exercising the next day,” she says ruefully.
The dome has a porthole, looking across the saddle at Mauna Kea—a legacy of the first study there, during which the benefit of a windowless exterior (protection from radiation) was found to be less significant than the drawback (the crew hated it). For our visit, the porthole had been covered over to keep the crew’s isolation complete. Quiet as parents on Christmas Eve, we ferried tubs of rice cakes and wet wipes from Costco into a back entry porch. Menus had been worked up during two previous missions in the dome, lasting four months each, during which food cooked ad libitum, even from reconstituted ingredients, rated much higher than the kind of meals-in-a-pouch necessary during zero-gravity travel. Back into the truck went black plastic bags of trash and boxes of saltines that had passed their shelf date. “ ‘Principal investigator’ sounds pretty glamorous,” Binsted said, as she climbed behind the wheel. “But a lot of what I do is space janitor.”
For years, NASA has run experiments replicating the environments of space and alien planets. Rovers and robotics have been tested in the Arizona desert and in the Canadian Arctic. “Human factor” studies in preparation for space-station duties have been carried out in a capsule at the Johnson Space Center and in an underwater lab off Key Largo. These days, the International Space Station provides an analogue for future long-duration missions; the astronaut Scott Kelly, who has just begun the first full year for an American in orbit, is the subject of psychological as well as physical tests. The Hawaii project represents another step for NASA: a test of group dynamics and morale to help design systems that will send a team into deep space.
Binsted and her colleagues sorted through seven hundred applications, winnowing them to a hundred and fifty serious candidates, many of them fit, well educated, and spunky—younger versions of Binsted. All six chosen for this round are aspiring astronauts, which makes them ideal subjects, Binsted said. They think more like modern space voyagers than did the sailors in earlier studies of isolation, but they are less wary and reticent than real astronauts tend to be. She wasn’t looking for volatile personalities, in the way of a reality-television producer; it was more like finding roommates to share an apartment. Astronauts tend to be resilient, low-drama types. On top of these qualities, she wanted sociability—a thick skin, a long fuse, an optimistic outlook, and a tolerance for low stimulation. The HI-SEAS crew includes an Iraq War veteran and microbiologist, a NASA aerospace engineer born in Azerbaijan, and a robotics graduate student who finished her degree and was named to Forbes’s “30 Under 30” in science while cooped up in the dome. In addition to their duties on sMars, as they sometimes call the simulation, they communicate with the outside world by blogging and posting photographs and videos. They are ferociously motivated, having already managed to cut their weekly shower allotment down to six minutes. The first time I e-mailed Martha Lenio, a thirty-four-year-old Canadian engineer who serves as commander, she mentioned in her reply, forty minutes later, that they wished they could get more feedback, even though it might undermine the study: “It’s a bit frustrating because we’re highly competitive and want to be the best crew.”
The volunteers perched in the lava fields of Mauna Loa are as close as earthlings will get to Mars in the foreseeable future. In 2010, President Obama gave the mission a push, predicting that the nation would have a human in Mars orbit sometime in the twenty-thirties. There was something familiar about the upbeat rhetoric: since the nineteen-sixties, the schedule for a trip to Mars has been a shimmering, receding horizon, always a few decades away. Daunting technological, physiological, and political obstacles stand in the way of a project still so undefined that no real dollar figures are attached to it, although the figure of a hundred billion dollars is sometimes used to start a conversation. The National Research Council concluded last year that, without a focussed commitment, the U.S. has “no viable pathways to Mars,” and Congress is a difficult launching pad these days for major national initiatives. Contracts for commercial companies like SpaceX and Boeing to carry astronauts into orbit will help. On the other hand, the outlandish promises of private groups like the Netherlands-based Mars One—which has offered a one-way ticket to Mars for a bucket-shop rate, underwritten by a reality television show—may just feed the image of space exploration as a teen-age fantasy.
