Six people have embarked on the ultimate staycation — 365 days inside a 20-foot tall dome on a rocky, dormant volcano in Hawaii as part of a close-quarters living experiment for NASA.
On Friday, the crew — a German physicist, a French astrobiologist, and four Americans, including a soil scientist, a pilot, an architect, and a doctor — started living inside a dome that is just 20 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter on the dormant volcano of Mauna Loa as NASA tries to understand how long term isolation affects humans.
NASA estimates that a human mission to the Red Planet would take one to three years, so the space agency is trying to find out how living in a small, cramped place without access to fresh food, air, or water for long periods of time affects humans.
The year-long commitment is the longest U.S. isolation experiment yet to help NASA prepare for a potential mission to Mars. The first long term co-habitation experiment was for four months, followed by an eight-month mission that ended in June.
At $1.2 million, principal investigator Kim Binsted told the AFP that the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, is actually "very cheap for space research" given the nature of the overall mission.
"It is really inexpensive compared to the cost of a space mission going wrong," she said.
Among the issues scientists hope to shed light on: How will the team members cope with internal conflicts and lack of privacy?
Carmel Johnston, Christiane Heinicke, Sheyna Gifford, Andrzej Stewart, Cyprien Verseux, Tistan Bassingthwaighte will each get their own tiny room with just enough space for a small bed, chair, and a desk. But for the most part, they will be sharing a communal space meant to simulate a station on Mars — if someone wants to leave the dome for the rocky, barren landscape outside, they'll have to put on a space suit.
Gifford, the health science officer/journalist on the team, wrote on her blog, Live From Mars, that she looked forward to playing a role in resetting the "human boundary."
"In less than a generation, if we set our minds to it, we will be packing a group of people off to the 4th planet from the Sun," she wrote. "The same species who landed on the beach in Normandy in 1944, on the Moon in 1969, and a comet in 2014 now brings you: #occupymars."