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To train for Mars, head to Hawaii

Living on the Red Planet here on Earth

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The astronauts we send to Mars will be spending a lot of time together. Crews will travel for up to a year in a cramped vehicle to reach the Red Planet, stay on the surface of Mars for several months in a tiny habitat, and then spend up to a year to get home in the same spacecraft they came in. That means Mars astronauts will have to work incredibly well with the same group of people, and they’ll need to quickly overcome any disagreements to execute their mission. It’s going to be tough mentally as well as physically.

So how do you pick the right people who can handle the isolation and repetition of a mission to Mars? That’s where HI-SEAS comes in. Operated by the University of Hawaii, HI-SEAS is an analog Mars habitat located on the Big Island of Hawaii. It actually sits on the side of an active volcano, Mauna Loa, where lava has heavily shaped the terrain of the area. The volcanic rock sports various hues of red and orange, creating the feeling that the habitat exists on another world.

Photo by Christian Mazza / The Verge

In the first episode of Space Craft season 2, we visited HI-SEAS to get an idea of what it’s like to live there. Through the HI-SEAS program, the University of Hawaii recruits crews of people from all over the world to simulate Mars missions with high fidelity. The “astronauts” must stay inside the habitat at all times and can only leave while wearing hazmat suits. Email and other communications are stalled to simulate the long distance between Earth and Mars, which significantly delays radio signals. Crews spend their days doing research and field work, just as they would on Mars. All the while, the team members record notes about their days and their interactions with their roommates.

It’s all crucial data that NASA could use to help pick people with the right skills to handle a Mars mission. So far, HI-SEAS has completed five crewed simulations, some lasting just four months and one lasting a full year. People have also gotten a glimpse of what it’s like to live inside the HI-SEAS dome this year, thanks to the podcast The Habitat from Gimlet Media. The series chronicles the audio diaries from the crew members who were part of HI-SEAS IV, revealing their emotions, struggles, and relationships throughout the simulation.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

However, HI-SEAS has run into some struggles lately. Earlier this year, the sixth HI-SEAS mission was abruptly canceled after just four days due to a medical emergency. An investigation by The Atlantic revealed the details of the episode, in which one of the crew members experienced an electric shock while flipping a switch on a generator. After much debate, the crew finally broke the simulation in order to get medical attention.

Ever since that cancellation, HI-SEAS has been vacant. But the University of Hawaii has already begun the recruiting process for its next mission. It’s unclear when the new simulation will begin, but it seems that the HI-SEAS habitat could have new tenants someday soon.