Helping to Keep Space Explorers Happy, Healthy and Safe

On December 28, 1973, NASA’s Mission Control lost all radio communications with the crew of Skylab 4 in orbit around the Earth. The cause was not due to equipment failure or the effects of a powerful solar flare. The crew simply decided to refuse communications and spent the entire day relaxing, instead of carrying on their duties under the strain of a heavy workload. Fortunately, the crew re-established communications and the event infamously became known as the Skylab mutiny.

Aptly after the incident, preventing behavioral problems on long-term missions became paramount for NASA, with astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) and especially as it sets it sights on future manned missions to Mars. Currently, scientists estimate that a manned, roundtrip journey to the Red Planet will take approximately three years to complete.

In an effort to find more definitive answers to different emotional and psychological factors that could play a key role in the success or failure of a mission, NASA turned to the University of Hawai‘i and Cornell University to conduct research on food, morale, crew dynamics, behaviors, roles, stress-management, performance, problem-solving and other daily activities associated with long-term, isolated space flight. 

The project, known as the Hawai‘i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), is self-contained habitat located on an isolated slope of the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawai‘i Island. It consists of a solar-powered dome that is 36 feet in diameter, with the first floor serving as a kitchen, dining area, bathroom, shower, lab, exercise area and common spaces. A second floor loft features six tiny bedrooms and a half bath.

“Our HI-SEAS site on the Big Island is unique among space analog locations, because it is easily accessible year-round, allowing for longer-duration isolated and confined environment studies,” said UH Mānoa Department of Information and Computer Sciences Professor Kim Binsted, principal investigator for HI-SEAS.

 “The Mars-like environment at 8,000 feet elevation on Mauna Loa offers the potential for high-fidelity space analog tasks, such as geological field work by human explorers or robots. It’s an ideal location to model the challenging conditions that astronauts are likely to encounter during their stay on Mars.”

The initial HI-SEAS mission in 2012 focused on new forms of food and food preparation strategies in deep-space travel, to combat issues like menu fatigue—which can lead to nutritional deficiencies, loss of bone and muscle mass and reduced/impaired physical capabilities. Studies included comparisons in the palatability of instant foods and crew-prepared food, changes in food preferences over time and whether food intake and satisfaction improved with crew-prepared meals. As a result of the mission’s initial successful food study, HI-SEAS was awarded an additional $1.2 million by NASA’s Human Studies Program in 2013 to support three more HI-SEAS missions of varying duration. Last August, six crew members of HI-SEAS IV, emerged from the solar-powered dome after a record-setting 365 days, with UH researchers collecting data on wide range of cognitive, social and emotional factors.

“Longer missions help us to better understand the risks of space travel,” said Binsted. “HI-SEAS IV built upon our current understanding of the social and psychological factors involved in long duration space exploration and will provide NASA with solid data on how best to select and support a flight crew that will work cohesively as a team while in space.”

Building on the project’s success and NASA’s confidence in the UH-led study, HI-SEAS was awarded a third grant in 2015 that will fund the missions until 2018—including HI-SEAS V, which began an eight-month study on team dynamics. “Our tools and technology for space exploration are very good, but we still must contend with the ‘soft side’ risks of space travel. The risks are greater the farther we hope to explore and the longer we have to keep people in space. We need to determine the best way to pick and train a crew with the right psychological makeup and supports to deal with the pressure. We also need to understand how ground crews can best assist astronaut teams that are operating under a high degree of autonomy over time,” added Binsted.