Mars on Earth

By Kate Greene | April 12, 2013 12:17 pm

This is the first in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

I’m on the Big Island of Hawaii right now, but I’m not on vacation. I’m not honeymooning, nor am I attending a conference or visiting relatives.

I’m on the Big Island to find Mars.

Starting next week, I will begin a simulated Mars mission. For 120 days, my five crewmates and I will live on the red, rocky slopes of the Hawaiian volcano called Mauna Loa.

We will eat, sleep, work, exercise and relax inside a two-story dome that offers a little less than 1000 square feet of floor space. When we go outside, we will wear mock spacesuits. There will be very little sunshine, no fresh fruit, and no ocean breeze.

But there will be science.

In fact, the purpose of the Mars simulation, called HI-SEAS (Hawaiian space Exploration Analog and Simulation), is to study astronaut food for long-haul space missions. Developed by Jean Hunter at Cornell University and Kim Binsted at the University of Hawaii and funded by NASA, it boils down to these questions: Does it make sense to provide dehydrated, shelf-stable ingredients to astronauts on a mission to Mars? Does it make sense for astronauts to actually cook some of their meals?

Questions of food are more critical than you might think. On longer missions, astronauts tire of the just-add-water-and-heat meals that squirt out of pouches. They eat fewer calories, and they lose weight. Neither is good for performance and overall health, especially during a dangerous, multi-year trip to the red planet.

And so the HI-SEAS mission is looking at ways to add variety to astronauts’ diets. Since Mars has gravity—about a third of Earth’s—it would be possible to cook pastas and sauces, to bake bread, to make crab cakes.

As a crew on this simulated mission, we will make and eat two types of meals: the just-add-water-and-heat kind and those that can be cooked using shelf-stable ingredients like dehydrated broccoli, rice and spam. Through metrics like weight, activity level, calories consumed, and answers to daily survey questions, we’ll provide a long season’s worth of data.

But HI-SEAS is more than just a food study. From the more than 700 applicants worldwide, we were selected for this mission for our astronaut-like qualities in terms of education, experience, and attitude. Quite simply, our job on Mars is to work and live as astronauts would. When we’re not cooking and eating and doing dishes, we’ll be working on our own projects that include field-testing robotic rovers, creating a heat map of the habitat (useful for food storage, etc.), testing antimicrobial textiles, and managing a website for outreach.

You may wonder. Who am I to be writing about all this? By way of introduction, I am a science and technology journalist who was, in a former life, a laser physicist. But on this project, I’m not just a tag-along writer. I’m a participant, too, conducting a sleep study (more on that later) and collaborating with the crew to make sure we get the data we need.

Admittedly, this dual role puts me in a complicated position. Journalists often strive to be critical, impartial, even judgmental. Crewmembers on missions work together to solve challenges and achieve collective goals. For HI-SEAS, I’m an observer and a participant. As I try to strike the balance between these roles, my writing will likely evolve.* Bear with me.

For the next four months I’ll be checking in once a week. With this blog, my hope is to share some day-to-day scenes that give you a feel for life in the bubble. I want to show you how we’ve created Mars on Earth, and what it’s like to live here.**

*An excellent example of writing that strikes this balance well is Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins, the astronaut who orbited the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did their walkabout.

**Mars on Earth is the title for Robert Zubrin’s book about Mars analog habitats. Zubrin is an aerospace engineer and Mars enthusiast who wrote The Case for Mars and founded the Mars Society in 1998. The Mars Society manages two other Mars analog environments, one in southern Utah and another on Devon Island in Canada.

Relevant links:

HI-SEAS website:

Jean Hunter’s site:

Kim Binsted’s site:

Artwork by Jess Anthony

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts
  • Donn Mukensnable

    Welcome to the “red island”…

  • m12345

    Waste of time, mars has less pressure, so water will boil at a lower tempertaure thus food will not be cooked.

    Gravity will allow them to be normal, what they should do is tie helium baloons to themselves for outside activities and inside be in harnesses that reduce their gravity by 2/3rds.

    Again no point testing anything on earth except confinement and social interactions.

    Give them the same packet meal for 6 months as that will be whats its like…and then see what happens, anything less is pointless. You test a weight with its proof-load, you need to test astronauts with proof-loads, which is 300% more extreme than they will encounter.

    • Norbrook

      One would have to assume (and it’s a safe one) that the pressure inside any dome astronauts use on Mars would have considerably higher pressure than Mars atmospheric normal.

      • Carla

        Right. It will be just like living on a high mountain, where people definitely cook with water.

    • Agamemnon

      I agree completely.
      Why are we wasting so much time and energy mulling over a suicide mission to Mars when we’re in the financial dumpster at $17 TRILLION.
      Anybody notice the great scientific advances coming down from the space station?
      How about impressive findings on the martian surface?
      Why don’t we just send some fungal and algal specimen samples to the martian surface and sit back and watch what happens.

  • Sue Cahalane

    This is fascinating! I’m a science teacher for students in grades PK – 4. My kids are extremely interested in Mars & the Mars mission. I just did a blog post on discussion questions we had in class ( I am really looking forward to reading your blog posts!


    Science for Kids


Field Notes

Firsthand reports from DISCOVER correspondents covering science as it happens.

About Kate Greene

Kate Greene is a San Francisco-based science and technology journalist whose work has appeared in Discover magazine, The Economist, and U.S. News & World Report, among others. She is presently a crewmember of HI-SEAS (Hawaiian space Exploration Analog and Simulation), a 120-day simulated Mars mission, during which she will live on the rocky slopes of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa inside a two-story dome, eating astronaut food. As a kid, she wanted to be an astronaut. Gastronaut’s not bad either. Her Internet home is


See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar