Expert Voices

Life in an 8-Month Mars Sim: A Q+A With the Hi-SEAS Team

Neil Scheibelhut, medical Officer, HI-SEAS, Mars
Neil Scheibelhut, medical Officer (Image credit: Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS))

The HI-SEAS crew contributed this article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

With support from NASA, the Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation(HI-SEAS) program launched in 2013 to study how astronauts might interact during long deployments in isolation from the rest of Earth, such as those required for a manned trip to Mars.

HI-SEAS is led by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and the current mission is focused on the social, interpersonal and cognitive factors that affect team performance over time. HI-SEAS crew members are required have "astronaut-like characteristics," including the ability to pass a Class 2 flight physical examination, and undergraduate training as a scientist or engineer. Like the astronaut mission specialists they represent, each participant brings a significant research project or other scholarly work of his or her own to complete while inside the space-analog habitat. 

Now in its third experiment, which began on October 15 and continues until June 15, the current HI-SEAS crew includes:Martha Lenio (Commander), Jocelyn Dunn (Chief Scientist), Sophie Milam (Executive Officer), Allen Mirkadyrov (Crew Engineer), Neil Scheibelhut (Medical Officer), and Zak Wilson (Chief Engineer).

To give readers a better sense of life on "Mars," the crew provided the following exclusive Q+A. See a gallery of images from the crew in"Life on Mars, in Hawai'i (Gallery). "

SDC: What motivated you to put your life on hold and join this project?

Sophie Milam: I remember being five-years-old and telling everyone I wanted to be an astronaut, and throughout my life I've just never stopped wanting that — although I did have to face some harsh realities that I might not be able to go when I became gluten intolerant. When I got the HI-SEAS opportunity I had so many people supporting me and cheering me on, but what really made me want to go was the thought that I might be one of the rare people that got to fulfill a promise to their five-year-old self. I want to know I've contributed to human space exploration and that my time in this dome will make astronauts' lives better in the future, but I also want to do this for the kid inside me that never let me give up the outlandish (outworldish?) dream of space travel and encourage kids everywhere to hold on to their dreams and make them come true.

Martha Lenio: Like the others involved, I dream of one day becoming an astronaut. In addition to that though, I'm very interested in sustainable living and feel that a mission to Mars would be maximizing our ability to live within our means. I was interested to see how sustainable this project was already, and how I could help to improve it over the course of the mission. I also want to see what aspects of our life in the Dome will be able to translate to regular life on Earth.

Zak Wilson: I've been interested in this type of thing for many years. About five years ago, I did a two week stay at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS ), another Mars analog program, located in Utah, which made me interested in doing this longer version. I first applied to HI-SEAS a couple years ago and got accepted this summer. I think sending people to Mars would be an inspiring and valuable thing to do, so I'm happy to be able to contribute to the knowledge necessary for that to happen. I'd also love to be one of the people to get to go to Mars, so this is about as good a test/approximation as I can manage for how I would handle that while remaining on Earth. I also think this is just a generally interesting experience, and I always would have wondered what it would have been like if I had declined a spot on the crew.

Jocelyn Dunn: Signing off from the world and living sustainably on "Mars" is both a technical and personal challenge. I was attractedto the idea of growing stronger intellectually and spiritually. In this confined environment, there are limited factors impacting our psychology, so it's a great place to discover what is the core of my being, what makes me happy, what makes me stressed, and how can I better take care of myself and my relationships. Finding baselines of human behavior is also my research interest here. Again, being in this limited, semi-controlled environment provides an opportunity to collect data about our physiology and develop technology that can quantitatively decipher our health and mood states in an automated manner.

Neil Scheibelhut: In a word … Pride. Sure I could have kept grinding away in Los Angeles, always looking for a better opportunity, always looking forward to that next paycheck so maybe I could treat myself to a concert or a nice dinner out. But that's boring. And it's mundane. It may be good enough for the average American, but I'm not the average American. I need to do something with my life that I can be proud of. So, here I am. I'm a part of something that could help put man on Mars. THAT's something to be proud of. THAT's living a meaningful life, even if it is only for eight months.

