NASA’s Human Isolation Experiment


Extreme isolation. It’s something our greatest explorers have all faced in varying degrees in their quests to extend the boundaries of the possible.

This week, a team of six NASA recruits began a year-long mission on the desolate side of a barren Hawaiian volcano that will simultaneously test the human capacity to withstand the sanity-straining mix of both extreme isolation and a total lack of personal space.

A French astrobiologist, a German physicist and four Americans, a pilot, architect, journalist and soil scientist will spend the next 365 days together inside a very small dome where they will live without a breath of fresh air or a single bite of fresh food. They’ll survive on such gourmet items as powdered cheese and canned tuna.

Why on Earth are they doing this? Because it’s what must be done to leave Earth.

NASA needs to know if people can keep from going totally insane on an Earth-to-Mars-and-back manned mission. The trip, tentatively scheduled now to launch sometime in the 2030’s, could take 1-3 years each way.

The Hawaiian experiment will be grueling. The entire dome is just 36 feet in diameter. For privacy, each subject will only have a tiny room with barely enough space for a bed. Every time they venture outside, they’ll need to wear a spacesuit, just like they would on Mars, where the average temperature is -60 degrees celsius.

It will be the longest isolation experiment ever conducted by the US.

In 2011, the European Space Agency together with Russia and China, completed a series of mock-missions, culminating with six men spending 520 days straight in a series of cylindrical steel modules. That mission was a success, with all six subjects emerging in good shape, but the current NASA mission in Hawaii — with its extremely tight quarters, chances to go outside, and mix of men and women — is the most realistic simulation of time on Mars yet.

“I think one of the lessons is that you really can’t prevent interpersonal conflicts,” says Kim Binsted, a NASA investigator. “It is going to happen over these long-duration missions, even with the very best people.”

The eventual astronauts will also have to overcome the psychological impact of seeing the Earth fade away while hurtling through space on a dangerous mission, a feeling no person has ever had before, at least not since the Apollo missions of the 1960’s.

I want to know from you: what obstacle, whether it be mental, technological, or physical, do you think is the most challenging to overcome if we’re going to see humans survive a mission to Mars in our lifetimes?

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