This is the Habitat in Hawaii Helping Astronauts Preparing to Explore Mars

When it comes time to send astronauts to Mars, those who make the journey will need to be ready for a number of challenges. In addition to enduring about six-months in space both ways, the first astronauts to explore Mars will also need to be prepared to spend months living on the surface. This will consist of long periods spent in a pressurized habitat and regular forays to the surface wearing pressure suits.
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Weekly Space Hangout – Jan 31, 2018: Andrzej Stewart of the Hi-SEAS IV Mars Simulation Mission

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guest:
Andrzej Stewart currently works in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. However, from 2015-2016, Andrzej acted as the Chief Engineering Officer during the year-long Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (Hi-SEAS) IV Mars simulation mission on Mauna Loa. Prior to that he participated in NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) simulation where he acted as the flight engineer.

Aside from his mission-simulation participation, Andrzej has extensive design and engineering experience within the space program having worked on projects such as Spitzer, NASA’s Deep Space Network, and the Orion spacecraft.

You can read about Andrzej’s time “”on Mars”” and learn more about him by visiting his blog, Surfing with the Aliens.

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Can We Get Space Madness?

If you’ve watched any Ren and Stimpy cartoons, you know that one of the greatest hazards of spaceflight is “space madness”. Only exposure to the isolation and all pervasive radiation of deep space could drive an animated chihuahua into such a state of lunacy.

What will happen if they press the history eraser button? Maybe something good? Maybe something bad? I guess, we’ll never know.

Of course, Ren and Stimpy weren’t the first fictionalized account of people losing their marbles when they fly into the inky darkness of space. There were the Reavers from Firefly, that crazy Russian cosmonaut in Armageddon, almost everyone in the movie Sunshine, and it was the problem in every second episode of Star Trek.

The Icarus Pathfinder starship passing by Neptune. Credit: Adrian Mann
The Icarus Pathfinder starship passing by Neptune. Credit: Adrian Mann

According to movies and television, if you’ve got space madness, you and your crewmates are in for a rough ride. If you’re lucky, you merely hallucinate those familiar space sirens, begging you to take off your space helmet and join them for eternity on that asteroid over there.

But you’re just as likely to go homicidal, turning on your crewmates, killing them one by one as a dark sacrifice to the black hole that powers your ship’s stardrive.  And whatever you do, don’t stare too long at that pulsar, with its hypnotic, rhythmic pulse. The isolation, the alien psycho-waves, dark whisperings from eldritch gods speak to you though the paper-thin membrane of sanity. If we go to space, does only madness await us?

If you’ve spent any time around human beings, you know that we’ve got our share of mental disease right here on Earth. You don’t have to travel to space to suffer depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders.

Once we’re in orbit, or prancing about on the surface, of Mars, we’re going to experience our share of human physical and mental frailties. We’re going to take our basic humanity to space, including our brains.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18% of the US population, or 40 million Americans suffer from some variety of anxiety-related disorder. 6.7% of adults had a major, crippling depressive episode over the course of a year.

Unless we improve treatment outcomes for mental disorders here on Earth, we can expect to see similar outcomes in space. Especially once we make exploration a little safer, and we’re not concerned with our immediate exposure to the vacuum of space. But will going to space make things worse?

Outside view of the Mir space station. Credit: NASA
Outside view of the Mir space station. Credit: NASA

NASA has carried out two studies on astronaut psychological health studies. One for the cosmonauts and astronauts on the Mir space station, and a second study for the folks on the International Space Station. They tested both the folks in space as well as their ground support staff once a week, to see how they were doing.

Although they reported some tension, there was no loss in mood or group cohesion during the mission. The crews had better cohesion when they had an effective leader on board.

Isolation working in close quarters has been heavily studied here on Earth, with submarine crews and isolated groups at research bases in Antarctica.

United States members of the second HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) crew celebrate Independence Day during their simulated 120-day Mars mission. Credit: Casey Stedman/Instagram
A previous HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. This one was only for 120 days. Credit: Casey Stedman/Instagram

Earlier this year, a crew of simulated Mars astronauts emerged, unharmed from a year-long isolation experiment in Hawaii. The six international crewmembers were part of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation experiment, to see what would happen to potential Mars explorers, stuff on the surface of the red planet for a year.

They couldn’t leave their 110 square-meter (1,200 square-foot) habitat without a spacesuit on. What did they report? Mostly boredom. Some interpersonal issues. Now that they’re out, some are good friends, and others probably won’t stay in contact, or pay too much attention to them in their Facebook feed.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t seem like there’s too much of a risk from the isolation and close quarters. Well, nothing that we’re not used to dealing with as human beings.

But there is another problem that has revealed itself, and might be much more severe: space dementia. And we’re not talking about the song from Muse.

According to researchers from the University of California, Irvine, long term exposure to the radiation of deep space will cause significant damage to our fragile human brains. Or at least, that’s what happened to a group of rats bathed in radiation at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at New York’s Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Over time, the damage to their brains would cause astronauts to experience a type of dementia that causes anxiety. Brain cancer patients who receive radiation treatment are prone to this as well.

Artist's concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA

During the months and years of a Mars mission, astronauts would take a large dose of radiation, even with shielding, and the effects would be harmful to their bodies and to their brains. In fact, even when the astronauts return to Earth, their condition might worsen, with more anxiety, depression, memory problems, and a loss of decision making ability. This is a serious problem that needs to be solved if humans are going to live for a long time outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere.

