By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
Six space researchers who spent four months in isolation in a bright white dome perched on the northern flank of Mauna Loa emerged Tuesday squinting into the sunshine and marveling at the clear air in their nostrils, the cool breeze caressing their flesh and the lava rock crunching underfoot.
“It’s so crisp. Everything is so crisp,” said Angelo Vermeulen, the commander of the team and a biologist, space researcher, filmmaker, visual artist, community organizer and author. “Every single rock looks pin sharp. It’s like … wow.”
As part of a simulated Mars mission with the primary goal of learning how to best feed crew on long space journeys to prevent “menu fatigue,” the six researchers compared two types of food systems — crew-cooked vs. pre-prepared. Using only dehydrated and shelf-stable food items and limited water, the crew alternated between the “just add water” variety of typical space foodstuffs with recipes cobbled together by crew members and suggested by the public.
Russian borscht, seafood chowder, Moroccan beef, sushi sans the fresh fish and dehydrated “Chickenish” meat substitute with rice and beans all received rave reviews. The Kung Fu chicken, on the other hand, was declared slimy and barely palatable.
And Spam, it turns out, can be just as versatile as claimed.
“I had never cooked with Spam before,” said crew member Sian Proctor, a geology professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix. “I have a new respect for Spam and what you can do with Spam.”
What did they miss most? The answer was unanimous — fresh fruits and vegetables. That was expected, and a table laden with such treats, as well as several varieties of quiche and some bacon donuts, awaited the crew as they left their dome.
An old rock quarry at about the 8,200-foot elevation above Puu Huluhulu off Saddle Road was chosen as the Mars analogue after an exhaustive search for the best site, said Kim Binsted, the principal investigator and a University of Hawaii faculty member and co-investigator at the UH-NASA Astrobiology Institute, which formed in late 2003.
“It is a nice balance between being isolated and being accessible,” said Binsted, who was not among the six living in the dome habitat.
The project, dubbed HI-SEAS, for Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation, is led by Cornell University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa and funded by the NASA Human Research Program.
Crew members were allowed to leave their 36-foot-diameter dome to walk the Mars-like surface of Mauna Loa, but only by donning spacesuits.
The dome is surprisingly roomy, with a fully equipped kitchen, computer area, lab and a loft with six tiny private bedrooms and a community restroom. There’s a dining room table and a full-size movie screen, a collection of board games and a variety of movies and books.
Crew members also had access to the Internet and were able to email their families, as well as visit Facebook and other social media sites. But, in order to simulate a space journey far from earth, the connection often had delays of various lengths put onto it, resulting in pages not loading and connections irregular.
With six adults, who had been strangers just months before, crammed into such a small space, were their conflicts? Of course. Vermeulen started a Saturday rap session to facilitate communication, and they quickly turned into group therapy sessions, he said. He plans to add that component to future isolation studies.
Still, the group generally got along very well.
“I was surprised by how well we got along. We really liked each other,” said crew member Kate Greene, a San Francisco-based science and technology journalist. “I think we were selected for our low-drama quotient.”
Boredom, which can lead to lethargy and psychological issues, is a major concern for most isolated communities, Vermeulen said. But with fresh bread to be made daily and a host of research, housework, exercise and menu planning and cooking, there was very little time for the crew to get bored.
“We were not bored at all,” he said. “Every single day was too short.”
Workout equipment, including a treadmill and exercise bike, kept the researchers in shape, as they underwent mandatory five-days per week of strenuous exercise.
In the process, they also tested anti-microbial clothing provided by NASA. Two of the researchers wore the same unwashed T-shirt for the entire 118 days of the experiment, with no noticeable smell or discomfort. There were also anti-microbial underpants and socks, which were tested in the lab by crew member Yajaira Sierra-Sastre, a materials scientist and educator with 10 years of research experience in academic, federal and private institutions.
Other crew members are Simon Engler, an intern at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, helping with Zoe, the first Astrobiological robot prototype being designed for a mission on Mars and Oleg Abramov, a research space scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology branch in Flagstaff, Ariz. The six were selected from about 700 applicants.
What comes next? The crew spoke almost as one voice: some time at the beach, to feel the sunshine on their skin after so many long days. A dip in the ocean, a few days off, and then off their separate ways to their next adventure.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer ar firstname.lastname@example.org.