Tuesday | June 02, 2015
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Tight quarters: Latest HI-SEAS experiment will push volunteers to the limit

It’s not the final frontier, but it might still feel that way for six volunteers living in a dome for the next four months on Mauna Loa.

With email, on a 20-minute delay, essentially the only access to the outside the world, they will work, eat, play, and, yes, try to get along while largely confined to a 1,000-square-foot world.

But don’t be mistaken; this is not the next reality TV show. Rather, it’s the next mission for the Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation research project.

The goal: see what problems arise when people are confined to small spaces on long missions, much like they would on an expedition on Mars.

“We’re going to stress them,” said Kim Binsted, the project’s principal investigator. “That’s the nature of the study.”

The time the six volunteers, who started their mission last Friday, will spend in the dome at the 8,200-foot elevation might seem like a vacation compared to those who will follow them.

The project includes two other missions, one lasting for eight months, the other for an entire year.

How they fare might provide insight into what’s called the “third-quarter syndrome,” Binsted said.

That refers to the psychological wall people hit long into such missions.

“In the first quarter, they are excited. They celebrate halfway and then they realize they are not close to going home yet,” Binsted said.

What researchers would like to know is whether that is dependent on mission length, she said.

“We are just going to hope they tough it out,” Binsted said.

They will also have plenty to keep them busy.

The volunteers, each with a science background, have research projects to fill their time.

One will focus on propagating plants on a Mars mission, while another will look at applying 3-D printing to remote medicine. They also will have group projects, such as mapping nearby lava flows in their space suits, to test how well they work together.

“Typical of the crews we get, they tend to have very little downtime,” Binsted said. “They are workaholic types and we give them a lot to chew on.”

One challenge might be hygiene. Each volunteer is allotted only eight minutes of showering per week to preserve water.

Binsted said they can use that time how they wish. With HI-SEAS’ first mission at the dome last year, most volunteers chose to take two, four-minute showers a week, she said.

That mission focused on meal preparation during long space voyages. The volunteers compared two types of food systems, crew-cooked vs. pre-prepared, and created a recipe book of some of their favorites.

For the benefit of the new batch of researchers, that book has been made available to them, Binsted said.

She said the mission has gotten the attention of the TV world but don’t expect to see much inside-the-dome footage.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of producers who called us,” Binsted said.

“Fortunately, we’re not ethically allowed to subject our crew to that kind of thing.”

The group’s progress can still be followed on Twitter and at hi-seas.org.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune- herald.com.

 

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