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.
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.
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.
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