Issue 17.1: February / March 2014

The Martian Chronicle

Story by Sarah Rose
Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

There are no palm trees in Hawai‘i at eight thousand feet. On the high-altitude mountaintops of the Big Island, there is very little vegetation at all, no obvious life forms but for the occasional confused and industrious goat. It is a red rock moonscape of lava flows, a desert. It looks like another planet, which is why the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa chose to put a mock manned space station on the high slopes of Mauna Loa.

When NASA put out a call for astronauts last year, 6,300 applicants aimed for the stars. When UH put out a call for astronautlike candidates to live in a tent on the Big Island and pretend it was a Mars colony, six hundred people applied. Of the six selected for a free, four-month trip to Hawai‘i—along with the project’s lead investigator, who’s a UH professor—three were competing for the top NASA job: to become real-life astronauts on a future manned mission to Mars. The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, was supposed to be a resume builder for the biggest show off Earth.

Just like real astronauts, the crew for the HI-SEAS-1 mission was over-credentialed and obsessive about manned space exploration. Angelo Vermeulen, an artist and biologist from Belgium, served as commander; he’s working on his second PhD and is a Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) fellow. Joining him was Oleg Abramov, a Russian-born planetary geologist at the University of Arizona who seems to have been in astronaut training since birth. Simon Engler, a Canadian roboticist, used combat robots in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Yajaira Sierra- Sastre, a materials scientist from Puerto Rico, seeks to understand how bacteria grow in confined quarters — that is, how long astronauts can go before they have to change their underwear. Kate Green, a journalist for Discovery Magazine and The Economist, documented the experiment, and Sian Proctor, a geology professor from Arizona who starred in a post-apocalyptic reality show about the collapse of civilization, The Colony, performed educational outreach by filming a cooking show to make sure the entire world knew what fake astronauts in a space tent in Hawai‘i were eating. Welcome to the final frontier.

In the dark of night the “Astro-Nots” touched down on Mauna Loa last April. Their “lander” was a van from the University of Hawai‘i’s Hilo campus; their trajectory followed roads through volcanic scree and talus slopes to an abandoned quarry. They were given no information about the surrounding area, and they could hardly see the geodesic domes of the habitat— the “hab,” as they called it — in the dim light of the quarter-moon. It was their job to live in their new home as though they had just arrived on another planet; it was supposed to be a mystery. They had seen blueprints for the 850-square-foot tent, but they had never stepped inside a model. It hadn’t even existed the week before but was constructed offsite and delivered to the mountain right before they moved in. The experiment would last 118 days. A mission to Mars will take at least three years.

The researchers settled in like new homeowners. “At first we were just getting used to the rhythms of the hab,” says Kate Green. Geodesic domes are strong and lightweight, with a lot of interior space for a small surface area, so the hab is bright and airy if small. It’s solar-powered, and it was Simon Engler’s job to monitor energy consumption. As crew engineer, Engler experienced all the headaches of getting systems that had never existed before — on Earth or elsewhere — up and running. There’s not much water on Mars and what is there is hard to come by, so the astronauts were allowed two quick showers a week and flushed toilets only as necessary. On Mauna Loa water was delivered via “menehune-bot,” i.e., a UH Hilo undergraduate assistant. Six pie-shaped rooms on the second floor served as private bedrooms. There was only one small window with an otherworldly view of Mauna Kea. For 118 days they would be quite literally living in a bubble.

For maximum realism, the researchers had to wear spacesuits when leaving the hab to investigate the cinder cones outside. When communicating with “ground control,” they mimicked a twenty-minute delay—the amount of time it would take a radio signal to travel the distance between Earth and Mars. Their daily schedule included forty-five minutes of exercise, the same regimen required for actual astronauts in space. But if you’re imagining long, languid days in confinement, think again. They each performed experiments, their own and for other researchers. There was never enough time to get everything done, says Vermeulen: “I wish I had time to be bored.” But the aim was not just to practice living and working like spacemen, to testdrive a pretend Martian habitat or to write reports on how well their space clothes fit. The mission objective — and the reason NASA funded HI-SEAS with about $1 million—was to eat astronaut food.

