Yearlong Mock Mars Mission to Test Mental Toll of Isolation

The mission will simulate what it might be like for astronauts journeying to Mars.

On Friday (Aug. 28), six scientists left the comforts of civilization, set to be gone for an entire year. Their mission will simulate what it might be like for astronauts journeying to Mars.

In the confines of a 36-foot-wide (11 meters) and 20-foot-high (6 m) solar-powered dome in a remote location on the island of Hawaii, the six team members will have to live together for 365 days. They will have no face-to-face contact with humans outside of the dome. This is the fourth and longest such mission carried out by the Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program, and its goal is to find out how people will respond to the isolation that might accompany a mission to Mars.

"We hope that this upcoming mission will build on our current understanding of the social and psychological factors involved in long-duration space exploration," Kim Binsted, principal investigator for HI-SEAS, said in a statement from the University of Hawaii. [The 9 Coolest Mock Space Missions Ever]

Photos: Curiosity Drills Hole Into Mars Rock

The HI-SEAS project, which is based at University of Hawaii at Manoa, has put crews into the isolated mock Mars colony in four previous missions: two 4-month missions in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and an eight-month mission that ended in June 2015. During those previous trips, the crewmembers were allowed to leave the dome in spacesuits, occasionally engaging in outdoor activities like golfing, but mostly to do research in the local environment, the way members of a real Mars crew would.

MD2: settled into quarters.

The team has a yearlong supply of food and water. The cuisine, which the team must be able to store for months at a time, is similar to what astronauts eat. Team member Sheyna Gifford tweeted on Saturday (Aug. 29) a picture of a quesadilla, with some peas and corn. She wrote, "First dinner in simulated space: The cheese & turkey quesadilla & all the veggies were all dehydrated 30 min. ago."

The HI-SEAS habitat features a downstairs area with a lab, a kitchen, a common workspace, an exercise area, a dining room and a bathroom. Upstairs are six small bedrooms and a bathroom.

Private Mars Mission in 2018?

The current mission will "focus on crewmember cohesion and performance," the statement said. "HI-SEAS researchers are working to develop effective team composition and support strategies to allow crews to successfully travel to Mars and back, an estimated three-year journey."

Researchers will monitor the six crewmembers throughout the mission via cameras, body-movement trackers and other methods. Back in the real world, the researchers will gather data on "a wide range of cognitive, social and emotional factors that may impact team performance," according to the statement.

The crew consists of three women and three men; four of the crew are American, one is French and one is German.As with most real spaceflight missions, the six crewmembers have a wide range of experiences and specialties, including physics, soil science, biology, medicine, robotic spaceflight, astrophysics and architecture. Gifford, who is serving as the mission's health science officer and habitat journalist, has also worked as a science journalist. Gifford has written for Astrobiology Magazine, and some of her articles have been republished here on

Gifford also has a blog called "Live from Mars" where she will write about the experience. Andrzej Stewart, chief engineering officer for the fourth HI-SEAS mission, is also keeping a blog called "Surfing with the Aliens."

According to the statement, the program was awarded its third grant from NASA this past May. Those funds will be used to "keep the research project and its missions funded through 2018," the statement said.

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A view of the HI-SEAS habitat on the island of Hawai'i, where six crew members will spend a year in isolation. The experiment is meant to test the social and psychological effects of a real Mars mission.

Nothing says “astronaut” quite like a spacesuit. Whether it’s the shiny aluminized nylon flight suits worn by the original Mercury Seven astronauts or the pressurized bright orange “pumpkin suits” worn by space shuttle crews, the clothes do make the man or the woman. It’s much more than a look; the suits could be the only thing that separates an astronaut from life or death in case of an emergency. Here’s a look at some spacesuits in NASA’s storerooms.

With the end of the space shuttle program, NASA began working on a spacesuit that astronauts could wear for forays into deep space, beyond where the space station flies. Last month, the agency awarded an 18-month, $4.4-million contract to ILC Dover to design, manufacture and test a new type of spacesuit called the Z-2. Pictured here is a predecessor prototype, the Z-1, which resembles something Buzz Lightyear might have in his closet. The design is intended to be more comfortable and more flexible for spacewalkers than the Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMU, that spacewalkers wear today.

NASA looked to the U.S. Navy when it came time to design a spacesuit for its first group of astronauts, the Mercury Seven, pictured here, who were selected in 1959. The agency modified a version of high altitude jet aircraft pressure suit. Beneath the shiny layer of aluminized nylon is an inner layer of Neoprene-coated nylon.

It wasn’t enough to simply land on the moon. The Apollo astronauts were tasked to get out of their spaceship and walk around. Three crews even got to drive around in lunar rovers. Their spacesuits were the first to include a liquid-cooled inner garment and an outer layer to protect against micrometeoroid impacts. Pictured here is the iconic shot of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin taken by his crew mate and commander, Neil Armstrong.

NASA dropped pressurized flight suits for space shuttle crews after four test flights. When Vance Brand, Bob Overmyer, Joe Allen and Bill Lenoir blasted off aboard Columbia on Nov. 11, 1982, for the fifth shuttle mission they wore just blue flights suits with oxygen helmets.

After the 1986 shuttle Challenger accident, NASA beefed-up safety requirements, which included a redesign flight suit for astronauts to wear during launch and landing. The so-called “pumpkin suits” evolved into the Advanced Crew Escape Suit, pictured here. The full-pressure suit is based on U.S. Air Force high-altitude pressure suits worn by SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 spy plane pilots. It includes a parachute pack and harness, life raft, life preserver, gloves, oxygen manifolds and valves, boots and survival gear.

To protect astronauts working outside the shuttle or the space station, NASA developed the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU. It’s more like a self-contained satellite than a spacesuit, offering spacewalkers environmental protection, life support and communications. The two-piece semi-rigid suit, which weighs about 300 pounds, is one of two kinds used on the space station today. The other is one-piece semi-rigid Russian Orlan suit. Astronaut Steve Robinson, attached to the Canadarm2 during STS-114 in 2005, is pictured here.

NASA has studied dozens of spacesuit designs over the years, including the AX-5, pictured here, which was developed at the Ames Research Center in California. The high-pressure suit uses hard metal and a composite rigid exoskeleton design.

Many old spacesuits end up in museums. But this decommissioned Russian Orlan suit took on a new life as a low-cost satellite. Dubbed SuitSat, the discarded spacesuit was filled with old clothes, outfitted with a radio transmitter and released into Earth orbit on Feb. 3, 2006. It was eventually pulled back into the atmosphere by the planet’s gravity and burned up.