UH to Study What Happens When Mars Attacks Your Emotions

Atop Mauna Loa on the Big Island, pretend astronauts will soon begin training to face some of the trickiest problems imaginable: their feelings.

In a little over two weeks, six specially selected crew members will spend four months within a solar-powered dome—the Hab, as they call it—to study what might happen to a person’s psychology when camping out on Mars with five others, if, or when, we should ever get there. It’s the second of four simulated Mars voyages to take place over the next two years.

Kim Binsted, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii, acts as the principal investigator for UH’s HI-SEAS missions. HI-SEAS is short for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, a series of experiments that look at what long-term life might be like for scientists on Mars. Turns out an abandoned quarry 8,000 feet up the northern slope of Mauna Loa is one of the most Martian-like environments on Earth.

The first HI-SEAS experiment looked at how a crew would cook on Mars, but this study’s primary aim is to focus on team dynamics, group interactions, and the emotional well-being of the crew.

“We’re working on addressing potential communication problems and improving [them],” says Binsted, who cites a “three-quarters problem” with astronauts-in-training who may experience melancholy and frustration.

“In the beginning, they’re excited about the program. By the second phase, they’ve settled into the routine and have become familiar with expectations and responsibilities, and in the last phase, they’re gearing up to return home,” she says. “It’s the three-quarters point where we see signs of depression and difficulties.”

The crew assembled for HI-SEAS 2 consists of three men and three women, including a US Air Force Reserve officer (Casey Stedman), a psychologist with a PhD in neuropsychology (Dr. Ron Williams), and a biologist for the University of North Dakota’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory (Tiffany Swarmer). And, just like astronauts, these crew members are expected to bring with them a research project they will complete while inside the Hab.

“Crew cohesion, that very question—how to keep astronauts sane and happy and productive on a long-duration mission—is a real risk and we are going to go a long way toward solving that,” Binsted said in a 2013 interview.

Although these experiments will be self-contained and will only monitor the six individuals in the bio-dome, the effects of the project are widespread.

“[This experiment] is an inexpensive way to resolve problems before we venture into outer space,” says Binsted, who also mentions that programs such as HI-SEAS boost visibility for the UH-Manoa science department and bring NASA dollars into the state.

Deep space/isolation enthusiasts can learn more and follow the experiments at HI-SEAS.org.

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