Building a better dinner is a priority for space agencies because astronauts get too skinny after a stint aboard the International Space Station. Spaceflight takes a heavy toll on the human body: Microgravity degrades the bones, eyes and cardiovascular system, and astronauts are buffeted by intense radiation. With all the risk involved in manned spaceflight, weight loss should be a preventable problem. But government-issued MREs (meals, ready to eat) and TV dinners get boring after six months, and have you tried that chalky ice cream? Among the problems researchers need to solve is how to feed astronauts over the course of a three-year mission to Mars. Would astronauts be happy eating food in tubes and burgers in a bag every day for eleven hundred days?

The HI-SEAS-1 experiment was simple and elegant: Every two days the crew would cook its own meals with pantry ingredients such as pasta or Spam. For the next two days it would eat only pre-prepared foods, such as wraps and Nutella or just-add-water dishes like Kung Fu Chicken, a noxious freeze-dried concoction from AlpineAire Foods, gourmet suppliers to the disaster prep industry. Crew members filled out daily questionnaires, wore body monitors and routinely tested their sense of smell. Cameras monitored their food intake, which they weighed and recorded on a digital scale. To raise awareness of the study— and to generate ideas for the next generation of space food — the crew held a recipe contest. From a list of shelf-stable pantry items provided to the crew, the public submitted “Meals for Mars” ideas. Local Island favorites —foods such as Spam musubi, Spam fried rice and Hawaiian celebration cake with dried coconut, pineapple, mango, papaya and banana— also turned out to be crew favorites, earning top honors in a number of categories.

The theory they were testing, says lead investigator and astronaut wannabe Kim Binsted, an associate professor of information and computer sciences as well as co-investigator of the UH-NASA Astrobiology Institute at UH Manoa, is that astronauts on long-duration space missions will have a lot of autonomy so far from home; they can’t call Houston and ask what’s for dinner. So if they are given the chance to do their own meal planning and cooking for themselves, time in the kitchen might combat the problem of “meal fatigue.” It could improve their overall health both in space and after they get back to Earth. The faux Martian camp kitchen on a tropical island was designed as a safe way to mimic expedition diets in the deepest backcountry of all.

By midsummer HI-SEAS-1 had passed the halfway mark, two months down and two to go, yet the end was not in sight. Spirits were flagging and families were missed, as was real orange juice. It’s a phenomenon social scientists call “third quarter syndrome.”

“I got tired of the white walls and filling out surveys every day,” says Abramov. So they threw parties. There was a piñata, but they couldn’t bear to break it open; they had named it (Pete the Piñata, if you must know), and it felt cannibalistic to kill and eat it. Six people isolated on another planet — or mountaintop—need all the friends they can get. Instead, they performed surgery to extract Pete’s sugary innards. There were balloons and balloon fights. They used the state-of-the-art LEDs to make disco lights. Parties were the only times they didn’t have to answer a survey about how they felt about what they ate. “Parties have been crucial,” says Green.

As the crew slogged through its funk, weather satellites picked up an area of low pressure forming off the coast of Acapulco on July 20. It was hurricane season in the Pacific, and a storm was forming, tracking north and west toward Hawai‘i. The thunderstorms and rains clustered together, clouds grew dense and tight, winds picked up speed: Conditions were right for a tropical cyclone. By July 24 the storm had a name: Flossie.

On Mars winds regularly hit one hundred miles per hour, but with a thin atmosphere and no liquid water, dust storms are the greater threat to future astronauts. The HI-SEAS crew was not just conducting experiments on Mauna Loa, they were the experiments, with safety conditions regulated by an institutional review board. With Flossie sustaining gusts of seventy mph and the chance the storm could strengthen as it approached the Islands, the fake astronauts were in real danger. No IRB would ever approve. Should the crew pick up and head to safety? Interrupt the experiment? Astronauts can’t just turn around and go home when things get ugly. But Flossie was eyeing the Big Island, on course for a direct hit.