Allen Mirkadynrov: My main reason for participating in this project and for "putting my life on hold," as quoted, is to contribute valuable input to the overall space exploration endeavor. I am extremely passionate about space exploration, and I would want nothing more in my personal career, than to provide some useful or valuable input towards humankind's outward expansion. Even if I contribute a very small amount, I would consider it my honor and a small success. The other reason why I joined this project is probably similar to the reasons posted by other participants — we all want to become astronauts someday, and this will surely be a big step in the right direction towards that goal.

The HI-SEAS crew poses with the TARDIS. The crew includes: Martha Lenio (Commander), Jocelyn Dunn (Chief Scientist), Sophie Milam (Executive Officer), Allen Mirkadyrov (Crew Engineer), Neil Scheibelhut (Medical Officer), and Zak Wilson (Chief Engineer). (Image credit: Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS))

SDC: So how are you feeling this far into the mission?

S.M.: I feel great, we're finally hitting a groove as a team and getting our own personal schedules worked out. There are lots of things I miss — showering whenever I want, cooking dinner at night, going outside — but there are so many things that I'm really enjoying here. At the top of that list is how good I feel with the crew. Regardless of whether we're playing board games or preparing for a geology extra-vehicular activity (EVA) everyone is positive, helpful, and fun.

Z.W.: I'm generally liking things in the dome, and the time seems to be flying by. Having time to do personal research is a great opportunity that doesn't come around very often. I'm also really enjoying being around smart people that have different areas of expertise than I do. On the negative side, I've only been outside for maybe a total of 30 minutes since we started four weeks ago (and all of that was in simulated spacesuit that effectively cuts you off from the environment). That is definitely getting to me a little.

A.M.: To put this into a perspective, we have been here less than a month, so it still hasn't kicked in completely (at least for me). I am feeling very well thus far. I feel great physically and I feel great psychologically and emotionally. I am very impressed with the caliber of people that I am fortunate to work with and I could not find a more helpful, unselfish, accommodating and team-oriented group of people if I tried. I truly believe that. Perhaps that's what makes this project run smoothly so far, and I sincerely hope that it continues throughout our stay here.

SDC: Good food can make more of a difference in field work and exploration than some people realize — are you eating well, and what comforts do you have around you?

S.M.: WE EAT SO WELL! Our schedule for cooking is that everyone cooks dinner one day a week and then we have one day of eating leftovers and thus cleaning out our fridge. You're on your own for breakfast and lunch unless you find someone else who wants to eat with you, but its nice be in control of your own diet. An idea has emerged from this that when its your turn to cook you really have to go all out so we end up with chicken caccitori on cornbread (Gluten free for me and Neil), Gahnaian brown nut soup with rice balls (our commander is a world traveler and is exposing us to some awesome food from other cultures), red beans and rice (Zak made this dish and I ate four full servings and then a half serving after our dessert of homemade vanilla ice cream), taco extravaganza (Jocelyn and I made our own crispy corn shells as well as beef and chicken fillings, Spanish rice, salsa and pineapple-cabbage slaw), tuna cakes with barley pearls and Russian pickles (Allen's home cooking is quickly gaining a huge hold on my heart). I've come to consider pickles a luxury, and any real cheese, but other than that all of our food, from ham to kale to milk and anything in between, is either freeze dried, dehydrated or powdered. The real luxury is the time and effort that everyone puts in to making food. I think everyone on this crew agrees that good food can definitely make the difference and we are absolutely dedicated to making sure we don't drop the ball on that. [How 3D Printers Could Reinvent NASA Space Food]