Yet the U.S. is actually somewhat closer to a Mars mission than it’s ever been. NASA is testing a new capsule and a new heavy-lift rocket. A robotic rover planned for 2020 will test technology for extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. As John Logsdon, an emeritus professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, pointed out, “We’ve never cut hardware before.” A few weeks ago, Logsdon helped to convene a Washington, D.C., conference of scientists, industry representatives, and NASA staff which presented a “minimalist” plan, calling for a thirty-month human orbital mission to Mars in 2033, followed by a landing in 2039. It could be done, according to an advocacy group called the Planetary Society, at the current NASA funding level of eighteen billion dollars a year, growing with inflation—provided that funding is shifted to Mars from the International Space Station in the twenty-twenties.
But, even in the best case, a human mission will be dauntingly expensive and dangerous—and once the astronauts sail past the moon they won’t even be able to talk to mission control in real time. Why not program robots to handle the whole job? Chris Kraft, NASA’s retired but still legendary cigar-clenching flight director, argued in a recent interview that the long delay in communication between Earth and Mars makes a human mission impractical. “As an operator, damned if I like that. If I’m on the moon, I’ve got a three-second turnaround. Everything I go to do on Mars I’ve got to prepare to do in an automatic mode. That’s not very smart. Pretty much everything we need to do on Mars can be done robotically.”
Proponents see it the other way around. Alain Berinstain, the former director of planetary exploration for the Canadian Space Agency and an adviser to Binsted, told me that the time lag was an argument against robots: “By the time you see that cliff coming, you’ve driven over it twenty minutes ago.” In contrast, an astronaut trained in geology can step onto the surface of Mars, look around, and pick up the one rock that makes a difference—and twenty minutes later ground control will hear about what she found. “It’s hard to say when, but we will go with humans to Mars,” Berinstain said. “It’s like humans exploring parts of the earth we didn’t know. We’re made that way.”
Some traditional ways of thinking about ground control and astronaut training will have to change. “With the Apollo program, every time a light went off you had a team of fifteen controllers telling you, ‘That light just went off, ignore it,’ ” McKay, the astrobiologist, told me. “When you go to Mars, the laws of physics just do not allow that. The ‘right stuff’ now is what’s required for a crew to work well in isolation. It’s a different set of skills. Some people won’t get it until we’re actually doing the mission. But there’s no way around it, unless they can change the speed of light.”
The two most recent astronaut classes, in 2009 and 2013, were the first ones chosen explicitly with long-duration space missions in mind. The emphasis on more autonomy for crews has prompted a search for “different competencies,” NASA says. The best astronauts from the cool-test-pilot days of the Mercury program do not necessarily make the best crew for exploring deep space. But, with the right crew selection and planning, the thinking goes, the first step for man on Mars could turn out to be a giant group hug for mankind.
On Sophie Milam’s first E.V.A. in Hawaii, she had a panic attack. She is twenty-six, the youngest crew member, a former astronomy and physics student at the University of Hawaii campus in nearby Hilo. The task that day was to map a volcanic structure that might hold underground lava tubes. On Mars, such caverns could be useful for shelter in radiation storms. Crew members always wear fake spacesuits on E.V.A.s—mostly yellow hazmat suits that they consider “janky”—but Milam was wearing the good one, with a bubble helmet and fans inside. The suit weighs forty pounds, and Milam labored up a slope of crumbling lava, counting each step. Her teammate Jocelyn Dunn, a doctoral student from Purdue, said that spacesuits provide a pleasant singing-in-the-shower remove from the world. But Milam was thinking about how damp and warm it was inside and, as she wrote later on her blog, how the fans didn’t seem to be working:
Milam had wanted to be an astronaut since she was five. She thought about that—“If you freak out too much they won’t let you go back out in this suit”—as she tried to relax and let the fans catch up. In her ear was the voice of her team partner Allen Mirkadyrov. She told him that she needed a minute to rest. She told herself that the air inside the suit was supposed to be different from the air outside: after all, they were on Mars.