Is $1 million too much to spend on rehydrated peas? Data from HI-SEAS-1 experiment is still being analyzed, but Binsted has reason to believe Hawai‘i is about to become a leading destination for this type of analog research. While the US manned space program remains focused on an orbital research station two hundred miles above Earth and hasn’t set foot on another celestial body in almost forty years, it could still go to the moon tomorrow with existing technology. It’s only a three-day trip. Or it could visit an asteroid six months away or even theoretically make it to Mars and back. Scientists at UH believe we will reach for the stars again soon. The first small step before we take the next giant leap is to practice here on Earth.

“Analogs” are rehearsal space missions. The original Apollo astronauts ran mock exercises of a moon landing before strapping themselves into a rocket. Analogs help scientists gather data, make plans and uncover glitches before boosting humans aloft. There are simulated research sites in places that resemble the harsh conditions of Mars all over the world, such as Canada’s high Arctic, the Utah desert and even underwater where the weightlessness of space can be simulated.

HI-SEAS has an advantage over these other analog sites: With Hawai‘i’s temperate climate, the hab can be used year-round, replicating conditions of a long-duration space mission. The volcanism of the Big Island maps to the earliest days of the moon and Mars. The hab’s location is remote enough that the astronauts can’t see civilization and civilization can’t see them, but it’s close enough that the crew and support staff are not at risk, at least not most of the time.

The $300,000 research station was funded by Henk Rogers, a Big Island videogame entrepreneur who has a passion for Mars exploration, for geodesic domes and for finding scientific solutions to what he sees as the big four challenges facing humankind: 1) ending the use of carbonbased fuels on Earth; 2) ending war; 3) creating a backup of life on Earth; and 4) figuring out how the universe ends and stopping that finale. Rogers instructed his architect to design a hab that was not just functional, but beautiful. It should be luxe enough to impress fellow aspiring space explorer Sir Richard Branson, “so they better be having some seriously nice digs,” says Rogers.

While the Hawai‘i experiment was running, a concurrent study ran at Cornell University with mock astronauts on full bed rest in order to simulate the atrophying effects of microgravity, otherwise known as weightlessness, on the body. They too were tested for meal satisfaction and for changes in their ability to smell and taste. Of course those inclined to get paid to lie down for four months are pretty unastronaut- like, but a good experiment needs to be controlled and replicable.

Not everyone thinks space food is a good experiment, of course. “For any of you college students looking for jobs, Uncle Sam has got a job for you,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who brought it up at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “The pay is $5,000, all expenses paid to Hawai‘i, but the requirements are onerous: You have to like food. The study is to develop a menu for when we colonize Mars. I’m not making this up. Guess what a bunch of college students came up with for the menu? Pizza!” The good senator wasn’t alone: “You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize the millions of dollars being spent to taste-test Martian pizza that may never be served is lost in a black hole,” quipped Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) in the 2012 edition of his annual “Wastebook,” wherein he highlights what he considers to be the year’s one hundred worst offenses in government pork. HISEAS took sixth place, edging just past San Diego State University’s $325,000 robotic squirrel.

Early on the day of July 27, Hawai‘i was put on tropical storm watch. The hab itself is little more than a tent, but it’s shielded by the quarry site and leeward of oncoming winds. Flossie had drawn a bull’s-eye on the Big Island, but she was three days away, in the middle of the Pacific. Binsted and the crew had to make a hard decision; they weren’t astronauts, they were researchers. But they had left their families and their lives because they believed in the mission of space exploration. The data, and so much of their hard work, would be compromised if they were to pack up and go home.

They elected to stay put and wait Flossie out. Even when the storm was twenty-four hours away, they would still have time to change their minds and evacuate. Sian Proctor had taken a FEMA internship prior to the HI-SEAS mission; she studied disaster preparedness and helped coordinate the crew response. “SimCom,” the twenty-minute communication delay, was suspended so the crew could get real-time data on the storm. The nearby Army training area at Pohakuloa was notified that the scientists would be hunkering down. Essential equipment — emergency water and food, radios and locator beacons—was moved into a shipping container at the site. They packed “bug-out bags” in case they had to hike their way down to Earth.

