Their suits were off, their emotions high, Europe’s “The Final Countdown” blared inside the thousand-square-foot dome where six aspiring astronauts had just spent the last eight months of their lives.
“We’re leaving togetherrr,” the song screeched. “We’ll all miss her so.”
The last chords faded, and still the order to exit hadn’t arrived. Martha Lenio, commander of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission, frowned, then cued up the song on the CD player for a second time. Then a third.
After several loops, the call came in. Lenio and her team walked out the door of their habitat, a solar-powered simulated space station on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, and stepped onto Earth.
“It was just stunningly amazing,” Lenio gushed, recalling the moment in a phone interview Sunday evening. It had been only a day since her first real breath of fresh air since October. Her tone became bright and dreamy talking about it — the way the sun felt on her face, the tingle of chilly morning air on her skin.
Lenio, 34, was the commander of the second of three missions sponsored by NASA to study the effects of a lengthy trip to Mars on human performance and crew cohesion. For eight months, three men and three women lived in a habitat half the size of a volleyball court, pretending it was a space station on Mars. Any time they ventured onto the rocky, barren slopes outdoors, they wore spacesuits. They had no phone lines to the outside world and all online communication, even messages to base camp, worked on a 20-minute delay — the same amount of time it would take a signal to travel between Earth and Mars. Their bedrooms were “glorified closets,” in Lenio’s words. Their food came freeze-dried in plastic packets. Their toilets didn’t flush.
On Saturday morning just after 8 a.m. local time, it was over.
Lenio had a few moments to relish her freedom — the wind, the vast open sky, the way sunlight looks when viewed without a clunky visor and helmet in the way — before reporters and researchers fell on her with a barrage of questions. They were the first new voices she’d heard in eight months.
“It was a bit overwhelming at first. We didn’t really know where to look or what to say,” she said. “Having all these people around is a bit difficult.”
But it got easier. Lenio’s mother had come to Hawaii to welcome her “back” to Earth. And breakfast was waiting for them — a table laid with croissants and fresh fruit and cheddar cheese.
“Carrots!” Lenio exclaimed. “The carrots were amazing and crunchy. We hadn’t really had any crunchy foods.”
For Allen Mirkadyrov, a 36-year-old father and NASA engineer from Phoenix, it was hard to enjoy the breakfast. Although he’d been under observation for eight months, subject to constant surveys and monitored at every moment, the cameras pointing at him and people watching made him feel a bit like a creature at the zoo.
His favorite part came next, when the U.S. Army Parachute Team, “The Golden Knights,” took Mirkadyrov and the rest of the crew skydiving. Soaring over the rocky volcano and isolated dome that had been his home for so long, he felt eight months of tension flood out of him.
“It was definitely from one extreme to another,” he said. “I couldn’t think of a better way to come out of the dome and finish this mission.”
Though they’re back on Earth, so to speak, their mission isn’t quite over. The HI-SEAS crew is scheduled for hours of meetings and exit interviews with the team of researchers that has been studying them for the past eight months. Their goal, in the words of principal investigator Kim Binsted: “Long story short, we want to know how you pick a team, and then support a team, for these long-duration space missions so they won’t kill each other,” she told the Globe and Mail.
Long-distance space flights like the 100 million-mile trip to Mars (more or less — because both planets are constantly in motion, the distance between the two varies widely) more closely resemble the sea voyages of centuries past than any kind of expedition we can imagine today. Stories of expeditions stymied by madness or mutiny serve as cautionary tales to the explorers of the future. Confined to the close quarters of the ship and the company of only one another, crew members on a potential Mars mission will have to battle claustrophobia, bad food, interpersonal conflicts, depression and the mind-numbing monotony.
Binsted’s job was to figure out ways to mitigate those issues by studying relationships among the HI-SEAS team. But astronauts, even aspiring ones like much of the HI-SEAS crew, are a notoriously stoic lot.
“You ask an astronaut how they’re feeling and the answer is, ‘Great!’” Binsted said. “Ask ‘How are you getting on with your crew mates?’ ‘Awesome!’”
“The major theme is, how do you detect problems without needing to explicitly ask ‘How are you feeling?'”
Binsted and her colleagues developed dozens of surveys for the HI-SEAS team — each crew member took a minimum of three surveys a day and as many as 40 a week. They also had members play a computer game that tested their ability to work together. Researchers used programs that analyzed text and video messages from the crew to detect their moods. And everyone wore sociometric badges that monitored how far apart people were and the volume of their voices — if two people standing close together were speaking loudly, Binsted said, researchers could infer that they were fighting.
Each crew member had his or her own research project to conduct on board the “space station” — testing new ways of 3-D printing or growing gardens indoors. They were also given tasks by the NASA researchers — geological surveys of the land around them, outdoor jaunts to test new spacesuits.
On the bleak volcanic landscape that surrounds the upper slopes of Mauna Loa, clad in a suit, listening to the hum and hiss of her breath inside the air-tight helmet, Lenio said there were brief moments on those treks when she really did feel like she was on another planet.
Other times, life at the dome was unbearably mundane. Attempting to conduct research was difficult with the 20-minute communication time delay, Lenio said. The Internet timed out in the middle of a search, so she had to ask base camp to find and send her any studies or outside information she needed. Those long slow days were the worst ones, she said. Boredom made her antsy; everything she missed — fresh food, YouTube videos, her family — made her ache.
The best days, in a way, were also the hardest: the days when something went wrong, and the whole crew would have to spring into action to figure out how to fix it. On one infamous day, about halfway through the mission, a spate of bad weather had forced the station to use up its supply of solar energy. Then the generator failed and the entire dome lost power.
“The whole team came together very smoothly,” Lenio said, her voice invigorated just talking about it. She and Mirkadyrov shut down all nonessential appliances. Two other crew members suited up to troubleshoot the problem and take photos. One got online to communicate with base camp, while the last found a way to bypass the troublesome batteries and make sure that power got to the three places it was most needed: communications, the freezers where their research samples were stored, and the toilets “so we didn’t stink up the hab,” Lenio said.
Mirkadyrov recalled what it felt like to work in the dark, freezing but fulfilled: “We just knew what we were doing,” he said.
“That was a really proud moment, because it took very little effort; everyone just found their roles and came together to make sure we didn’t die,” Lenio agreed. “I mean, we wouldn’t have died — that’s the big difference between this and Mars — but it was nice to know we could fix the problem on our own.”
Lenio and Mirkadyrov are both still processing what it means for the mission to be over. They’re glad to be done, but they’ll miss some things about the dome — the sense of camaraderie, the inside jokes.
Still, Mirkadyrov is eager to return to Phoenix, his wife, his kids and his job at NASA.
As for Lenio?
“My mom is anxiously waiting for me to get back home,” she said. “I think she has grand plans for me to move in with her for the rest of my life.”
But Lenio isn’t so sure. She has a few job applications in the pipeline and some grand plans of her own. Maybe she’ll take a position at the University of Toronto. Maybe, someday, she’ll make it to Mars.
The real one, this time.
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