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For the past five years, small groups of people have made this drive and moved into the dome, known as a habitat. Their job is to pretend that they really are on Mars, and then spend months living like it.

Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation

The goal, for the researchers who send them there, is to figure out how human beings would do on a mission to the real thing. In February of this year, the latest batch of pioneers, a crew of four, made the journey up the mountain. They settled in for an eight-month stay.

Four days later, one of them was taken away on a stretcher and hospitalized. The remaining crew members were evacuated by mission support. All four eventually returned to the habitat, not to continue their mission, but to pack up their stuff. Their simulation was over for good. The little white dome has remained empty since, and the University of Hawaii, which runs the program, and NASA , which funds it, are investigating the incident that derailed the mission.

The durations have varied, from four months to a full year, and participants come from all over the world and different fields. They wear devices to track their vitals, movements, and sleep, answer countless questionnaires about their own behavior and their interactions with others, and journal several times a week about their feelings. Meanwhile, the crew members live as much as possible like they are on Mars.

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They eat freeze-dried food, use a composting toilet, take second showers to conserve water, and never step outside without a space suit and helmet. An email to mission support or their loved ones takes 20 minutes to get there. Receiving a response takes another 20 minutes.

These six people simulated a mission to Mars on a Hawaiian volcano

The habitat is a tight squeeze. The ground floor, which includes a kitchen, bathroom, a lab, and exercise spaces, measures square feet. The second floor, where the bedrooms are, spans square feet. But sometimes, Earth finds a way of sneaking in, of breaking the fuzzy boundary between simulation and reality. Mission six arrived at the habitat on February The crew waved goodbye to the researchers gathered outside the dome, felt the breeze on their faces for the last time for a long time, and piled in. The doors closed.

Michaela Musilova, one of the crew members, described their first moments in an interview in April with The Cosmic Shed , a science podcast. Musilova declined an interview with The Atlantic. The first few days were cloudy, which can be a problem on the volcano. The habitat and its systems run on a battery bank that is charged each day through a large solar array on the grounds.

On cloudy or rainy days, it can be difficult for the batteries to bounce back. When this happens, the crew is supposed to suit up, go outside, and turn on a car-size backup generator that runs on propane. As stubborn clouds hung over the habitat, the crew tried to minimize their energy use.

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They dimmed most of the lights, kept kitchen appliances unplugged, and stayed off the treadmill. On the morning of February 19, Lisa Stojanovski, a science communicator from Australia, woke up to find that the power in the habitat had gone out. Stojanovski and another crew member initiated the procedures for leaving the habitat. They shimmied into their space suits, stepped outside, and headed for the backup propane generator, located nearby on the grounds.

Stojanovski and her partner would flip a switch to bring the generator to life, while the two other crew members would flip a switch on a circuit breaker inside the habitat. This maneuver would shift the power source from the dead batteries over to the generator, Stojanovski said.

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When it was done, Stojanovski came back inside. That was my first gut feeling that something was not quite right. One of the crew members was typing furiously at a computer.

The other looked stricken, pale. Nothing like this had ever happened before inside the habitat. The injured crew member was shivering. They lay down on the floor. The others covered them in blankets. The person designated as the crew commander then called on the emergency line. If first responders came to the dome, the simulation would be compromised. This took her aback. Stojanovski believed they needed an ambulance, and they needed it now.

Safety is paramount.

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But so is maintaining the simulation. Leaving the habitat would mean throwing away hours and hours of physical, social, and emotional investment. For participants who came from outside of the United States, it even means visa troubles. The thought of abandoning the simulation becomes more painful the longer the mission goes on. This group was chosen to encompass working experience in many fields, including medicine, engineering, biology and computer engineering. Part of the chamber simulated the spacecraft that would transport them on their journey to and from Mars and another part simulated the landing module that would transfer them to and from the martian surface.

Following the completion of an initial day isolation period in , a full day study was started in June Candidates for this test began their mission training in February and the end of the isolation period was 4 November Sealed in the chamber, the candidates had only personal contact with each other plus voice contact with a simulated control centre and family and friends as would normally happen in a human spaceflight mission. A minute delay was built into communications with the control centre to simulate an interplanetary mission and the crew was given almost an identical diet to that used for the International Space Station.


As with a human spaceflight mission, the crew was free to take certain personal items, and they were supplied with books, films, personal laptops and can occupy themselves with physical exercise or their own studies. During the isolation period the candidates simulated all elements of the Mars mission, travelling to Mars, orbiting the planet, landing and return to Earth. The crew was responsible for monitoring and maintaining the health and psychological states of themselves and each other as well as monitoring and controlling and maintaining systems, including life support, control resource consumption.

During the mission the crew carried out standard and non-standard cleaning and maintenance, as well as fulfilling scientific investigations. Places with water and the chemistry needed for life potentially provide habitable conditions. This mission is part of a series of expeditions to the red planet that help meet the four main science goals of the Mars Exploration Program:. Determine whether life ever arose on Mars Determine whether life ever arose on Mars more Characterize the climate of Mars Characterize the climate of Mars more Characterize the geology of Mars Characterize the geology of Mars more Prepare for human exploration Prepare for human exploration more Determine whether life ever arose on Mars more Characterize the climate of Mars more Characterize the geology of Mars more Prepare for human exploration more.