On Wednesday, three men and three women will step inside a thousand-square-foot dome on the north side of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. For the next eight months, they will be cut off from the outside world. The team will simulate life at a space station on Mars as part of a project called HI-SEAS, sponsored by NASA and led by the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The eight-month project is the second of three missions sponsored by NASA studying human performance on long-duration isolation missions. It's NASA's longest Mars simulation to date.
Martha Lenio, 34, of Canada, is the mission's commander and the first woman to lead a Mars simulation. She's the third woman in NASA's history to lead a mission of any kind.
National Geographic talked to Lenio as she prepared to enter the dome.
What's the goal of the mission?
The real goal for NASA is to do a psychology study on team cohesiveness, our attitudes, and how we stick together over the course of a long-duration, somewhat isolated, eight-month mission. (Related: "Psychological Challenges of a Manned Mission to Mars.")
What are the dome's living quarters like?
It's 36 feet across and two stories. The grand level has a kitchen, dining area, working area, washroom and storage lab space. Upstairs, we each have our own bedrooms, which are tiny, glorified closets. There is a washroom upstairs, too. There's only one real window in the dome. We have a treadmill and stationary bike. The space is very similar to the amount of space you would have at a station on Mars.
How much communication will you have with the outside world?
There will be no phoning the outside world, only emailing. There's no Skype. There's a 20-minute delay in getting and sending messages, because that's how long it takes for a message to get from Earth to Mars and vice versa.
What are the essentials that you must bring with you?
Everyone is allotted eight liters of water a day. That eight liters per day is everything you can drink, everything for cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and showering. That works out to be eight minutes of shower time a week. We have composting toilets, which reduces our water use.
We have to bring food that is shelf stable for two to three years, as it would be on a Mars mission. We have freeze-dried fruits and vegetables and some meat. There's also a food study being performed by Cornell. One of the things that happens on a long-duration space mission is that you get food fatigue and everything starts to taste the same, so they're trying to figure out what foods we won't get sick of. So we have a really extensive spice kit. We can make our own yogurt. We can make bread. We have every type of grain and flour you can imagine. There are also some premade meals.
What are the biggest challenges you'll face?
People on these sorts of missions can be prone to depression, largely due to the isolation. It is difficult communicating with the people you love back home due to the time delay. There are feelings of frustration with mission support. There is the difficulty of living in close quarters with people of different personalities. All of those factors can influence someone's feelings of futility and depression.
As an individual, not feeling the sunlight on my skin for eight months, I think that's going to be the most difficult thing for me psychologically.
Do you think women have any specific advantages when it comes to leading a mission like this?
Definitely having women on a crew makes for a very different dynamic. They found with all-male crews, or predominantly male, they get in trouble with people vying for an alpha position between the men. If you have more women on the crew, you lower that dynamic. It helps with the cohesiveness and teamwork. A female leader helps with that, too.
Do we have the capabilities to go to Mars now?
We do. The [predicted date] for a Mars mission is 2030, so we're already in the very early stages of a Mars mission. People are working on it right now.
This week, MIT published a study that said human settlement on Mars was impossible with current technology. What are your thoughts?
So the Mars One mission, which this study is about, is a one-way mission with the goal of sending people to Mars permanently. It's being organized by private entities, and there could be issues, as stated in the study.
However, NASA and other space agencies around the world are looking at a three-year trip to Mars. So the trip does not have to be completely sustainable yet. Also, resupplies, or sending supplies ahead separately, are both possible.
So, in short, we have the technology to stay on Mars for a fixed, planned length of time, but we are not ready to stay indefinitely.
The study's findings don't faze me. One of my interests is sustainability, and the more sustainable we can make these missions, the better they will be. The better we get at recycling, or turning our waste into soil to grow more food, those are all lessons we can bring back to Earth.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.