One big question: What were the biggest surprises from living in a simulated Martian habitat for a …

On August 28, six scientists emerged from a 1,200 sq ft (111.5 sq m) geodesic dome on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. They had just participated in the fourth – and longest – mission of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) research project, which is a joint mission between NASA and the University of Hawaii meant to study the way people cohabitate over long periods of time. The hope is to gain insight into how a small community of pioneers might one day get along on Mars.

As part of our regular weekly feature, New Atlas asked two of the mission participants what their biggest positive and negative surprises were from living in close quarters with other people for a full year.

The first to respond was Tristan Bassingthwaighte, the mission’s architect who would like to one day design a real habitat for life on Mars.

I would say the biggest positive is that when you remove social media, TV and commuting, and even the need to have a job – because you can’t go to a job when you’re in there – you had a lot of time to do stuff for yourself. For example, I learned how to salsa dance, trained for and ran a marathon, lost 20 pounds (9 kg) and got back in shape, learned how to cook, got 150 pages of my doctorate written, and did a lot of funky t-shirt designs.

There’s so much time to really work on yourself that if you have another person who might be excited and keep you on task, you just kind of go for it. You’d be amazed at the amount of stuff you could get done. I came out a much more talented and experienced person in a way, because I had the time to develop myself that daily life rarely gives us.

(We had to cheat on our “one” question at this point and ask just how it was that Bassingthwaighte was able to train to run a marathon while cooped up in the simulated Mars habitat.)

Obviously we can’t go for long jogs, but we do have this sad, sad, broken down treadmill that tries really hard to do the job. So I expressed some interest in trying to do a marathon to see if I could pull that off – because that’s way farther than I’ve ever run before. And we had the first-tier support people who answer our emails and make sure we’re still healthy up there, just get a training plan together essentially. Carmel (Johnston) printed the whole thing off and said you’re running these miles on these dates for the next three months, and if you don’t, I’ll hit you with a spoon, and I just did it. The numbers kept going higher and higher until I had a 20-mile (32-km) day and just thought, “you know, what’s another 6.2?” By the way, Carmel ran two while we were in there because she’s insane.

The kitchen inside the habitat

Probably the biggest negative surprise was how difficult it can be working with people. That can be taken as a general statement, or maybe applied to certain kinds of people. It’s just that when you’re in there, you can’t really have ground control tell you what to do because there was a huge delay. (Editor’s note: communications were deliberately delayed by 20 minutes between mission control and the residents of the habitat to simulate communications with a someday research station on Mars.)

And all your interactions that are going to be necessary to say, go on an EVA (extra-vehicular-activity) or plan research, or do some of the assignments that are meant to simulate a mission, there might be a certain number of people who want to do it one way and others who think it should be completely something else. Unless everyone is very respectful of one another and has the patience to listen to why you think it should be done a certain way, and have an actual discussion versus a debate or something else, it makes it tough to get stuff done sometimes.

So more effort than you might expect goes to the social element of getting tasks done – simply figuring it out and saying “OK this is good, let’s go.” A stubborn personality can be a huge game changer up there. I thought people would be more flexible than sometimes they were.

Close quarters, such as the bedrooms upstairs, create some interesting challenges for mission participants

The next response came from Crew Commander Carmel Johnston, who has an interest in researching what food production might be like on the Red Planet one day.

The most positive surprise I had was when we got to go explore the lava tubes and just explore the landscape around us because we didn’t know anything about the area. We weren’t able to explore at all before because that’s part of what a future mission to Mars will have to do – explore everything around them when they first land.

So we finally got to go outside, explore the lava tubes and the skylights and really get to know the landscape. It was so much fun because these lava tubes go for ages and there are tunnels and ups and downs and you have little tiny points you have to squeeze through. All the different adventures that are part of caving we got to experience and that was pretty fun – and it was definitely nice to do it in a spacesuit where you couldn’t get cut like you might if you were only in jeans and a t-shirt.

The blueprints for the lower level of the habitat

The negative experience for me was trying to focus on getting something done. The habitat is so small – there are six people living in it – so there’s always someone in every location and it’s really noisy because there isn’t a whole lot of soundproofing. So in order to get the one thing done you wanted to get done for that day, if you need quiet to do it or if you need somebody else to help you with it, you have to coordinate with that other person, you have to find a time when nobody else is making other noises – which is just about never.

You could have music if you like it and we could have headphones, but really noise-canceling headphones don’t help when the ground is shaking underneath you. It’s the whole thing about living in a common space where everyone has to share and it’s difficult at times but we got through it, we’re on the other side now.