It turns out, science fiction space madness isn’t a real thing, it’s a plot device like warp drives, teleporters, and light sabers.

Isolation and close proximity isn’t much of a problem, we’ve dealt with it before, and we can still work with people, even though we hate them and the way they slurp their coffee, and lean back on their chair, even though that thing is totally going to break and they’re going to hurt themselves. And they won’t stop doing it, no matter how many times we ask them to stop.

Once again, radiation in space is a big problem. It’s out there, it’s everywhere, and we don’t have a great way to protect against it. Especially when it wrecks our brains.

Welcome to Mars! – Hi-SEAS and Mars Society Kick Off New Season of Missions

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (aka. Hi-SEAS) – a human spaceflight analog for Mars located on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii – just kicked off its third research mission designed to simulate manned missions on Mars.

Located at an elevation of 2500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level, the analog site is located in a dry, rocky environment that is very cold and subject to very little precipitation. While there, the crew of Mission Three will conduct detailed research studies to determine what is required to sustain a space flight crew during an extended mission to Mars and while living on Mars.

The six-member team includes Martha Lenio (Commander), Allen Mirkadyrov, Sophie Milam, Neil Sheibelhut, Jocelyn Dunn, and Zak Wilson, with Ed Fix and Micheal Castro in Reserve. This crew will spend the next 254 days living in conditions that closely resemble those present on the Martian surface.

Research into food, crew dynamics, behaviors, roles and performance, and other aspects of space flight and a mission on Mars itself is the primary focus. This will be the third of four research missions conducted by Hi-SEAS and funded by the NASA Human Research Program. The information gleaned from these research studies, it is hoped, will one day help NASA conduct its own manned missions to the Red Planet.

Artist conception of a Hi-SEAS habitation dome. Credit: Blue Planet Research/Bryan Christie Design
Artist conception of a Hi-SEAS habitation dome. Credit: Blue Planet Research/Bryan Christie Design

For the course of their research studies, the crew will be living in a dome that is 11 meters (36 feet) in diameter and has a living area of about 93 square meters (1000 square feet). The dome also has a second level that is loftlike – providing a high-ceiling is crucial to combating long-term feelings of claustrophobia.

The six crew members will sleep in pie-slice-shaped staterooms, each of which contains a mattress, desk and stool. Their clothing is stored under the bed, which sits at the wide side of the slice. They do their business in a series of composting toilets that turn their repurposed feces (the pathogens are removed) into a potential source of fertilizer for the next mission.

A workout area provides the astronauts with an opportunity to stay in shape with such exercises as video aerobics, juggling, and balloon volleyball.  And communications are conducted through NASA-issued email addresses – with an artificial delay to simulate the time lag from Mars – and access to a web made of cached, nondynamic pages.

To complete the illusion of being on Mars, when the crew are not in their pressurized habitation dome, they will be walking around in space suits. The mission will conclude on July 14th, 2015, with a fourth and final mission to take place at a so-far undetermined date.

Image Credit: Mars Society MRDS
The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah.
Credit: Mars Society MRDS

In related news, the Mars Society announced yesterday that Crew 142 arrived at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah to begin the 2014-15 MDRS field season. Crew 142, consisting of seven people, is the first of three crews composed of finalists for the planned Mars Arctic 365 (MA365) mission that will serve at MDRS for two weeks of training and testing.

Once their training is complete, crew 142 will be shipping off to the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) located on Devon Island in northern Canada, followed shortly behind by the other MA365 finalists, for a year-long research stint.

Much like the Hi-SEAS project, the Mars Society is a non-profit space advocacy organization that is dedicated to promoting the human exploration and settlement of Mars. Established by Dr. Robert Zubrin and colleagues in 1998, the organization works to educate the public, the media, and government on the benefits of Mars exploration and the importance of planning a manned mission in the coming decade.

For the next two weeks, the seven finalists will be engaged in activities designed to simulate conditions on another planet. For the duration, they will be living and working in the Mars Analog Research Stations (MARS) – a prototype of the habitat that the Mars Society plans to eventually land on Mars and serves as the crew’s main base as they explore the harsh Martian environment.

FMARS hab with Mars flag in foreground. Credit: Mars Society
FMARS hab with Mars flag in foreground. Credit: Mars Society

Ultimately, these analog experiments offer NASA and other space research groups the opportunity to carry out field research in a variety of key scientific and engineering disciplines that will help prepare humans to explore Mars in the coming years.

For one, it lets research crews know what kinds of work they can physically do when fully suited up, and just how well their suits can hold up to months’ worth of activity. At the same time, it allows for psychological studies and human factor issues – like testing the effects of isolation on human beings, and whether or not the habitats will suffice for long periods of occupation.

Above all, it lets us see how human beings with different skills sets and tasks can function together as a whole in a Martian environment. On any given day, astronauts in these analog environments are tasked with working within the pressurized habitats, out in the field, or far away using pressurized rovers or un-pressurized vehicles.

At the same time, it offers the opportunity for research crews to test out being in an isolated environment, connected to mission control and the terrestrial scientific community only through official communications.

And of course, there’s also the matter of the astronauts’ being connected to each other and robots in the field. Making these different assets work together to achieve the maximum possible exploration effect requires developing a combined operations approach, which is another aim of Hi-SEAS, the Mars Society, and other research groups.

Further Reading: Hi-SEAS, Mars Society