Back inside the dome, after the mapping was completed, she was met by concerned teammates, who had heard heavy breathing on her voice-activated mike. They found a loose electrical connection in the air-intake system and fixed it. A few days later, she went back out in the suit, and soon was the team’s most eager volunteer for trips out of the dome. “Sometimes a girl just needs a spacesuit to feel like a real astronaut,” she wrote me.
“She was sort of getting back on the horse,” Martha Lenio, the group’s commander, said. Lenio grew up with the nickname Mars, but dropped it in the dome, because she kept thinking that people were talking to her. In real life, she is a renewable-energy consultant and has made it to the second round of the Canadian astronaut-selection process. One of the most satisfying parts of dome life, she told me, has been fixing things. The crew members devise projects, such as recycling dishwater through a filter of volcanic soil. They dub funny music into science-outreach videos for school groups. Milam, who was honored by Forbes for her work in nested-tetrahedron tensegrity robots, built a new spacesuit helmet out of duct tape, a pool noodle, and Bubble Wrap. She wrote on her blog, “When you’re trapped in a dome on the side of a volcano with five other nerds, you’d be surprised at how excited people get when you propose a fancy tinfoil hat.”
Thus pass the weeks. The six compete to assemble “from-scratch” meals with freeze-dried ingredients, serving pho, sushi, gumbo, ravioli, and falafel. Exercise is built into their routine, as it would be for astronauts trying to maintain muscle mass in low gravity (Mars has three-eighths the gravity of Earth), and the chatty exhortations of Tony Horton, the self-described “fitness clown” who devised the P90X workout routine, permeate their conversations. The communication lag means no surfing the Internet, but Zak Wilson, who is twenty-eight, speculated that e-mail, even if it’s time-delayed, will help astronauts feel less isolated than old-time sailors trapped in the Antarctic ice. Wilson brought a 3-D printer, and as he finds himself casting about for useful items to make—iPad wall mounts, a Scotch-tape dispenser—he concedes that watching the extruder swing back and forth, depositing tiny bits of material with each pass, is “maybe not a terrible analogy for our stay here.”
Eight months is a long time in a dome, but on a real voyage that’s when the crew might just be reaching its destination. The trip home could be significantly longer. Mars takes about twice as long as Earth to complete an orbit of the sun, and, as the orbits go out of phase, the distance between the planets ranges from thirty-five million miles to more than two hundred million. The designers of a mission face a difficult choice: stay on Mars for a year and a half, waiting for the planets to draw close enough for a quick trip home, or make a sixty-day stopover, which could mean a homeward journey of more than a year—drawing heavily on whatever stores of rocket fuel and human patience remain.
The HI-SEAS crew members have not been immune to homesickness, or to the pressures of monotony and enclosed space. Sometimes one will schedule an E.V.A. just to take a walk outside, or will sneak into the attached supply container to record a private voice mail. The days proceed with little variety apart from the sound of wind or rain on the dome. After passing the midway point, the crew started joking self-consciously about what researchers call the “third-quarter phenomenon,” when energy sometimes flags. Monotony and boredom can be a threat to any expedition’s well-being, as Jack Stuster documented with the Belgica. The mind grows stressed, and makes mistakes, as it searches for new stimulus. In the longest-ever space simulation, a five-hundred-and-twenty-day project in a Moscow warehouse that finished in 2011, lethargy caused withdrawal and perturbed sleep in some participants. The dangers of boredom can be especially acute during the long months of automated travel between planets—the narrative lull that drives screenwriters to do fantastical things with suspended animation and wormholes.
A little more boredom would have been welcome during an analogue study conducted in 1999 by the Institute of Biomedical Problems, in Moscow. A month in, on New Year’s Eve, a fistfight between two Russians left blood splattered on the walls. Minutes later, the crew commander forcibly kissed a female volunteer, a Canadian with a doctorate in health sciences. When she protested, she later recalled, the Russian scientific coördinator reported that she was ruining the atmosphere in the test module. Then she got head lice. A Japanese participant quit in protest. A decade later, when Russia launched its five-hundred-and-twenty-day study, to simulate a trip to Mars and back, all six participants were men. “I guess their solution to the problem of sexual assault was to not have women,” Binsted said.