Z.W.: I worried a bit about the food that we would have here on "Mars" in the lead up to the mission. I previously did a two week stint at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), another Mars analog program, and the food there left something to be desired. The first mission at HI-SEAS was a study looking at the palatability of food for Mars missions, so it can be an issue. The first week we were all a little tentative learning to cook with the ingredients we have here. Gallon jugs of freeze dried vegetables, big cans of freeze dried meat and then things like pasta, sugar, rice, flour and other grains make up the basis of most of our meals. Our ability to cook with the stuff we have has vastly improved over the past few weeks. I am unquestionably eating better here than I did living on my own. The cooking schedule we decided on is each dinner has a chef, sous chef and a couple people on clean up. This means, on average, each person is in charge of cooking only one meal a week and helping with another. Since each person doesn't cook very often, we've gotten into a bit of a thing doing pretty elaborate (and delicious) meals. We haven't been wanting in variety either, we've done Indian, Thai, Persian, Ghanaian, Chinese, Hawaiian, Greek/Turkish, Russian/Azerbaijani a few times, Mexican a couple times, a few Italian-ish dishes, plus some more American stuff including some solid southern and comfort food.

J.D.: Food here is more than sustenance. We socialize and bond through cooking and sharing meals together each evening. At first, we were all intimidated by the freeze-dried, shelf-stable ingredients, but now we are talking about having Iron Chef cooking challenges — that's what happens when you have a group of high-performing, competitive individuals. Our meals keep getting better and better.

N.S.: I am actually really surprised at how well we are eating. This crew is going all out with our meals. I didn't eat this well before coming into the dome. I miss fresh food, but we are eating very well.

SDC: What experiments are showing promise already?

S.M.: Martha's garden is showing some good progress, the cilantro is starting to have real cilantro leaves instead of just the baby sprouts. Zak has made a range ofgreat things with his 3D printer, including parts for fixing my watch-band. Jocelyn has been taking all kinds of measurements about our general health and wellbeing and we have Jawbone Up bands that allow us to keep track of our sleep, mood and eating habits, which I've found incredibly useful. My area of research is tensegrity robotics, and when I'm not actively doing research I'm writing up my final research paper for my MEME degree and it is looking promising — hopefully I will be receiving my diploma and stole from Martha in December.

Z.W.: The main experiment I brought was a 3D printer, with the idea that I would be able to print replacements for things that broke or design new things as we came up with them, rather than having to wait for our resupply every 2 months. I've used a few 3D printers before, but I bought my own (an Up mini) for this mission. I've been working with Made in Space ( who gave me some training before the mission began, and they have been providing me with some technical support. I've managed to print a few useful items already, a white board marker clip, a replacement watch buckle for one my crewmates' watch and a holder for our shower timer (our water is rationed). I think this capability has great potential and I'm really enjoying it so far. It is also great to be able to solve some more of our own problems rather than relying on mission support.

J.D.: For my research, I've been using Hexoskin biometric shirts and Jawbone wristbands to collect data about our health and performance. From hexoskin, I can collect rich electrocardiogram (ECG) data along with heart and respiration rates to track our performance during workouts and EVAs. With Jawbone, we are tracking our activity, sleep, diet and mood. The goal is to develop technology for automatically inferring stress states from wearable device data. As validation, I'm collecting hair and urine samples to analyze for biomarkers of stress. The data collection stage of this work is largely established, so I'm now working on the analytics for harvesting information from these rich data about our health and activities.

SDC: What experiments are growing problematic?

M.L.: A general comment on some of the psych experiments is that the hardware or software is not entirely reliable. We've had some problems with tablets not working, or software crashing. We've managed to find work-arounds, but it's not ideal. One aspect of the study that's likely contributing to the difficulty is the 20-minute delay on the internet here [a requirement of the simulation]. Any app that relies on live internet is going to have issues, and things start to become flaky.

Z.W.: The other experiment I brought with me is an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The idea was it might be useful for escapism/relaxation, as it can be hard to get away from the reality of being confined in a 1,300 sq ft dome with five other people during our eight months here. This was something that I bought specifically for this mission and had never tried or set up before. Getting it working is proving more difficult than I had anticipated. Mainly this is because of the time delay/lack of internet. Downloading drivers and demos is difficult since I have to get mission support to send me stuff and also get answers to questions. I'm hoping I'll get it working better, but it hasn't been very useful thus far.

