SimMars

Congratulations on completing that last test…but I find something troubling.  Without the looming consequence of death, is this even science?

– GLaDOS, from the video game “Portal 2”

“So Andrzej, you’re locking yourself into a dome for a year with five other people.  Why are you doing that?”

In some form or another, this is a question I’ve answered many times since being selected to the HI-SEAS Mission 4 crew (sometimes, along with the occasional addition, “Are you crazy?”).  It’s a valid question.  To answer it, one must first understand what HI-SEAS is.

Put simply, HI-SEAS is a space mission simulator.

Simulators have been an important part of crewed spaceflight since its earliest beginnings.  They allow for training in a safe, controlled environment, allowing crews to prepare for complex operations before having to face the real thing (with the possibility of real consequences).  For example, the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at NASA’s Sonny Carter Training Facility in Houston is a large diving tank used to train astronauts in extravehicular activity (EVA) operations.  The Space Vehicle Mockup Facility houses high-fidelity, full-scale spacecraft and space station mockups that crews use to learn to operate the real vehicles.  The Shuttle Training Aircraft were a group of modified Gulfstream II jets used to simulate and familiarize pilots with the handling characteristics of the Space Shuttle orbiters during landing approaches.

An astronaut training in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab.  Image courtesy NASA.

An astronaut training in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Image courtesy NASA.

Simulators allow users to control and shape scenario parameters their liking, and, because simulators can provide a training environment safe from the dangers of actual operations, they can be used to subject trainees to scenarios that would be dangerous or impossible to replicate in real life.  Prior to a mission, Space Shuttle crews would be subjected to months of detailed emergency simulations, preparing the crews to handle any problems that could arise during the real flight.  These capabilities aren’t limited just to spaceflight, of course.  As a pilot, I’ve had the opportunity to bring simulation into my training and skill-maintenance routines.  I’ve used commercial-grade light aircraft simulators to learn and practice instrument failure identification (difficult to simulate accurately in a real aircraft), maintain my instrument flight currency (even when the weather outside was clear and sunny), and learn the engine-out procedures for a multi-engine airplane (safer and more affordable to learn in the simulator first).

Simulators aren’t just limited to training, however; the characteristics that make simulators so useful for training also make them ideal for research purposes.  The ability to control the parameters of a simulation allows researchers to safely study test subjects’ responses to specific environments and scenarios.  This is where simulators like the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) and HI-SEAS come in.

The Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) at Johnson Space Center

The Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) at Johnson Space Center

Missions to destinations in deep space – asteroids, Mars, and beyond – will subject crews to unique stress factors.  Spacecraft must be optimized for mass, as more massive spacecraft require more fuel to propel them, so astronauts will be limited in what they can bring with them to cope with monotony and prevent boredom during the long journeys.  As crews travel farther out into space, they’ll be subjected to the effects of isolation and separation from Earth, effects compounded by the communication delays that I discussed in my previous article.  Crews will live in cramped quarters for extended periods of time with the same small, unchanging group of people, and will have to find effective ways to deal with the annoyances and arguments that will surely arise over time.  In short, there are many psychological challenges that arise from sending astronauts into deep space…and NASA doesn’t yet have all the answers as to how to effectively cope with them all.

But are these simulations necessary?  Can’t we just get the answers we need just by studying existing situations?  After all, there are already real-world situations that subject people to extreme isolation and separation: Navy submarines, Antarctic bases, and the International Space Station (ISS), to name a few.  As it turns out, NASA does indeed attempt to study these situations.  However, these installations have primary purposes beyond NASA’s science objectives, and the ability to shape them to achieve these science objectives is extremely limited by operational requirements: for example, submarine and Antarctic crews are much larger than deep space crews, and ISS crews maintain real-time communication links with mission control, friends, and family on Earth.  Additionally, NASA follows a rule that nobody can be forced to participate in human research, and voluntary participation at some sites can be extremely low; potential research subjects may be too busy to participate in the research, or may simply choose not to participate at all.  Participation rates in NASA’s isolation studies in Antarctica, for example, have been as low as 10%; from a statistical point of view, rates this low can bring entire data sets into question, as such extreme self-selection could cause a skew in the data (for example, people only participating when they have some particular problem to complain about, leaving out the contribution from people who don’t have any complaints).

This is why simulations like HI-SEAS are important.  Instead of being secondary concerns that have to fit around some other primary operational objective, psychological and behavioral sciences are the main focus of HI-SEAS.  Crewmembers are selected, in part, because of their enthusiasm and willingness to participate in the science; HI-SEAS and HERA typically report participation rates near 100%, leading to high confidence in the research data obtained from these simulations.  Although these simulations aren’t perfect – HI-SEAS crews will still experience 1g of gravitational force and 24 hour days, instead of the 1/3g and 24.5 hour days astronauts will actually encounter on the surface of Mars – the research scientists can shape the simulations to closely model the unique psychological stresses of deep space missions, including the small crews, cramped quarters, and communication delays.  Additionally, training and sending a crewmember to one of these simulations is much more affordable than sending astronauts to the ISS, allowing scientists to obtain much more data at a lower cost.

So, these are the reasons I’ve joined the HI-SEAS Mission IV crew.  In part, I’d like to become an astronaut, and this mission serves as training to prepare me for the rigors of deep space flight that I’d be subjected to if I do become an astronaut one day.  Additionally, I’m excited to enable and participate in the vital science that will allow astronauts to actually travel to Mars one day.

