The occasions when it’s justifiable to trot out the well-worn opening lines of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”) are few and far between, but their citation by an authoritative space scientist in relation to the problems of a manned mission to Mars is surely one of them. For in addition to the considerable practical obstacles to getting to Mars, there is that other matter of making sure a small crew of several people who will be trapped together in close confinement for several years continue to work together, ideally with no blood shed in reduced or zero gravity.

Members of the current HI-SEAS team walk across lava in simulated spacesuits. Photo: HI-SEAS V crew / University of Hawaii.

This is one of the key aims of the NASA-funded HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) programme, in which crews of six people are exiled to a compact solar-powered dome on a Hawaiian volcano for up to 12 months with only each other for company.

“What we find with our crews is that when they’re working well together, they’re very similar to each other. However, each crew has had different sources of conflict and crisis,” Dr. Kim Binsted, the principle investigator on the HI-SEAS project and a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the U.S., told the audience during a lecture at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) on Thursday.

The project has recorded conflict over leadership-followership approaches, personal clashes and conflicts caused by stressors from back on Earth: all sorts of different things can set off these conflicts, she said.

“You really can’t avoid conflict altogether, so instead what you want to do is to pick crews that are good at responding to conflict: they’re resilient when they’re in conflict and they can come back from conflict and return to a high-functioning and cohesive state,” said Binsted.

Dr. Kim Binsted giving a lecture at Skoltech on Thursday. Photo:

There are other groups working on the tricky practicalities of getting to Mars, dealing with the radiation both en route and on Mars itself, and the lack of resources, including water. Binsted’s team focuses on the problems of the mission duration (the first missions to Mars are expected to last from two-and-a-half to three years), the isolation of the astronauts, and their psychological health: not just individual, but collectively.

Simulating space

To discover potential problems that scientists might not have expected and learn how to solve them, the HI-SEAS project was conceived as an analog mission, in which conditions replicate those of living in a station on Mars, as much as possible. The site on the Mauna Loa volcano at over 8,000 feet was selected due to its isolation and landscape: there are very few signs of human activity around the site, virtually no plants or animals, and the location on the site of a lava flow resembles that of a young Mars, said Binsted.

Inside the small dome, conditions also resemble those on board a space station. Downstairs is an exercise and dining area, a kitchen and lab area, while upstairs houses six tiny individual bedrooms with locking doors for privacy. The dome has two composting toilets, and participants are limited to 8 minutes of shower time per person per week, though the last crew managed to reduce their use to an impressively economical 1 minute, said Binsted.

The crew can only go outside wearing simulation space suits, and only to perform tasks similar to those that would be required on a real Mars mission, such as conducting geological fieldwork. Participants live according to the Mars day, which is 40 minutes longer than an Earth day, and have access to email, but there is a delay of 20-40 minutes in sending and receiving communications, as there would be on Mars.

It’s not hard to imagine what sort of problems could develop under these conditions, and Binsted knows from firsthand experience, having taken part in a four-month Mars analog study in the Arctic. The longest HI-SEAS project lasted 12 months, and to her relief, “six people came in, and six people came out – no fewer, and no more,” she laughed.

The project began back in 2013 with a four-month study focusing on food. Now on its third grant from NASA and its fifth mission – an eight-month one – the team is currently recruiting for its next mission, which will also last eight months.

“Four months seems to be too short for psychological crises: the kind of people we select for these missions can tough it out for four months,” said Binsted. “You start to see the cracks round about six months, so that would also be too short, because they would be just leaving the habitat. Between eight and 12 months, you don’t tend to see new problems in our experience. The problems you’ve already seen might get a bit worse, or they might even get better, so we’re starting to settle on eight being quite a good number,” she said.

The dome on a Hawaiian volcano that participants live in during their simulated long-duration mission to Mars. Photo: HI-SEAS V crew / University of Hawaii.

HI-SEAS selects participants with similarities with real astronauts, such as people with a background in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and experience in a complex technical environment where mistakes can costs lives, such as pilots, deep sea divers or doctors, said Binsted. To try to reduce the likelihood of the team splitting into factions, the HI-SEAS team tries to obtain a demographic balance among the crew in terms of gender, nationality and age, though inevitably, like other space simulation programmes, they find that most people who are willing to take up to a year out from their regular lives are either young people or people in their late 50s and early 60s, she explained. The training is not as extensive as for astronauts, though one crew was lucky enough to train at a wilderness school at the same time as a team of real astronauts.

Detecting trouble

One of the issues complicating the prospect of real Mars missions is that researchers have found that analog long-duration mission crew members tend to be reluctant to say when there is a relationship problem until it becomes quite serious, Binsted explained. Many studies are underway to passively detect when something’s wrong, including one in which the crew wear sociometric badges that relay the location of all the crew members and the volume of their voices. This enables the ground crew to monitor whether people are raising their voices when talking to a specific crew member, or whether two crew members appear to be avoiding each other altogether.

This tends to work better than recording onboard conversations outright, as that invades crew privacy, Binsted explained. 

“This isn’t just a research ethics issue,” she said. “When people have tried to use equipment on the Space Station that invades crew privacy, it’s really weird, but that equipment breaks mysteriously – it’s just very delicate somehow,” she said wryly. “If your study relies on invading group privacy, it’s not going to be tolerated.”

Participants of the year-long HI-SEAS project exit the dome they called home at the end of their mission. Photo: University of Hawaii.

If differences are minimal and the crew is cohesive, their performance tends to be better, but a cohesive crew is also more autonomous, and that, ironically, can exacerbate other risks. An autonomous crew is more likely to decide that they know better than ground control, and one of the potential problems seen on any space mission is that of a mutiny by the astronauts up in space against Mission Control. Over long periods of time, space crew members may start to resent the ground crew – who are free to go home at night – and feel that Mission Control are overworking them. In 1973, the three-man crew of Skylab 4 on the first American space station rebelled six weeks into their 85-day mission, announcing that they were taking a day off, and turning off radio communication with NASA’s ground control.

Knowing these things can happen doesn’t necessarily help to prevent them, said Binsted. And in analog Mars missions, there is a time delay in communications of up to 25 minutes, to imitate what conditions would be on Mars.

“Right now, activity on the International Space Station is scheduled down to the minute, and the station is flown from the ground. The astronauts do what they’re told, mostly, and they don’t have a lot of autonomy. A Mars crew, because of the time delay, the isolation and the long mission duration, they’re necessarily going to be much more autonomous, and ground control is going to be much less in control,” said Binsted.

The HI-SEAS project is one of several researching various aspects of a mission to Mars. Last year, a group of Skoltech students spent just over two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, located in the Utah desert. And from 2007 to 2011, the Mars-500 mission was carried out in Moscow by Russia, the European Space Agency and China. In that experiment, three crews simulated a 520-day mission in a mock-up spacecraft. Binsted said that one of her goals in visiting Moscow was to set up some joint projects.

Several Skolkovo startups are working on solutions relating to human spaceflight, including biomed company 3D Bioprinting Solutions, which plans to make a magnetic 3D bioprinter that will print tissue and organ constructs on board the ISS by 2018. The aim of the project is to monitor the negative effect of space radiation on human tissue over a long period of time in order to develop ways to counter its effect.