To 'Mars' and Back

After 365 days on “Mars” —  8,000 feet above Mauna Loa, Hawai‘i — six Hawai‘i space exploration analog and simulation (HI-SEAS) crew members completed their fourth mission. 

Simulating long duration space travel, the crew lived inside a solar-powered dome where they were isolated for one year.  According to its website, the two-story structure is 36 feet in diameter with an area of 1,417 sq. feet plus a 160 sq. feet workshop that is attached to the habitat. 

Kim Binsted, a professor of information and computer sciences at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, was the principal investigator for the study.

She said when NASA plans a mission, there are a list of risks dealing with the experiment itself. The HI-SEAS project was a way to test and understand some of these risks.

In 2012, Binsted and Jean Hunter from Cornell University received funding from NASA for HI-SEAS’s first campaign that lasted for four months.  The campaign compared proposed food systems for long-term space missions, according to its website.

The second four-month mission focused on collecting data about team cohesion and performance.  The third mission took eight months to finish since it focused on identifying psychological and social factors of long duration or distance missions.

So… Mars?

For the year-long mission, Binsted said a site was important: the location had to be both isolated and accessible with a Mars-like environment, but also not disturbing the life or land near by.  

She said Mauna Loa was the perfect location since it is already flat from the building of the observatory and its geographical composition was similar to Mars with red rocks and no plants surrounding near-by habitats. 

Other considered locations were Haleakalā, Maui and Kalapana near the Puna District on Hawai‘i Island. 

A typical day inside the dome

One of the six crew members on board was Tristan Bassingthwaighte, a graduate student at the UH Mānoa School of Architecture, who served as the crew architect in this mission. 

Bassingthwaighte said he became interested in space architecture when he started graduate school in 2013. 

“I actually got in [HI-SEAS] and thought ‘well, great,’ took a year off of school and did all this – got the experience – and I’ll be coming back [to UH Mānoa] in about a week to start my last year,” Bassingthwaighte said in a phone interview. 

Although he said being a part of the team was a lot of fun, day-to-day activity was not easy – sometimes due to natural conflicts such as miscommunication, different ideas, stress and disagreement between crew members.

To simulate the time from Earth to Mars, communication was under a 20 minute delay each way, Binsted said because they were not allowed to have real time communication, the fastest response via email would be 40 minutes after the original sent time. 

“About six to eight months in, you can see and remember what the outside feels like but, being used to not having a lot of things, you don’t really think about it until you come back to it – like right now –  when things are available again,” Bassingthwaighte said. 


The longest mission in the program’s history has attracted attention from media globally – over 2,000 articles were written about the mission, according to UH Spokesman Dan Meisenzahl. 

Others in the field of astronomy, like Roy Gal, an assistant astronomer for the UH Mānoa Institute for Astronomy, have been following the project since the beginning due to its one-of-a-kind conditions. 

“Even a hundred years from now, if we get to go to Mars, we would have to do these experiments – it’s a necessity and it’s cool that we’re doing it here [in Hawai‘i],” Gal said in a phone interview. 

With NASA developing ways to send humans to Mars around 2030 with their ‘Journey to Mars’ project, HI-SEAS will start their next NASA-funded mission in January – researching crew composition on a space mission. 

 The funding was awarded last August and recruitment for six crew members per mission — a total of 12 — are underway.  

Since Aug. 26, Binsted said there are already 420 applicants and thinks the number will double by the due date on Monday, Sept. 5.

from Department of Space Exploration