Last updated March 28, 2018 at 2:00 pm
Four people are about to enter an isolated dome in Hawai’i, cut off from the rest of the world for eight months. We spoke to one of them as she was preparing for the mission.
Walking down a street in Hilo, the largest city on the “big island” of Hawai’i, Lisa Stojanovski looks like any other 20-something Australian tourist. To passers-by she could be heading off for a surf at one of the pristine beaches, swim in the clear, cool water, or about to hike through the humid rainforests.
As she pauses to cross the street near the university, they might spot her Rocket Lab t-shirt, or International Space University backpack – which might give a hint to her intentions.
But Lisa is not just another tourist. Instead, she is among an elite group, hand selected to experience the closest thing any human can currently get to living on Mars.
Later this week, Lisa will join three others as they enter the Hi-SEAS experiment, the Hawaiʻi Space Exploration Analog and Simulation – a joint project by the University of Hawai’i and NASA to simulate what it would be like to live on another planet.
On the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano
Situated 2.5 kilometres above sea level on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano, the crew will be completely isolated. They won’t see any other humans, there is no vegetation, no animals or water sources around the site, no plumbing or deliveries of supplies, and every time they need to go outside they will do so wearing a space suit.
Food will all be taken in with them, shelf-stable and long-life to last the entire mission. They will have communications with the outside world – but with a 20-minute delay in each direction. Talking over the phone or Skype? Impossible.
They’ll remain in that isolation for eight months.
Their habitat resembles a golf ball, a strange sight so high up this mountain but one that reinforces the feeling of being on a different planet.
There is an otherworldly beauty to the location, with its dry rocky surface and constant cool dry climate, and it is easy to forget that you’re still on Earth.
A solar array is perched next to the living quarters – their source of power for living and experiments. If for some reason the solar cells and attached battery aren’t sufficient, a back-up hydrogen fuel cell kicks in to provide more power.
— Lisa Stojanovski (@LisaStoj) February 10, 2018
But for Lisa and the Hi-SEAS team this isn’t a holiday resort, some getaway to relieve the stress of the modern world. Their habitat is the closest thing possible to a perfect simulation of Mars, and they’ll be living and working as if they were pioneering astronauts.
“The overall objective of Mission 6 is to provide research data to NASA’s Human Factors and Behavioural Performance team so that we can get a better understanding of the risks of long duration human spaceflight,” Lisa tells me as we chat during a break in training prior to her entering the hab. “This includes looking at crew cohesion, behaviour and psychological factors in isolated, confined, extreme environments.”
Lisa and her team aren’t the first crew to enter the isolation – 5 missions have gone before her. However Mission 6 will be the smallest crew – 4 instead of the usual 6, placing even more psychological stress on them.
Coping with isolation
“There will be different research studies that we participate in during our mission that look at things like team-effectiveness, crew communication, behavioural health, mission operations, crew autonomy, and geological exploration.”
One of the major challenges facing space exploration is managing that isolation and relationship between the crew members.
The technical challenges can be controlled, but the interpersonal relationships and human factors are more difficult. It’s experiments like Hi-SEAS which attempts to study those factors and find ways to minimise the problems which could be encountered when astronauts head to other planets for real.
While earlier missions have been predominantly Americans, Mission 6 is also studying cross-cultural factors with the most international group yet. Joining Lisa will be Scottish engineer Calum Hervieu, Slovak astrobiologist Michaela Musilova, and acting as crew commander, US-based Korean economist Sukjin Han.
— Lisa Stojanovski (@LisaStoj) February 11, 2018
Analogue missions like Hi-SEAS also allow processes to be tested out, so Mission 6 members have specific roles within the team, with Lisa being the communications mission specialist, managing all communications with mission control on Earth.
Additionally, the crew will be doing experiments under the direction of Science Officer Musilova and Engineering Officer Hervieu, including geological studies, as well as testing VR systems, additive manufacturing and a range of useful technologies that might be used during Mars exploration.
These experiments allow the testing of the technology, the usefulness and impact, as well as any unforeseen logistical issues, such as resource requirements, repairs, and ease of use. However, it’s these experiments that Lisa says she is most excited about taking part in.
Suiting up for a ‘spacewalk’
“I think the biggest challenge will be exploring outside,” she says. Anytime the crew venture outside of their dome habitat, they’ll be kitted out in a space suit.
“Every few days we’ll be going on spacewalks outside, also known as EVA’s (extravehicular activity). We’re situated on the side of the Mauna Loa volcano so the terrain is tough, rocky, and very easy to slip on. We’ll have to take it slow and steady to make sure we get where we need to go, safely.”
The mission can also be altered and added to during the mission itself as opportunities arise – as an actual space exploration mission would be. This could include extra tasks or experiments to be carried out by, or on, the crew.
Previous participants in Hi-SEAS mention that the EVA’s are one of the stranger experiences while living in the experiment.