– Andrzej

Further Reading

Moving to Mars – Posted to the HI-SEAS website previously, this New Yorker article discusses the HI-SEAS program in more detail, with a focus on Mission 3.

The Stars Down to Earth – A five-part Motherboard series discussing life in a variety of space analogs

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4 thoughts on “SimMars

  1. Uray Tule says:

    I don’t see how you can question a 10% participation rate in the Antarctica as statistically skewed, and full of bias because of the people participating, then in the same breath claim that six people who volunteered (read: self selection) to be sequestered for a year pretending to be on Mars somehow has more validity. Plus the idea that the people on these other real-life studies are somehow less valid because they have other tasks is crazy, you people will be pretending to do things, in my mind the fakeness of it all will almost certainly raise more questions than any other real-world scenario.

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    • Good questions, Uray!

      I should clarify the scope of what I mean by self-selection. I don’t mean that they’re self selecting to be there; what I mean is that they’re self-selecting to participate in the science once they’re there.

      The participation rate encompasses two dimensions: not only the amount of people who participate, but also the amount of research activities that each participant chooses to complete. What that means is that 10% participation could mean that just 10% of all personnel completed all of the studies, or that all participants completed just 10% of the studies, or something in the spectrum between.

      Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario for the second example…say that a whole Antarctic crew participates in a study administered by a daily survey, but they only manage to complete, on average, one survey every 10 days or so. At the end of the study, NASA gets the surveys back and finds them to be full of negative feedback. What does that mean? Does it mean that things really are that bad at the station, and that folks are just too busy to report every day? Or does it mean that the crew are using the survey as a sort of “gripe sheet” – only reporting when something bad is happening – and things aren’t all that bad the rest of the time? For the latter, the survey seems to indicate that things are much worse than they really are; that’s the sort of bias I’m talking about. That missing 90% holds a major key to the story; for that reason, when a crew is participating near 100% – all crew completing all studies – you have far greater confidence that the data is representative of reality.

      I didn’t aim to suggest that people on real-life studies are somehow less valid; instead, what I mean is that operational realities may limit their ability to participate in a study. For example, a soldier on patrol in a combat zone can’t just drop what he’s doing to fill out a survey. In an analog, the tasks can be shaped to ensure the crew are able to participate in the research as needed, while still remaining representative of real tasks. In some cases, the tasks can even be used to take measurements or to control stress levels, helping the scientists get data under the conditions they’re looking for.

      Indeed, any simulation has breaks from the reality it’s representing. For example, we’ll still be living in 1-g at normal levels of Earth radiation, so research into space physiology isn’t possible here. We’re also lacking the sense of danger that comes from having an unbreathable atmosphere on the other side of the wall. However, even though it’s a simulation, the isolation, separation from home, and crew dynamics are all real – I really won’t be able to see or talk to my family and friends, for example – and those are the effects that are being studied.

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  2. dave gingerich says:

    Hi Andrzej, sounds like everything is going well on sMars, but I have a question about the research. Feel free to discuss with your fellow astronauts, or not, …

    I understand the interpersonal research and totally support the goals, and, believe that HI-SEAS will provide a large contribution to the research literature. But here’s my question — future, even current, long space missions include astronauts from different cultures. Do you think HI-SEAS is “covering that base”?

    Example, how different is the background for the current HI-SEAS occupants? I think of the cultural, organizational, educational, and occupational differences found on the ISS between American and Russian, trained in different space agencies, the potential clash of cultural mores between payload and mission specialists and commanders from countries as diverse as Latin America, Europe, Asia, and North America. Do you think HI-SEAS presents some or “enough” of those challenges?

    Granted, that’s asking a heckuva lot from only six volunteers, but I’m wondering what you and your fellow explorers think of that and even what the investigation team thinks of it.

    In Orlando right now at the LM Engineering Symposium, wishing I had the opportunity to meet with your entire crew and just talk shop.

    daveg

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    • Hi Dave!

      I’ll point you in the direction of Shey’s 1-month blog post: http://livefrommars.life/2015/09/27/this-alien-shore-1-month-into-the-smars-mission/. Shey talks about this topic in question 2. If I recall, this was also discussed in the “Moving to Mars” article in the New Yorker (I can’t access from here, but I read it prior to the mission)…http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/20/moving-to-mars

      You do raise a good point. One of the early Russian Mars analog missions very famously failed, in part, due to extreme cultural differences. Of course, failures are often also learning experiences, and one of the big takeaways from that experience was that cultural differences need to be seriously considered during selection and training of long-duration crews.

      As Shey mentioned in her post, our crew is very diverse. Among the six of us, we represent four nations: United States, Germany, France, and United Kingdom. We all come from six very different professional backgrounds. In some ways, this is helpful, as our six different backgrounds span a wide range of knowledge and experience. But, at the same time, there’s definitely a potential for a clash of cultures. For that reason, throughout our crew evaluation NOLS expedition and our training week, we were asked to consider various situations in order to understand these differences, and come up with guidelines about how we’d deal with these sorts of issues as a crew. It helps that we have six very agreeable people on the team, and have been able to work around any differences that have come up so far with reasoned discussion.

      Of course, we’re only one month in. Ask me again in eleven months, and I might have a different answer. I hope not, though 🙂

      Anyway Dave, enjoy Orlando, and I’ll see you back in Denver next year! I’m sure we’ll have plenty of shop to talk by then!

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