Meet the 6 scientists living out 'The Martian' in real life


The six-person crew flew into Kona airport about a week before their Mars mission was about to start. They spent their last free days on Earth practicing putting on their space suits and operating their new habitat’s water, power and communications systems. The crew took care to enjoy the sun and the Hawaiian breeze as they wouldn’t feel either directly on their skin for another 365 days. On the last Thursday in August, they had their final earthly supper, a Japanese feast of sushi and sake.

The next morning, the crew—a medical doctor, a soil scientist, a flight engineer, a physicist, an astrobiologist and an architect specializing in human habitats in extreme environments—entered their new home-and-work space, a 1,400-square foot dome that is as close to living on another planet as Earth-bound humans can currently get. Like Matt Damon’s botanist character in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, these six scientists are finding out what it takes to survive on Mars for a year.

Atop the Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii, at almost 1.6 miles above sea level, Earth looks a lot like Mars. There are reddish rocks as far as the eye can see. There are no humans nearby; the only trace of civilization is the outline of an observatory 35 miles away on the Mauna Kea volcano. The state’s iconic, tourist-filled beaches might as well be on another planet.

And that’s the point. Humans have never been to Mars. The first people to make it there will be alone, millions of miles and, on average, half a year’s worth of travel time away from home. Together, they’ll have to tame the land and learn to survive off its resources, or perish—not unlike the conquistadors who set sail from the Old World centuries ago for lands unknown.

This is the fourth crew to take part in a NASA-funded research project called HI-SEAS (short for Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. We might call these fake travelers to Mars Earthtronauts. The goal is to study what happens when people are forced to live in close quarters with little interaction with the outside world—there’s no official rule against romantic relationships—and to figure out what technologies work best and under what conditions. The crew is, for example, 3-D printing surgical tools for use in medical emergencies. They may do a mock operation with help from a surgeon “back on Earth” to see if interplanetary telemedicine works.

It’s a high-tech charade, but the science is very much real. The crew’s astrobiologist is trying to figure out how to make food and oxygen on Mars so we could live off the land there. One possible technique so far is using cyanobacteria, microbes that can make their own food. These tiny organisms might be able to convert molecules in rocks—which Mars has plenty of—into the nutrients plants need. One day, Martian farmers could use batches of cyanobacteria as fertilizers to enrich the red planet’s dirt to grow plants.

Insights like this are why would-be astronauts are so keen on getting the chance to participate, despite the toll that months of absence can take on personal relationships back home.

“I want to be an astronaut,” Andrzej Stewart, the chief engineer, said before embarking on HI-SEAS. “People think of astronauts as launching aboard a rocket or floating in deep space. But there’s more to it. HI-SEAS will give me a taste of the whole package and what it really takes to live in a closed habitat.”

The crew, whose ages range from 25 to 36, can talk with their families only through email, but there’s a 20-minute delay in both directions, so dialogue is slow. Blogs and social media are their only other gateways to the world outside their dome home. That’s how I made contact with “Mars.” I emailed with crew members and read their blogs and Twitter feeds, which they update through a publishing platform called Buffer. Otherwise, their internet is limited to a weather forecasting site and Dropbox.

The isolation is hard. Stewart, for instance, has a wife. She wants to be an astronaut too, so she understands his ambitions, but they’re still millions of imaginary miles away from each other, without a chance of a kiss or a cuddle. Other family members’ reactions to the mission range from proud to elated and confused. People ask, “Are you leaving Earth or aren’t you?,” Sheyna Gifford, the medical doctor, told me in an email.

Gifford, who comes across as feisty and opinionated in electronic communications and her blog, has been a bread-maker since college and has been baking loafs of sourdough for the crew. (She has a scientist’s sense of humor: she nicknamed the starter batch Bob.)

All of the crew members are athletic types who love the outdoors and usually spend their free time fishing, climbing, swimming, and sky diving—activities that aren’t currently options on Mars. Astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux, a French graduate student, plans to learn to play the ukulele while on Mars. Chief scientific officer and physicist Christiane Heinicke, who blogs in German and likes to dance, says her family questioned her sanity when she decided to participate in HI-SEAS, but she was “unchangeably intrigued by the possibility of living like a Mars explorer.” Crew Commander Carmel Johnston is a soil scientist and Montana native who loves exploring national parks. “My favorite things include being outside,” she writes in her bio. “Yes it’s weird that I’m spending a year in a dome.”

