When A Mars Simulation Goes Wrong

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When A Mars Simulation Goes Wrong

Postby toucana on June 25th, 2018, 8:03 am 

HI-SEAS Habitat- Mauna Loa

The Atlantic Magazine recently published an interesting account of a Mars colony simulation in a remote part of Hawaii that went badly wrong.


In February this year, a crew of four people made the long journey up the northern slope of Mauna Loa a large volano that covers half of the island of Hawaii, to settle into a small white geodesic dome known as the ‘habitat’ for an eight month stay.

It was the sixth iteration of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. The durations have varied, from four months to a full year, and participants come from all over the world and different fields.

The crew members live as much as possible like they are on Mars. They eat freeze-dried food, use a composting toilet, take 30-second showers to conserve water, and never step outside without a space suit and helmet. They don’t communicate with anyone in real time, not even family. An email to mission support or their loved ones takes 20 minutes to get there. Receiving a response takes another 20 minutes. They’re not allowed to see anyone outside of the mission.

The habitat is a tight squeeze. The ground floor, which includes a kitchen, bathroom, a lab, and exercise spaces, measures 993 square feet. The second floor, where the bedrooms are, spans 424 square feet.

A key part of the experiment involves strict maintenance of the integrity of the simulation. ‘Breaking the SIM’ is to be avoided at all costs. Breaking the isolation and leaving the habitat would mean throwing away hours and hours of carefully harvested physical and psychological data.

The mission that began on 15 February came to an abrupt halt just four days later in circumstances that HI-SEAS still does not want to discuss with the press.

The account reconstructed by The Atlantic indicates that the first few days were overcast and cloudy which depleted batteries normally charged by a solar array. On the morning of the 19th the crew awoke to find all power had gone out. The protocol then was to suit up and go outside via the ‘air-lock’ to start up an auxiliary propane-fired electrical generator.

The procedure involved crew members inside the habitat flipping a circuit-breaker as the generator started to switch the P/S over from batteries to the generator. But when the excursion crew returned they found that one of the crew inside had sustained an electrical shock from poorly protected wiring on the circuit-breaker and was in medical distress.

An escalating crisis then developed when the designated mission commander initially declined to summon an ambulance, and only agreed to call 911 to ask for medical advice, but not to ask for medical evacuation.

A certain sense of panic set in when the crew activated a hotline to the HI-SEAS director, only to find that the on-call doctor could not be reached. At this point the crew decided to call in an ambulance. Even then it took 43 minutes for medical first responders to reach the site. A violent argument then apparently took place between crew members over ‘breaching the SIM’ before the medics were allowed to enter the habitat and evacuate the casualty.

Institutional review boards by NASA and University of Hawaii are studying what happened, and will report in due course.
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