None of the HI-SEAS crew saw anything surprising about mixing men and women on the crew. In space, women astronauts may have advantages. Kate Greene, a San Francisco writer who took part in an earlier HI-SEAS study, centered on food, mused on Slate about the possibility of an all-woman space crew, arguing that women tend to make a lighter load and to burn fewer calories for the same amount of work. Some researchers in Moscow’s 1999 study insisted that the problems came more from mixing nationalities than from mixing the sexes. But international mixing is likely to become even more common, given the need to share costs of travelling to deep space. Some planners have suggested running teams through remote analogues like the Mauna Loa habitat as a final test.
The only international tension reported in the dome this winter was over Allen Mirkadyrov’s preparation of khingal, served with a creamy dill sauce, which he assured his teammates was nearly as good as the version at the main Azerbaijani bus terminal. (Mirkadyrov, a naturalized U.S. citizen and Air Force veteran who works on orbital-launch vehicles at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan.) For the most part, the crew insists, time is passing quickly, with plenty of the morale-building activity recommended by Fridtjof Nansen: taco nights, competitive board games, group viewings of “Game of Thrones.” On Thanksgiving, the crew members lit up their biometric “actigraphy monitors” with two-step lessons.
Their persistently cheery e-mail updates raise a question: Does a happy crew tell NASA anything useful? Binsted argues that upbeat blog posts don’t always tell the whole story. Small gripes often emerge in the post-study interviews, when subjects know that their replies will be kept anonymous. It was only at the end of one of the four-month food studies in the dome, for instance, that Binsted heard from everyone about the “Nutella incident,” in which a crew member arrogantly finished off the group’s monthly ration, reasoning that the team was scheduled to open a new bin the next day. Stuster’s work with isolated crews found many examples of trivial annoyances growing unbearable, such as complaints from one of Byrd’s Antarctic crewmen about another man’s “way of breathing, his belief in dreams, and his frequent use of the phrase ‘I’m sorry.’ ” Stuster’s latest study for NASA, on private journals kept by astronauts, fairly hisses in places with steam let off by astronauts irritated by overscheduling, by patronizing requests, and by pointless-seeming tasks coming from ground control, such as recording serial numbers on items of trash. In the Mauna Loa dome, crew members simply roll their eyes when Binsted’s far-flung volunteer assistants do something lame, like expecting an immediate response to an e-mail sent when everyone is still asleep, because the sender forgot that sMars, like Hawaii, is not on daylight-saving time. Binsted calls it “crew-ground disconnect,” and deals with the problem in ways that are summarized by her use of the term “mission support,” rather than “mission control.” Her approach has worked, she said, “but we’ve kind of done it on the fly. We need to develop a flow chart and some acronyms, so that NASA can use it.”
Even in a low-drama group, she says, there are bound to be moments: attacks of claustrophobia or arguments over dessert. “We know a lot about how to build bad teams and how to break good teams. Here we try to build the best teams we can, and support them as best we can, and find out when that’s not good enough.” How will such moments affect team performance? In space, a team that’s falling apart will probably be less effective. A team with too much cohesion might be prone to ignoring orders. Sometimes, Binsted will crank up the stress herself, as when she declared the approach of a radiation storm, forcing the crew to evacuate into a lava tube.
Measuring performance is relatively easy. It’s more challenging to find ways to measure, from a distance, how people are getting along. The crew members say that the worst part of the study is having to endure the stress and boredom of answering surveys—about forty each week—asking if they’re feeling stressed or bored. The fishbowl existence of their pet betta fish, Blastoff McRocketboots, seems carefree by comparison. The results from these surveys, along with cognitive tests and exit interviews, will be measured against data collected from biometric monitors and other devices worn by the volunteers. Readouts note the participants’ heart rates, voice levels, and even their proximity to one another. NASA hopes that the data from these and other high-tech mood rings will prove a reliable way to track how astronaut teams are doing without having to rely on self-reporting or on reading between the lines of an e-mail. The essence of the Hawaii experiment may be to make NASA more comfortable with sending crews out of close reach: if humans in space could be monitored a bit more like robots, mission control could spot an emotional cliff coming before the astronauts stumble over it. “Of course,” Binsted said, “there’s still the question of what interventions are actually available when your crew is on Mars.”