The crew created a disaster protocol that had not previously been in place. In some ways it was the perfect space analog: Astronauts can practice their microgravity experiments and space station repairs in all kinds of simulated conditions on Earth, but they can never be fully prepared for the chaos of the cosmos.

As she barreled toward the Islands, Flossie balked. She didn’t gain speed or size, and her gusts topped out at seventy mph. She was fast and she would be wet, but she wasn’t brutalizing. The HI-SEAS crew could stay home and wait for the winds to come.

They never came. On the night of July 28, Flossie doglegged north toward Maui. She made landfall on the night of July 29, the first tropical storm to hit Hawai‘i since 1992. The damage was minimal, with some flooding and high surf but no catastrophes. “In a way it was bittersweet after all that preparation, but it’s so much better to be safe,” says Proctor.

There is no such thing as a perfect simulation. Mars has a third the gravity of Earth and a twenty-five-hour day. It has one one-hundredth of Earth’s atmosphere, and it’s mostly carbon dioxide —that is, poison—so humans couldn’t survive there without life support. But scientists try to model the circumstances as closely as they can. There might be no moment that demarcates simulations from actual space missions in greater relief than the moment when a simulation ends. It just … ends.

On a balmy day last August, Binsted stood in front of the habitat, its geodesic dome stark and white against the barren volcano, and counted down into her handheld radio: “10, 9, 8 … 3, 2, 1. Welcome back to Earth, guys.”

From a door cut into a modified shipping container, the crew emerged, took a breath of fresh Island air and blinked into the sunshine. It was the first time they had left the simulated space habitat in 118 days. They relaxed and sat down for a meal together, their first taste of fresh fruit in four months. Pineapple, papaya, mango, banana.

Once the crew had “landed” they were civilians again, walking outside without spacesuits and talking to the press who were welcome to explore the hab. A robotic pet— part of Engler’s research—greeted them as they entered. In the middle of the room stood the treadmill on which the crew had exercised for the past four months. They had worn the same shirts during workouts until they were too stinky to bear, says Sierra-Sastre, but on the last day the hab smelled pristine. Abramov showed off satellite maps of the surrounding area which had helped him understand the cinder cones and lava tubes surrounding the HI-SEAS habitat; Vermeulen spoke about the robotic farm he’d developed. The whole thing felt more like a school science fair than a million-dollar enterprise.

The HI-SEAS program has been funded for another three years starting in January 2014, ensuring Hawai‘i an integral place in the next generation of space travel. The next three fake space missions—with durations of four, eight and twelve months —will look at astronaut crew composition and group cohesion. How do people get along? Do conflicts among crew members affect their ability to perform complicated tasks? There will be cameras everywhere documenting the crew’s fun and feuds. The next three years will see a lot more Big Brother on the Big Island.

The three NASA astronaut applicants in HI-SEAS-1—Binsted, Abramov and Proctor—were not chosen to join the 2013 class of real astronauts. Now in their 30s and 40s, they are unlikely ever to fly as government researchers, as there will not be another astronaut selection until 2020. For an entire generation of space fanatics and scientists, Hawai‘i is as close as they will ever get to Mars. “Now I know I’ll never get there,” says Proctor, who got to the interviews in Houston but was turned down in the end. “But I got to do this, and this was incredible.”

As HI-SEAS-1 left their habitat home, they got into a van to make their way to a celebration at Rogers’ ranch. Or at least they tried to. Six former fake astronauts sat wedged between suitcases, robots and mountains of fresh fruit for over half an hour while Binsted looked for the keys. Everyone piled out of the van to look for them, too. They searched her pockets. They searched their pockets. She was certain she knew where they were, yet they were nowhere. The crew unpacked and repacked the van. She retraced her steps, hiking back up the steep slope to the hab. It was one more lesson in a long list of things to do—and not do—when exploring new worlds: When we do finally go to the fourth rock from the sun, bring an extra set of keys for the lander.