“Whenever you travel, you’ll find you miss things from home, but you become accustomed to your surroundings and find that you enjoy what’s around you rather than pining for what isn’t,” writes Johnston in her blog.

If you’re going to read one crew member’s blog, it should be that of Tristan Bassingthwaighte, the mission’s enthusiastic architect; he uses about 60 exclamation points in a single post. He loves photography and art so his blog is peppered with beautiful images of the crew exploring “Mars” and their tasty-looking meals. He’s an accomplished artist; he recently designed a retro-looking logo for the mission with flags of the crew’s four nationalities—U.S., Germany, France, and U.K.—as well as icons representing each team member’s specialty. (It looks like he gave himself Dr. Who’s Tardis.) Making illustrations is “his major hobby” in space, he told me in an email.

This isn’t the first trip to fake space for some of the crew. Lead engineer Andrzej Stewart, who used to work as a spacecraft flight controller and is using drones to “explore Mars” and monitor “space walks,” recently served as the flight engineer for two weeks in NASA’s three-story fake space house.

There are several space habitats here on Earth. Most run simulations that last just a couple of weeks. But The Mars Society, a space advocacy group, operates a facility that hosts four-month-long missions. Only one other has sent fauxonauts “to space” longer than this HI-SEAS mission: Mars500, sponsored by the Institute for Biomedical Problems and the European Space Agency. It sent six fauxonauts into a 775-square-foot capsule in Moscow for 17 months starting in 2010 to simulate what the journey to Mars might feel like.

Scientists have all dreamt of traveling to space one day, but for most, a faux mission will be their only chance. The screening process for simulation or sMars—as it’s sometimes called—is competitive. So far, only a few dozen people have been to faux space for extended periods of time, compared to hundreds who have experienced the real thing over the decades. Mock Martian habitats only started cropping up in 2000, when the Mars Society built the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island in Canada, the first research analogue habitat of its kind.

But simulations have always been a part of the NASA way because they’re much cheaper and safer to execute than an actual trip to space. The two-year budget for the three HI-SEAS missions is $1.2 million. By comparison, the decade-long Apollo program that put humans on the moon cost about $170 billion in today’s dollars. Getting the Curiosity rover to Mars cost nearly $2.5 billion.

We have a long history going back to the late 1940s of launching animals—chimpanzees, monkeys, dogs, and mice—into space to test the safety of traveling beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Their vitals were monitored closely to make sure their bodies could withstand the forces needed to escape Earth’s atmosphere and weightlessness once they reached space.

Like those furry travelers of old, this crew is closely monitored. NASA scientists want to know what kind of people can thrive in such extreme circumstance, because a mental breakdown in space would lead to major problems, maybe even fatal ones, for a crew. The crew’s mental well-being is tracked 24/7 “with a complex set of devices ranging from video cameras to electronic badges” to “document [their] interpersonal interactions and their impacts on [their bodies],” writes Verseux on his blog. They also take electronic surveys. NASA scientists hope to understand what causes distress and what fosters cooperation, and then to use that data to do a better job at designing living quarters and picking mentally resilient people for future missions.

So, in a way, the men and women of HI-SEAS are both researchers and research subjects. They are getting us ready for the new, deeper space age. We are learning what’s physically and mentally possible with few resources, life-threatening situations, and a paradoxical combination of having no privacy and being isolated.

“We have the invaluable fortune to live at a time when sending humans to Mars is a realistic goal. I want to contribute to it,” astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux told me in an email. “I want to know whether I have what it takes to be part of a manned mission to Mars.”

Part of having “what it takes” is being a mental iron man. Six people are locked in a space the size of a one-bedroom apartment for 12 months, without an escape option (unless their safety is at stake). People with hot tempers, short fuses, and anxious personalities need not apply. While they have to be cool in a crisis, astronauts also can’t be cold. Compassion, empathy and a knack for cooperation are important because they need to work together at all times.

“On sMars, you can’t walk out the door, send an email or empty your bowels without a solid team effort,” Sheyna Gifford, the doctor in the group, writes on her blog. “No matter how much someone may vex you, if you need them to eat, drink, and breathe you are going to find a way to get along with them.”

So far, the crew is getting along and is “still completely sane,” writes Bassingthwaighte, the architect, on his blog, though he admits the crew is only a few weeks into its journey. Long periods of isolation can cause depression and lethargy, two psychological conditions NASA scientists are keeping close tabs on.

