Will Living on Mars Drive Us Crazy?

Six humans are in Hawaii, testing the psychological effects of life on another planet.
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Imagine calling this dome "home"—for four months. (NASA/HI-SEAS)

When human space travel made its transition from pipe dream to reality, one of the unknowns humans contended with concerned not just the physics of space, but the psychology of it. How would the human mind react to the final frontier? Would microgravity, combined with the isolation of a spaceship, cause a kind of claustrophobia? Would propulsion outside of Earth's bounds, in the end, cause astronauts to experience a psychic break? Was there such thing, as science fiction writers had long feared, as "space madness"?

Space, fortunately, does not drive us crazy. But that doesn't mean we've stopped caring about the effects its new environments will have on our psychology. The new version of the old "space madness" question is how time away from our home planet will affect us—in the long term. What could life on Mars do to that that other cosmic mystery: the human emotional state? 

NASA is hoping to find out. This week, in partnership with the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the agency launched the latest version of its Mars simulation experiment, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation mission. On Hawaii's Big Island, 8,200 feet above sea level, conditions are as Martian as they can be on Earth: Mauna Loa's volcanic soil is quite similar to the volcanic regolith that can be found on Mars. HI-SEAS in general aims to replicate, as closely as is possible on Earth, what life would be like on Mars—and its latest iteration will put human emotions to the test.  

There are three men and three women participating in this second HI-SEAS mission—a purposely tiny group selected out of a group of 700 applicants—and they include, among others, a neuropsychologist, an aerospace engineer, and an Air Force veteran who is studying human factors in aviation. The team will share a 1,000-square-foot habitat that is shaped like a dome. They will do so ... for four months. (Consider that for a second: living with five other people—strangers. For four months. In what amounts to a high-tech yurt.)

The layout of the yurt (NASA/HI-SEAS)

“We’re going to stress them,” Kim Binsted, the project’s principal investigator, told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. “That’s the nature of the study.” 

Indeed. That test involves isolating the crew in the same way they'd be isolated on Mars. The only communication they'll be allowed with the outside world—that is to say, with their family and friends—will be conducted through email. (And that will be given an artificial delay of 20 minutes to simulate the lag involved in Mars-to-Earth communications.) If that doesn't seem too stressful, here's another source of stress: Each mission member will get only eight minutes of shower time ... per week. The stressfulness of which will be compounded by the fact that the only time the crew will be able to leave their habitat-yurt is when they're wearing puffy, insulated uniforms that simulate space suits. In the Hawaiian heat.

Throughout the mission, researchers will be testing the subjects' moods and the changes they exhibit in their relationships with each other. They'll also be examining the crew members' cognitive skills, seeing whether—and how—they change as the experiment wears on. 

The crew, at the same time, will be executing other projects that are relevant to life on Mars—including the testing of 3D-printed surgical tools, the growing of plants in Martian-like conditions, and, perhaps least stressfully, the repurposing of trash into tools that can be put to use in the Martian habitat. They'll also be doing projects outside of the habitat, in their "space suits"—like mapping nearby lava flows—to test their ability to work together under Martian conditions. (All this work, by the way, is a follow-up to HISEAS' previous experiment, from 2013, whose participants tried to make Martian meals that would be palatable to future colonists.) 

So why does NASA care how these six humans react to an experience that amounts to pretty much the worst Hawaiian vacation ever? Because a manned mission to Mars is a priority for NASA; though funding for such a project remains in question post-sequestration, the agency still hopes to establish a Martian mission that would launch in the 2030s. And it needs to make sure that the humans it sends on that mission are equipped for the many challenges it will present—not just technologically, but emotionally. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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