Two decades might seem like a long wait between a dress rehearsal and the performance. That’s what Chris McKay thought when he first heard about team-cohesion studies. For years, McKay led an informal national organization known as the Mars Underground, to keep conversation and research going when human deep-space voyages fell into disfavor. “At meetings, you would be ridiculed if you talked about searching for life on Mars. They would ask me, ‘Are you going to bring your butterfly net?’ ” He remains a leading astrobiologist at NASA, and he knows all the obstacles to getting to Mars. Sorting out crew issues didn’t sound like a big priority.
The earliest remote team tests seemed more about engaging the public than about testing systems for Mars. In 1997, a planetary scientist named Pascal Lee argued that his research camp in a vast meteorite crater on Northern Canada’s Devon Island—the largest uninhabited island in the world—would be an ideal place for NASA to model an expeditionary camp. In the end, two research stations operated on Devon Island: one for NASA-funded geological research and tests of spacesuits and rovers, and one for a nonprofit advocacy group called the Mars Society, which invited the Discovery Channel along. The Mars Society later started a second site, in the Utah desert—more accessible to the public and to the media. The desert simulations are short, and their contributions to space science have not been extensive. But, the Mars Society says, more than nine hundred people have taken part.
One of those drawn to the Mars Society projects was Kim Binsted. In 2007, she signed on as the chief scientist for a four-month study on Devon Island—at the time, the longest Mars-analogue mission yet attempted. She was living in Hawaii, having moved there to teach after she launched and crashed a dot-com business in Tokyo. “In terms of stress, startups in Japan and academia in Hawaii pretty much define the spectrum,” she said. She figured that taking part in the analogue project might help her chance of becoming an astronaut.
The Mars Society habitat was not an exact replica of life on Mars, she found. When the crew went on E.V.A.s, one member armed with a rifle had to stay out of a spacesuit to watch for polar bears. Nor did it seem that enough thought had been given to crew compatibility. An expert on human performance in extreme environments who studied Binsted’s group reported that when conflicts arose the women tended to respond with “task coping” (finding a way to deal with the problem) while the men often reverted to “avoidance coping” (ignoring the problem “in favor of pursuing prolonged exploration while on E.V.A.s”). The study also cited reports of “unreciprocated sexual interest” expressed by a person of authority, and resentment from a French-Canadian participant who, forced by the group to sit through the television series “Lost,” complained that the plot was incomprehensible.
Binsted enjoyed the experience, but figured that she could sharpen the concept. In addition to the “geologically relevant” red cinder, Hawaii’s lava beds would not require the down time of the Arctic in winter or the desert in summer. Experiments could be run sequentially, and rely less on anecdote. “The very nature of analogues is that they tend to be one-offs,” she said. “So if we see some things three times in a row we can say, Yeah, this is a thing.”
In 2012, Binsted and her colleagues received half a million dollars from NASA’s human-research program for the first, food-centered study in the dome. Since then, Binsted said, she has encountered occasional wariness from federal officials who are worried that they’ll be accused of encouraging Hawaiian junkets. The former Oklahoma Republican senator Tom Coburn included the food study in the 2012 edition of his government “Wastebook,” mocking the development of “out of this world” recipes for a mission that was decades away.
The project’s biggest obstacle came right at the start, when NASA informed Binsted that the grant could not be used for construction. Suddenly, she was two hundred thousand dollars short. When she went to the University of Hawaii looking for the sum, she found that the university had just lost exactly two hundred thousand dollars, to a sham promoter who pretended that he could bring Stevie Wonder to Honolulu for a concert. Binsted reached out instead to the only millionaire she knew who might care: Henk Rogers, who made a fortune in computer gaming—he holds licensing rights for the game Tetris—and once hosted a weekend gathering for space experts at his Big Island ranch. Rogers agreed to build the dome, and the food study got under way. A second NASA grant, for $1.2 million, followed, in 2013, calling for a series of three studies. The current one is the second; the crew’s record will fall when a twelve-month study follows theirs.
