Five researchers hung up their spacesuits Friday and exited a dome that had been their home for the past 120 days on the northern slope of Mauna Loa.
After four months in isolation, the volunteers had finished their mission: to test the boundaries of social cohesion with limited access to the outside world.
The crew claimed success, having bonded through numerous challenges that arose during the NASA-funded simulation, designed to mimic a mission on Mars.
“We all progressed through it,” said Casey Stedman, a U.S. Air Force Reserve officer and team leader. “Cohesion was best when we all had to address an issue.”
And the crew had their share of challenges, from restoring power to malfunctioning batteries to dirty jobs such as emptying a faulty septic system, all while wearing hazmat gear or spacesuits whenever outside.
This was another world after all, and they had to treat the land outside their 36-foot-diameter dome as truly alien.
That may not have been hard to do. The expansive volcanic landscape could easily resemble Martian terrain. Even the lens on their spacesuit helmets added a reddish hue to the lava rock, crew members said.
“I almost wonder if it was my own brain making it more red,” said crew member Tiffany Swarmer, who works with the University of North Dakota’s spaceflight lab.
At times, the mission required improvisation — and a little bit of science fiction.
When Swarmer injured her back during a workout routine, the mission’s doctor had to respond. He could speak with them remotely but only through a 40-minute delay to simulate the time it would take to communicate with a crew on Mars.
To try to protect the integrity of the simulation, Dr. Joseph D’Angelo couldn’t treat her directly. Instead, he had the crew pretend he was a hologram while he was directing them on how to examine her injury while at the dome.
It worked, D’Angelo said, though he still had to take into account delays in transmission, which meant he couldn’t have much of a back-and-forth conversation.
“I think with any real mission they are going to have to have a doctor aboard,” he said.
That wasn’t the only medical issue that arose.
Crew member Ron Williams left following the first month after it was found his blood-oxygen level was low, possibly due to the high altitude.
A life-long space enthusiast, the 60-year-old psychologist said he was disappointed to leave.
“I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in the heyday of the space program,” Williams said. “So, I was obsessed … and always wanted to be part of it in someway.”
He got his chance to return to welcome his former crew members back to “Earth.”
“I missed these guys,” Williams said.
“I wished I could have spent the whole time with them. I’m just very proud of them.”
Without the restrictive spacesuits, the crew walked out of the dome shortly after 9 a.m. to see the landscape — marked by meandering paths of pahoehoe and a‘a lava rock, cinder cones and an impressive view of Mauna Kea — for the first time since the simulation began without the interference of a helmet or their dome’s single tiny window.
“It’s like we went from 1950s tech to hi-def,” remarked Ross Lockwood, who is working on his doctorate in condensed matter physics. “You can actually see the stones.”
The volunteers weren’t the first crew to spend four months at the dome, located at the 8,200-foot elevation.
Another group spent the same time there last year devising food options for long space voyages with limited menu options.
The recipe book they created came in handy for the recent batch of volunteers, who had a lot of dehydrated ingredients to work with.
“I probably ate a lot of things I normally wouldn’t just because that was what’s available,” Stedman said.
But, unlike the first mission of the project, known officially as the Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation, this group’s focus was more on psychological pressures than pleasing an astronaut’s palate.
They also won’t be the last. HI-SEAS, led by Cornell University and University of Hawaii at Manoa, will send another six-member crew to the dome in mid-October for an eight-month-long simulation, and after them, another group will spend an entire year there.
Asked about their advice, members of the recent crew, known as HI-SEAS 2, said to make sure to find time to have fun, and always communicate.
“Really keep yourself entertained and busy,” said Anne Caraccio, a chemical engineer with NASA.
“When you live where you work, you work all the time.”
No matter the length of the simulation, Stedman said there is a cycle to be aware of.
“Everyone is friendly at first, and they get to know each other,” he said. “And then they are challenged together and have to recover together.
“… If a crew understands that … they can cope with it better.”
As far as this group was concerned, none appeared to regret giving a third of a year to the simulation. Some were eager to return.
“I would pick that year in a heartbeat,” said Swarmer. “I would even consider longer.
“I think it’s important to run a whole mission all the way through from start to finish.”
If she doesn’t return, Swarmer said she is hopeful she had an impact on future space missions.
“I’m really hoping this will be used to develop procedures and protocols for the future, and that someday, somebody is going to be sitting there on the surface of Mars looking out like I was sitting here looking out, going, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” she said.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.