NASA Mars Simulation Ends After Year In Isolation

by Joseph D. Lyons

The seemingly hardest part of a manned mission to Mars might be the technological advancements that need to happen to support human life on a planet so unlike our own. But there's another key element that NASA wants to work out: the human psychological impact. As in, determining whether a group of humans can live together in isolation for one to three years. That's how long some imagine any future manned mission will last. So to test it, NASA recreated a Mars settlement in Hawaii, and the time invested by participants was insane.

The "Mars" mission just ended — an entire year after it began. The Guardian reported that the settlement was a dome set up on Mauna Loa, on the big island. It's thought to be a bit like the Red Planet, as it's one of the five volcanoes that make up the island. That means the ground is similar to what would exist on Mars and there's no vegetation because of the altitude, 8,200 feet above sea-level. In other words, no cheating by picking pineapples or bananas mid-year. Plus the method for gathering water was similar to what would be tried on Mars.

Sounds realistic, right? Even more true-to-life was the alone time with the other "astronauts." The University of Hawaii, the group that carried out the NASA-funded experiment, selected four Americans, a Frenchman, and a German to try out the close quarters. Mission Commander Carmel Johnston explained what it was like to BBC News: "It is kind of like having roommates that just are always there and you can never escape them so I'm sure some people can imagine what that is like and if you can't then just imagine never being able to get away from anybody."

That was essentially the crux of the experiment. Could these people — the group included journalists, pilots, and soil scientists — get along for a whole year living on limited resources and no fresh air? Any time they left the dome they had to don a space suit. BBC News reported that rations included canned tuna and powdered cheese. The only personal space was a room with a sleeping cot and desk.

In the end, though, it sounds like it was worth it. Speaking to the media upon leaving the "settlement," French crew member Cyprien Verseux, an astrobiologist, said Mars seemed closer than ever to him. "I can give you my personal impression which is that a mission to Mars in the close future is realistic," he said as quoted by BBC News. "I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome."

This is the second-longest Mars simulation ever, after a Russian experiment that lasted 520 days. If you're dying to "go" to Mars, Mashable reported that the University of Hawaii researchers are already searching for the next round of participants. The next mission will last eight months and begins in January, and applications are due at the beginning of September. You may fulfill your childhood dream of being an astronaut after all.