Project studies psychological rigors of long space missions

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Participants in a four-month simulated Mars mission on Mauna Loa were required to wear space suits when they went outside. Photo Courtesy: HI-SEAS

Kim Binsted has a doctoral degree in artificial intelligence. These days, though, she’s more interested in humans.

The big question she’s exploring: How do you keep astronauts sane during long space expeditions?

Binsted is the principal investigator of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog Simulation (HI-SEAS), a unique program aimed at studying how everything from food boredom to team cohesion could affect crew function and performance during months or years in space.

This fall, she wrapped up a four-month simulation, in which six participants ate, slept, and worked in a geodesic dome perched at 8,000 feet above sea level on Mauna Loa, where miles of lava rock offer a decidedly Mars-like setting.

Thanks to a $1.2 million NASA grant, HI-SEAS will be conducting three more long-duration space mission studies over the next three years. One of the missions will last for four months, one for eight months, and the third will run for a full year.

For the simulation completed in August, participants followed strict rules to ensure they mimicked what life on Mars might be like for a science team.

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The HI-SEAS biosphere was located at 8,000 feet above sea level on Mauna Loa, where the landscape is decidedly Mars-like. Photo Courtesy: Angelo Vermeulen

If the participants went outside, it was in a simulated space suit. Their food intake was meticulously tracked, as was their physical activity.

They were under strict water usage rules — and experienced communication delays with Earth, as astronauts on Mars would.

While the crew was in isolation, researchers sought to study how different types of food and food preparation techniques could not only keep astronauts well-nourished, but give them a chance to be creative and bond as a team.

Participant Yajaira Sierra-Sastre prepares a meal from long shelf life foods. Participants switched between eating cooked foods and pre-prepared astronaut foods. Courtesy: HI-SEAS

Participant Yajaira Sierra-Sastre prepares a meal from long shelf life foods. Participants switched between eating cooked foods and pre-prepared astronaut foods. Photo Courtesy: HI-SEAS

The six participants, all researchers themselves, switched between eating the pre-prepared and packaged food that astronauts eat and “shelf-stable” foods that required preparation.

As part of the mission, there was a public call for recipes, based on the ingredients available to the team. That’s how the participants found themselves eating spam musubi, curried spam fried rice noodles, and Hawaiian celebration cake.

Angelo Vermeulen, who was crew commander on the first mission, said during his four months in isolation he realized the importance of food to overall emotional well-being.

“It does indeed have a huge impact on crew morale, crew cohesion, and health and well-being in general,” he said. “What makes a big difference is allowing everyone in the crew to cook. During the course of four months, everybody got a chance to collaborate on meals with everybody else.”

Vermeulen, who has a doctoral degree in biology and is working on a second in space systems research, said he also learned the importance of creativity and creating community on long missions.

During the mission, he not only conducted his own research (as did the other participants), he worked on a photo project that he hopes to turn into a book.

“We were interested in creating things,” he said. “When you’re in isolation like this with six different people, and you create something that was not planned, the joy is immense.”

HI-SEAS, a collaboration between the University of Hawaii and Cornell University, plans to publish results from the mission soon.

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University of Hawaii Professor Kim Binsted is principal investigator for the HI-SEAS project, which is studying how long-duration space missions might affect humans.

Meanwhile, recruitment for the upcoming simulations is already ramping up, and Binsted said her focus is now on crew composition.

She said she’ll be studying what types of personality traits and characteristics lead to “crew resiliency.”

Potential participants will be given personality tests and undergo interviews. Some 700 people applied to participate in HI-SEAS’ first four-month mission.

Binsted said while the crew was “fantastic and diverse,” she’s hopeful that someone from Hawaii will make the cut this time around.

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