On the active volcano of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, six researchers are three months into a yearlong simulation of life on Mars. It is the fourth mission, and the longest so far, of its kind.
Funded by NASA, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation is conducting experiments that study the challenges people would expect to face living with a small group in an isolated dome in anticipation of future manned missions to Mars.
In order to complete the current mission, the six researchers must live in a 1,000-square-foot dome for a full year and can only leave the dome while wearing an elaborate mock spacesuit.
Hawaii's Mauna Loa — an active volcano that last erupted in 1984 — is considered ideal for the space mission because of its relative isolation and reddish-brown barren landscape, which is said to resemble Mars.
BuzzFeed News spoke with the mission's six researchers via email — they're not allowed to make phone calls or video chat — to find out more about what life on a long voyage to Mars is like.
Tristan Bassingthwaighte, an architecture PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii, said one of the things he missed the most about life outside of the dome was the simple ability to meander. All of the crew members seemed to deal with this feeling by exercising a lot.
Bassingthwaighte said there were some things he didn't expect to miss, like "the touristy parts of the island," but after only being with five other people over the last few months he thought a "few hundred strangers around would be really fun."
Carmel Johnston, a soil scientist from Montana, added that it surprised her that she missed the "ordinary day things," like randomly "running into someone you know" or "just being in the presence of the ones that you love."
Inside the dome, the group shares incredibly intimate quarters and their only private space is a small, narrow room with a single bed.
"The soundproofing is analogous to the thinnest wall you can imagine," Bassingthwaighte noted.
Still, he said there haven't been too many conflicts. "You'll have the random insensitive comments at times, little bickering matches, but nothing bad."
About once a week, the crew is allowed to leave the dome — but in spacesuits. Even though the spacesuits don't let that much light in, Johnston said it still feels great to be outside.
Bassingthwaighte called the spacesuits "a big hassle" and described them as heavy and incredibly uncomfortable.
Additionally, he said the suits cause crew members to sweat a lot, and they aren't allowed to shower often because of the limited water supply, making it a sticky situation.
"Feeling the wind again," Bassingthwaighte said, "sounds like heaven."
The crew spends a lot of time thinking about food, which is mostly dehydrated, like real astronauts would have to eat.
"The food here is great," Johnston said. "We have an assortment of freeze dried and dehydrated meats, vegetables, and cheeses as well as a full array of baking items."
Different members of the team are in charge of cooking meals, with an expert who bakes fresh sourdough every week and others who make fresh mozzarella and cheddar from powdered milk.
"We end up making lots of substitutions," Johnston added. "When you run out of egg, you use applesauce or flax seed, ghee instead of butter, and cream powder instead of cream, but it usually turns out pretty similar."
The crew's garden has also just grown enough that it is ready to be harvested, meaning they finally have fresh ingredients for salad.
Bassingthwaighte said he used to crave ice cream, but the group eventually learned how to make it. Still, he said when the mission ends he'll probably gain about 20 pounds eating all the food he was craving, such as fresh avocado or a giant burger.
Bassingthwaighte said the only really awkward thing about living in the dome is the weekly maintenance of the toilet.
"I've been elbow deep in a 40 gallon drum full of the waste from 5 other people," Bassingthwaighte said. "But you do feel less like a stranger with someone when you've shoveled their crap into a bucket."
"I'm so looking forward to normal toilets," he added. "You have no idea."
The crew is allowed only very limited internet access and they receive messages after a 20 minute delay — to simulate what communicating between space and Earth would be like.
"I tend to hear about things that might be relevant (or super important) when my dad or friends write to me," Bassingthwaighte said.
Johnston said it was particularly difficult to learn about the death of a loved one while being so far away from family and friends. She added that she missed her family "a ton," but dealt with it by frequently emailing with them.
Bassingthwaighte noted that the isolation of the mission offered a chance to improve oneself and that he was trying to draw with any free time he has — which isn't much since they are kept so busy.
"It's a chance to really work on yourself," Bassingthwaighte said. "Or stare at the wall and let your mind unravel."
Michelle Broder Van Dyke is a reporter and night editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Hawaii.
Contact Michelle Broder Van Dyke at email@example.com.
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