This article was taken from the September 2013 issue of Wired magazine. Be the first to read Wired’s articles in print before they’re posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online.
Kim Binsted has already been to Mars — or a version of it. In 2007, the University of Hawaii artificial-intelligence professor flew to the Canadian High Arctic to live with six other researchers for four months in a Mars-analogue environment. Part of a study run by the Mars Society, it tested the extreme psychological factors that come into play on long-duration space missions: sleep changes, isolation, stress, fragile group-dynamics and more. Now, Binsted is overseeing her own Nasa-funded Mars simulation in Hawaii, in which a team will go on four “missions” over the next three years. Here’s how she checks for the right stuff, while staying here on Earth.
Isolate yourself from all other humans Binsted’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, dubbed HI-SEAS, is situated 2,600 metres up on the jagged, red slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. The lava desert is completely isolated — with little plant life and no ocean visible in the distance — recreating the experience of staring out on to a vast expanse of red rubble on the surface of Mars. The only real human contact the “astronauts” have is with each other. Internet correspondence with “mission support” is delayed by the Mars-Earth 18-minute difference.
Get used to breathing recycled air Constantly confined astronauts on Mars quickly forget the feeling of fresh air. So when leaving their roughly 92-square-metre geodesic dome habitat to conduct geological fieldwork on-site — part of their job to scientifically characterise the area — the HI-SEAS crew strap into hazmat suits redesigned to have the look and (encumbering) feel of space suits. To do this, Binsted found Jessica Cruzan, a designer with the Hawaii Maker Group. Cruzan made the suits inflatable — giving the bulk of a real spacesuit without adding excess weight.
Spice up your space food with extra ingredients Eating the same meals for months on end causes a space-flight phenomenon called “menu fatigue” — astronauts lose interest in food, either because gravity changes their sense of taste, or as a side effect of boredom. Some return to Earth malnourished. On their first mission, HI-SEAS compared two broad kinds of foods: pre-prepared Nasa fare, and a variety of shelf-stable, freeze-dried ingredients. “If you send up lasagne, it will always be lasagne,” Binsted says. Sending ingredients allows the crew to prepare what they’d like to eat.
Experiment with gravity changes To complement the food tests conducted on HI-SEAS’s first mission, a separate Nasa centre in Galveston, Texas, measured the effects of gravity on the perception of smell and taste by having participants lie in bed with their feet slightly raised — for 70 days. Such “bedrest” facilities simulate the physiological effects that changes in gravity impart on the human body, such as muscle wastage. Ultimately, though, Binsted says, “You can’t make the perfect analogue; the only perfect analogue is Mars itself.”