While they’re allowed to go outside, due to the suit they get no feeling of a gust of wind, or any of the usual sounds that we usually filter out and take for granted.
After the experiment ends and they’re once again allowed to walk outside without a suit, they point out these basic sensations are something they unexpectedly missed.
— Lisa Stojanovski (@LisaStoj) February 12, 2018
To ensure they are as self-sufficient as possible, the crew receive training before going into the habitat. For Lisa, this includes a crash course in geology, including field trips to lava tubes and caves around the island, as well as learning how to carry out geological sampling.
As well, they are trained in everything they need to know about their habitat. “Before the mission starts, we received training in the hab systems, such as the solar panels and power systems, the sensor and monitoring systems and THE most important hab system – the composting toilet.”
If something breaks, it’ll be up to them to fix it with direction from mission control.
The habitat itself is split over two levels, with general living and scientific areas on the ground floor, and bedrooms and a bathroom above. However there is not much personal space, with the entire habitat measuring 120 square metres – around the size of a small house. Some of that area is taken up by bedrooms 5 and 6, which will go unused in this 4-person mission.
“It’s very much like home. We have regular power sockets, running water and wifi. All our systems are easily monitored and we can check on temperature, humidity and battery levels all from a tablet. It’s kind of like a smart home on steroids” Lisa says.
The crew themselves are also observed and monitored by mission control. In fact the only place the crew isn’t monitored is when they’re outside on an EVA – otherwise they’re living a Truman Show existence.
Our conversation naturally moves to why someone would subject themselves to something like this, the constant isolation yet inability to be alone.
However Lisa takes a more pragmatic view, one which fits her view of her mission in life. “I applied because my dream is to help make humans a multiplanetary species.
I see space as our final frontier and an opportunity for humanity to come together and collaborate as one species, rather than as separate nationalistic groups. I was happy to give up 8 months of my life to further our knowledge of how humans cope in space exploration environments and for me I don’t feel like I’m giving up that much.
Laser-like focus on exploring space
“Honestly I’m hoping to find out if I have the skills and coping strategies needed to survive in isolated, confined, extreme environments. I’ve wanted to be an astronaut for so long and this gives me a ‘taster’ to find out if I have the right mix of skills.”
It’s that long term view that drives her, a laser-like focus on exploring space. She describes herself as a future spacewalker, an aim that has determined her career path so far.
Her undergraduate degree in Science majored in biochemistry and included an Honours project in torpor hibernation in mice – similar to a state of stasis seen in science fiction and being explored by scientists as a way of allowing humans to explore further from Earth for longer.
Lisa also completed a Masters in science communication, touring Australia inspiring school children about science, and in particular space.
She manages the Australian chapter of the Space Generation Advisory Council, and was a recipient of the International Astronautical Federation Emerging Space Leader grant for 2016. This is in addition to creating content for the live online space program TMRO.
She has also studied with the International Space University and helped design Martian greenhouse atmospheres with a NASA researcher, worked for Rocket Lab as a member of their launch team in New Zealand, and now as a crewmember on Hi-SEAS.
Meeting the basics for NASA’s Astronaut Program
To her, it’s just another step towards her end goal. “I think this will increase my desire (to go to space), as its going to make Mars exploration seem so much more real to me. I’m going to become more familiar with the personal requirements of going to Mars, and what I’ll have to ‘give up’ from home.
“I’ll know what to expect, and I’ll hopefully have developed strategies to help me deal with the unique challenges better.”
The selection of crew for Hi-SEAS is especially stringent, and selects from a pool of highly ‘astronaut-like’ candidates. The candidates must meet the basic requirements of the NASA Astronaut Program (an undergraduate degree in a science or engineering discipline, three years of experience or graduate study).
In addition, they are evaluated for experience considered valuable in the program, such as experience in complex operational environments.
The selection is ultimately made by a panel of experts who are familiar with the astronaut selection process. The candidates are also put through extensive psychological testing.
Getting selected for Hi-SEAS does prove that you’re one of the elite.
However, one difference between Hi-SEAS and an actual Mars mission is that Hi-SEAS has an end date. And after eight months of long-life food and isolation, Lisa’s looking forward to one thing on finishing.
“The first thing I’d like when I return to Earth is a big salad. We won’t have access to non shelf-stable foods for eight months! I’m planning to grow some greens over those eight months, but I tend to have a bit of a brown thumb.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I can’t help but ask whether she ever realises this all could sound a little crazy to an outsider.
“I can understand that many people think this might sound weird, but I think lots of people probably thought Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen were strange for wanting to explore the Antarctic last century.
“Today we can look back on what they did in the spirit of exploration and admire the curiosity and drive they had to explore our universe and our place in it.”
While it might only be a small step, it’s people like Lisa and programmes like Hi-SEAS which will play a huge role in allowing us to colonise other planets safely. While she might not have left Earth (yet), Lisa is a vital cog in making our species multi-planetary.
And when humanity does start to spread its wings, you can bet Lisa will be right there amongst them. This is merely her warm up.