Pascal Lee, who is now drawing up plans for a NASA mission to the Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos, remains a little skeptical of team analogues that lack the stress and danger of a real mission. But he says that they serve an important secondary purpose: they inspire students, which he sees as essential to maintaining America’s leadership among the world’s spacefaring nations. “China landed a space rover on the moon, and within a decade will probably land a human being on the moon,” Lee said. “We pooh-poohed what China is doing. But we’re missing what that program is doing to science education in China. By the time we’re ready to go to Mars, our kids are going to be faced with this space superpower.”
McKay is now a believer for the same reason. “I have the zeal of the converted,” he said. In addition to providing an evangelizing tool, he thinks, the studies have raised useful questions, and this is a good time to ask them. “The technology is going to change,” he said, but “they’ll be the same humans as we have now.”
One evening in March, not long after the crew passed the four-month mark, Martha Lenio checked a wall-mounted iPad in the dome and saw an ominous descending line: the batteries were draining power instead of charging. Solar power is always scarce in the dome; to retain enough battery life for a normal night, the crew members cook dinner while the sun is still up. That week, through several days of rain and clouds, they’d been bundling up for warmth, boiling quick freeze-dried meals, and skipping movies at night. Even so, they’d run through their backup hydrogen cells, and they couldn’t get more gasoline for their generator—Binsted’s truck had broken down on her way back from a David Sedaris talk in Hilo—so they were running on their last jerrican. The triple-redundant system was failing. On Mars, such a scenario would put their life support at risk. The team made some emergency calculations. In a matter of hours, they would lose the fan on their composting toilet.
Two crew members put on hazmat suits and went out with flashlights, waiting three minutes in the entry to simulate pressurization, but could find no problem. They went “out of sim” briefly, texting a mission-support technician for help troubleshooting, with no luck. So the crew came up with a plan. They shut off the lights in the dome and turned off the heat. They ran basic telemetry off the batteries and plugged an extension cord from the generator into their three highest priorities: the toilet fan, the refrigerator holding four months’ worth of frozen urine and saliva samples for NASA, and the tank heater for Blastoff McRocketboots.
In the morning, a technician drove up the mountain and fixed the generator. The crew remained inside, still buzzing from the change to their routine. “It was cold and dark, but it was also kind of fun to have a real challenge to step up to,” Lenio wrote on her blog.
Binsted told me that the crew members seemed to have performed well under pressure. “There was a lot of potential for crew-ground disconnect, and, although I’m sure they felt some frustration with mission support, they kept communications constructive and professional. They also managed to do a lot of troubleshooting and fallback planning on their own, which was impressive.” Given the difficulties of monitoring team dynamics from a distance, she said, she looked forward to seeing the data. “Maybe my perception is completely off!”
A few days later, Lenio sent me a voice message. I had asked if she thought that people in her generation would ever walk on Mars. She told me that she thought they had a shot—or at least a shot at being alive when it happened. She pictured a crew like theirs, working under a red sky, building a habitat with very little margin for error. When she was a graduate student in Australia, she said, she got disoriented at night, because there was no Big Dipper and the moon was upside down. “I think those kinds of moments would happen to you all the time on Mars,” she said. “When you looked out the window, the sky wouldn’t be blue. You’d get that sense of awe all the time—new surprises every day.” In Hawaii, they were isolated and alone, on the side of an active volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But, as the power failure showed, it will be very different for the first settlers in outer space. “If life support goes down here, we’re not going to freeze to death, or we’re not going to lose all our oxygen. O.K., yeah, the habitat smells like crap, and the situation really sucks. But at the end of the day we don’t die.”