Settling in at the Mars Habitat

By Kate Greene | April 23, 2013 4:22 pm

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

The University of Hawaii’s .9 meter telescope in the foreground; in the background, 30 miles away, is Mauna Loa, where the HI-SEAS Mars habitat is located. Photo copyright Ernie Mastroianni

In the week before HI-SEAS began, the crew participated in a number of orientation activities that included cultural awareness sessions, visits with local elders, and planting native Hawaiian trees on Mauna Kea, the volcano to the north of Mauna Loa which will be our home for the next four months. Also on Mauna Kea, we toured the Gemini observatory, neighbor to Keck, both of which sit above the clouds at roughly 14,000 feet. Our timing for the tour was just right to catch one of the most spectacular Earth sunsets I’ve seen: cinder cones silhouetted against blues, yellows, and oranges smeared across the sky as our star slipped into a gauzy layer of cumulus.

On Mars the sky is red, but sunsets are blue thanks to optical properties of dust in the air, which scatters light differently when it comes in at evening angles. We’ve been on simulated Mars for three days* (as of the time of this writing) and in this time, I’ve yet to see the sky, let alone a sunset. Our habitat is windowless. Because of the the semi-opaque vinyl that covers the dome, we have outside illumination, but it’s indirect and muted. This means, on simulated Mars, the color of most of our sunsets is grey.

Within the next week or so, we’ll be going outside for extravehicular activities, or EVAs. Wearing simulated spacesuits (fashioned from large hazmat suits), we’ll walk the crunchy basalt rock near the habitat. We’ll see the sun—albeit through plastic, tinted visors—while we perform general maintenance, explore the geology of the region, and get a little exercise.**

I’m looking forward to it. This week has been full of housekeeping—unpacking equipment, setting up the kitchen, bathrooms, and crew quarters. We’ve also been testing the habitat systems in general; this is a new structure, and since we’re its first inhabitant, we are implicitly testing the limits. So far the two toilets, the most important system in my view, have worked well. The generator, however, lost an inverter yesterday; the replacement part will arrive from the mainland in a couple days. Late last night, with assistance from local mission support, we got a backup running. It powers some of the habitat, but not the communications system, hence the delay in my post. But what’s a nuisance for us is a stark reminder that system redundancy and resilience will be crucial to the survival of astronauts on Mars.

Courtesy Sian Proctor

Our focus on this mission, luckily, is not survival in a deadly environment, but to conduct a food experiment. So, this week we completed the all-important task of finalizing the food inventory, which took the better part of two days. Four months of food for six people is a massive, sprawling mountain of grub, and organizing it is more work that you might expect. Imagine a counter covered in tea boxes, tables stacked with packets of spices and instant Indian food, and piles of 25-pound bags of flour, and you’re getting close.

Early on, we had to decide how to ration shared meals and ingredients smartly over the duration of the mission. We now have stacks of plastic bins labeled for each month and some special items, like fortune cookies, we’re saving for the third quarter of the mission when crews tend to get restless and cranky. We also decided to divvy up snacks so that each crewmember has his or her own stash. Goodies such as peanuts, apricots, Famous Amos cookies, Fruit Loops and M&Ms nearly fill a 27-gallon plastic bin.

Courtesy Sian Proctor

Next week we start to collect data for the main HI-SEAS experiment—weighing and photographing our meals, compiling and reporting recipes, and completing lengthy surveys on our food, mood and health. It’s going to be a long four months without the sun. But at least there’s food to enjoy.

*A severe storm struck Mauna Loa on April 15, our intended landing date, which delayed our mission a day. We arrived late Tuesday night, April 16.

**We exercise inside the habitat as well using a stationary bike, resistance bands, and body-weight exercises. On the ISS, astronauts exercise up to 2.5 hours per day. We’re aiming for about 1 hour a day, necessary not only for fidelity, but because in the coming weeks we’ll also be testing an antimicrobial workout shirt provided by NASA.

***Also: Check out this fascinating overview of HI-SEAS:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Select
MORE ABOUT: HI-SEAS, Mars
  • JonFrum

    Fruit Loops and Famous Amos cookies? God forbid Americans should have to go without the essentials for more than a few days.

  • http://www.chameleonwebservices.co.uk/ Ian Bevis

    This is something that will be either be a fun experience to remember or one of those horrible experiences that drags. Good luck.

  • Alan

    Hey, the Navy got it right when they figured out that sailors trapped inside little tin cans for months at a time required the absolute best, most interesting and delicious food in order to maintain morale. Submarine chefs have to be superb. After retiring from the Navy, they have their pick of high cuisine jobs anywhere in the world, including the White House. I can’t think of anything closer to traveling to and living on Mars than crewing a nuclear sub.

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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 kategreene.net.

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