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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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.

Watch Live: ‘Mars’ Crew Emerges From Simulation After 120 Days

If you spent 120 days cooped up in a small habitat with six people, what’s the first thing you’d want to do upon emerging? Celebration would likely be one of them, and you can watch the festivities as the HI-SEAS crew leaves their Mars simulation later today.

The broadcast takes place between 2 p.m. EDT and 4 p.m. EDT (6 p.m. and 8 p.m. UTC) and you can watch everything above. As with all live events, the schedule can always change at the last minute.

HI-SEAS (an acronym for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) is one of a number of simulated space missions that have taken place on Earth. The Mars Society regularly runs missions at its Mars Desert Research Station and Flashline Arctic Mars Station. There also was an effort called Mars 500, which saw a crew spend more than 500 days in a habitat to simulate the length of a Mars mission.

The goal of simulations such as these is to test out processes that could be used in space, and also to see how humans behave. There is considerable debate about how accurate these simulations are in comparison to spaceflight. There are obvious physical differences such as gravity, and some argue that the psychological aspects are different as well — in many cases, crews can easily open a door to escape others on Earth, while in space it’s not that simple.

As is the usual for space missions, though, HI-SEAS has strived to keep the public apprised of their activities through pictures and through videos. Coming up sometime afterwards will be the results of the scientific experiments.

Full disclosure: I am a classmate of HI-SEAS crew member Tiffany Swarmer’s in the Space Studies department at the University of North Dakota. She and the department have not asked me to write this article, nor were they aware of its publication before it went online.

Members of the 2nd Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) crew get dressed up for May 4, sometimes called "Star Wars day" because the date plays on a famous expression from the movie: "May the force be with you." Credit: Ross Lockwood/Instagram
Members of the 2nd Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) crew get dressed up for May 4, sometimes called “Star Wars day” because the date plays on a famous expression from the movie: “May the force be with you.” Credit: Ross Lockwood/Instagram

Insta-Mars: Crew Wraps Up Mock Mission With Pictures Of Their Hawaiian Adventure

It’s the final countdown for a hardy group of people who have been on “Mars” for the past four months. On Friday (July 25), the HI-SEAS crew will make their return after simulating Red Planet exploration in Hawaii. And you can bet there are certain things they are missing about the outside world, or “Earth”.

“I haven’t seen a tree, smelled the rain, heard a bird, or felt wind on my skin in four months,” said Casey Stedman, the commander of the latest Hawai’i-Space Exploration and Analog Simulation, said in a statement on Instagram’s blog yesterday (July 20). Added chief technologist Ross Lockwood, “We’ve basically been subsisting on mush. Flavorful mush, but mush nonetheless.”

Despite the sacrifices, there’s a certain excitement to doing four solid months of experiments and “spacewalks” and other Martian activities. Luckily for us, the crew has been liveblogging their adventures on social media! Below the jump is some of their best Instagram photos from the trip.

HI-SEAS aims to closely simulate Mars exploration. The University of Hawaii runs the site, and every field season volunteers apply to participate in the missions. The first mission took place in 2012 and lasted 118 days. This mission is taking place in the same location, high on the slope of the Mauna Loa volcano.

Besides Instagram, some of the crew members are also accessible on Twitter. You can follow them at @rosslockwood, @Space_Chicken_, @TSwarmer and @casey_stedman. You can also read more about HI-SEAS on its official site.

Edit, July 24: Angelo Vermeulen (the commander of the first HI-SEAS mission last year) has just opened an Instagram account of his own where he is uploading pictures of the mission.

Full disclosure: I am a classmate of Tiffany Swarmer’s in the Space Studies department at the University of North Dakota. She and the department have not asked me to write this article, nor were they aware of its publication before it went online.

Sunset over Maui from Mauna Loa, as seen from the #HISEAS habitat #Mars #Space #Hawaii #NASA #NoFilter

Chicken tortilla soup with freshly baked corn bread. #HISEAS

The #HISEAS crew learns about Hawaiian vulcanism during their geology field lessons

May the Fourth Be With You – From your #HISEAS crew.

The 3 Americans of the 2nd #HISEAS crew celebrate #IndependenceDay #Mars #Hawaii #Space #NASA

Commander @casey_stedman and I are heading out on a sample collecting EVA. #HISEAS

Volcanic tephra from Kilauea Iki eruption- could similar deposits be found on #Mars? #HISEAS #Planetary

Just a little reading to learn about the responsibilities of commanding a space mission #HISEAS #Spaceflight #Astronaut #Science #ISS #NASA

Fresh lettuce on sMars courtesy of Lucie Poulet (@Space_Chicken_)! #HISEAS

It’s a good day to record sMars’ first podcast. #HISEAS

Crew quarters inside of the#HISEAS habitat module

Multitasking at its finest. #HISEAS

Simulating an EVA during the #HISEAS analog mission #Mars #Hawaii #Space #NASA

sTent accomplished. #HISEAS

The things I put up while while out on EVA. #HISEAS

The Kilauea Caldera as seen by the #HISEAS crew during their geology field lessons in Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park