The crew has to ask permission 24 hours in advance every time they want to step outside the dome to embark on an “EVA,” astronaut speak for extravehicular activity. They have to suit up before they can leave the dome, and they can’t stay out for more than three hours or wander farther than a half mile away from their solar-powered home.

“The hardest thing is never being in the open, never being exposed to fresh air,” Verseux told me. “There are times I just want to put on sneakers and headphones and go for a run in nature.”

That won’t be an option on real Mars either. Stepping outside there will require wearing protective gear at all times because of the high radiation levels, plus the low atmospheric pressure. In other words, Martian residency is not for the claustrophobic, or fashion-conscious. “These suits make your butt look unbelievably frumpy,” complains Bassingthwaighte on his blog.

The first HI-SEAS mission in 2013 lasted just four months. That focused on the eating patterns of astronauts who could only consume non-perishable foods. The current one, and the two before it, are about crew cohesion and performance, says Kim Binsted, the University of Hawaii computer science professor who heads up the HI-SEAS program.

“How do you support a crew so that they don’t end up wanting to kill each other?” said Binsted by phone. “When you’ve got humans and machines working together, if a human breaks it can be just as disastrous as if the machines break.”

Mars is so far away—250 million miles away at its furthest point—that even electronic communication can’t happen instantly, like it does here on Earth. Information, after all, can’t travel faster than the speed of light. Astronauts will be cut off from us way before they make it to Mars—and they need to be ready for that. Once they cruise past the moon, real-time communication won’t be an option. That’s why it’s important that crews learn to fend for themselves for prolonged periods of time.

On the upside, Internet access on real Mars, Verseux says, probably won’t be as restricted as what the crew has now.

Some day, space agencies, or interplanetary internet companies, might build local servers to make connecting to the web faster and more reliable. That way, human Martians won’t have to wait 20 minutes for Facebook to load and another 20 for the update to show up as the data will be hosted locally..

Binsted and her team haven’t yet analyzed all the data from all the HI-SEAS missions, but they have learned some things already that Binsted could talk about publicly. For instance, there’s a phenomenon called crew ground disconnect, wherein the crew thinks mission control is too demanding and mission control starts seeing crew members as insubordinate prima donnas.

“We’re trying to develop a protocol that at least lessens it or helps us to recognize it when it pops up,” Binsted says. “We’re getting there. We wont’ be able to prevent it, but at least we can recognize when we see it and can respond to it.”

One self-sufficiency NASA hasn’t been able to solve yet is water. The dome has tanks that can hold 3,500 liters, or 925 gallons, but that’s not a lot for six people for a year. The average American uses 80-100 gallons of water each day, according to the U.S. Geological Service. At that rate, the crew would be out of water in a week or less. So they have to conserve. They can only shower for 1.5 minutes every three days. Water gets recycled to clean the floors. They don’t have flushing toilets. Instead, their poop and urine gets composted. But it’s not enough. They run out from time to time.

If we’re to spend any considerable length of time on Mars, we’ll need to be able to make water so they’re studying how to extract water from Martian soil, but until that process is perfected, someone comes and refills the dome’s water tanks. (Yes, this mission lacks the constant life-threatening peril of The Martian.) Before the water delivery comes, the crew covers the dome’s portholes and puts on headphones, so they won’t see or hear an outsider, which would ruin the illusion of isolation.

Scientists think we’ll make it to real Mars in the 2030s, at the earliest. NASA remains steadfast in its goal to send humans to Mars one day even though the space shuttle program was officially shuttered in 2011. Just as the government jumpstarted the research that led to the development of the Internet and cyberspace, but private companies that popularized it, it’s likely that SpaceX and other commercial space companies will build on NASA’s early investments, and end up manufacturing the machines that usher in a new era of space travel.

For now, NASA’s most important work towards Mars is happening here on Earth. NASA won’t fly a mission if the risk it carries is too high, what the agency dubs “red risks.” Some, like microgravity or radiation, the Earth-bound HI-SEAS program can’t help solve. But it can tackle crew psychology, logistics and operations.

“We’re here to retire as many of those red risks as possible,” Binsted said.

As for this crew of “Martians,” they “return to Earth” next August. Then another crew will take their place, and maybe stay for even longer.

Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

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