N.S.: Nothing yet. <knocks on wood>

SDC: What do you miss most about the outside world?

S.M.: Of course my family, friends and being able to go outside any time I want, but the crew is becoming very much like family and friends, we joke and make fun, and get competitive over board games. It really it reminds me of being home with my own family. The one thing there is no analogue for is pets, I miss my dog Charly and my hedgehog Slim Pricklins.

M.L.: Sun, wind, just being outside.

Z.W.: Variety in exercise. I'm a pretty big runner and rock climber. We have a treadmill that I've been using, but it just doesn't do it for me. We've also been doing P90X as a group which is fun, but still lacking in variety. I'm guessing as time passes, family and friends will be the thing I miss most — but since we are only about four weeks in, that isn't so bad yet.

N.S.: You know, the Cleveland Browns are in first place, and I'm sure that city is rocking. I wish I was there to help cheer them on.

A.M.: What I miss most is of course my family and friends. I love everyone here at the habitat, but at the same time I do miss hearing the voices of loved ones or watching their facial expressions in real time. Other than people, I miss the fresh air, sea, sunshine on my face, rain and other natural wonders that we take for granted

SDC: What are you learning about how to live in isolation, with only a few others, for so long?

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S.M.:Other than the obvious stuff like doing dishes on your night and staying tidy, one of the most important lessons I've found is to take the time to talk with people one-on-one. Often I feel like I'm surrounded by everyone, and its difficult to form a real connection without having that personal time away from the group.

Z.W.: Obviously it is still pretty early in the mission, but we have been getting along great. I think the selection committee did a good job selecting people with the right variety of skills and personalities that mesh well. We seem to have found a good balance between being around each other all the time and not being in each other's faces. We are mostly doing our own things during the day (with the exception of EVAs and a few required group tasks), but in the evening we hang out. We've all been working out together and most nights after dinner we watch a movie or play a board game together. I think as time passes it will get harder, the inability to be alone isn't something I've ever really dealt with before.

J.D.: I am trying to find a balance between private and group time. It is sometimes difficult to say "no" to a movie or game night, but personally, it is important for me to have adequate time for self-reflection.

N.S.: You know, as of now, we are all getting along so well, it kind of feels like a college dorm. We hang out and watch movies together. It actually doesn't seem that different from being outside. However, I feel like the dynamic of this crew is not a coincidence, and maybe we are all the kind of people who don't mind roughing it a little, and are very social.

A.M.: I am learning how to read people's moods, how to interject my thoughts into helpful comments (when necessary), and how to be as helpful and accommodating to people as they are to me. This question may get a fuller response as time goes on, but with less than a month under our belts here, it's really difficult to fully grasp our isolation and limitations (at least for me).

SDC: Would you go on a mission to Mars?

S.M.: Absolutely, where do I sign?!

M.L.: Yes! In a heartbeat!

Z.W.: Yes, I would love to. That is really why I'm doing this. It is either good practice for the real thing or maybe the closest I'll ever get.

J.D.: Yes, I dream of being a part of pioneering human space exploration. I've found my work on this simulated Mars mission deeply interesting and compelling, and consequently intend to apply for NASA's next round of astronaut selection. Regardless, I will continue research in these fields making contributions to the development and expansion of humanity's exploration of space. [How Long Does It Take to Get to Mars? ]

N.S.: If I got to go with the other five people I'm with, I'd sign up right now.

A.M.: Absolutely. I would not think twice about it and I would volunteer to go immediately. As I mentioned in my first answer, my real passion in life has always been space exploration. If I could contribute to improving life on Earth for the rest of humanity by going to Mars, I would consider it my duty, honor and privilege. I hope someday that such an opportunity comes my way, so I can be one of the first volunteers.

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