Roommates on Mars — The New Yorker

On a clear, cold day in March, 1898, a converted seal-hunting ship named the Belgica gave up struggling against the pack ice of the Bellingshausen Sea and resigned itself to the impending Antarctic winter. The ship was carrying a scientific expedition with an international crew, rare in that phase of polar exploration: nine Belgians, six Norwegians, two Poles, a Romanian, and an American, the ship’s doctor. The expedition’s organizer, a Belgian naval lieutenant named Adrien de Gerlache, had handpicked officers and scientists for their expertise; the mariners who slept in the forecastle had been signed up more casually. None had been selected for character, resilience, or survival instinct. The crew had expected the Belgica to winter over in warmer latitudes. No ship had ever spent a winter locked in the Antarctic ice.

An eerie despondency settled over officers and crew as the days grew short and ice groaned against the hull. Low on coal and lacking proper gear, they sewed winter coats out of blankets. Conversation trailed away, and dinners of tinned meat were greeted with derision. Starting in May, the sun disappeared for two months, and the crew gradually fell apart. A young Belgian geophysicist succumbed to a weak heart, and was buried through a hole in the ice. De Gerlache and the ship’s captain, Georges LeCointe, wrote out their wills and retired to their rooms. One crewman, convinced that the others wanted to kill him, hid away at night, while another tried to leave the ship, announcing plans to walk home to Belgium. Even the ship’s cat withdrew and died. The American doctor, Frederick A. Cook, wrote in his journal that a “spell of indifference” had afflicted him and his shipmates. “Around the tables, in the laboratory, and in the forecastle, men are sitting about sad and dejected, lost in dreams of melancholy,” he noted. “We are at this moment as tired of each other’s company as we are of the cold monotony of the black night and of the unpalatable sameness of our food.”

Cook later became infamous for faking two heroic firsts, the conquest of the North Pole and the ascent of Mt. McKinley. But that winter on the Belgica was an occasion of genuine heroism. Assisted by the ship’s Norwegian first mate, Roald Amundsen, Cook instituted an exercise routine on the ice, walks around the ship known as the “madhouse promenade.” He introduced a “baking treatment” for the men with the lowest morale and the weakest heartbeats, which entailed seating them before the warm glow of the ship’s coal stove. He insisted that the crew start eating the vitamin-rich meat of penguins, which even he described as tasting like a mixture of mammal, fish, and fowl parts, roasted in blood and cod-liver oil. He helped organize entertainments, including a beauty contest among illustrations torn from magazines, with voting categories such as “Alabaster shoulders,” “Supple waist,” and “Irreproachable character.”

With the return of summer, Cook and Amundsen rallied the crew for a monthlong effort to saw a channel to open water. De Gerlache and his men returned to Europe as heroes, and Amundsen—who later achieved renown as a polar explorer—credited the doctor with saving their lives. But the Belgica’s experience became a cautionary tale for the planners of future expeditions to the poles. When Richard Byrd set out, in 1928, to establish a camp in Antarctica, his supplies included two coffins and twelve straitjackets.

A century after the Belgica’s return, a NASA research consultant named Jack Stuster began examining the records of the trip to glean lessons for another kind of expedition: a three-year journey to Mars and back. “Future space expeditions will resemble sea voyages much more than test flights, which have served as the models for all previous space missions,” Stuster wrote in a book, “Bold Endeavors,” which was published in 1996 and quickly became a classic in the space program. A California anthropologist, Stuster had helped design U.S. space stations by studying crew productivity in cases of prolonged isolation and confinement: Antarctic research stations, submarines, the Skylab station. The study of stress in space had never been a big priority at NASA—or of much interest to the stoic astronauts, who worried that psychologists would uncover some hairline crack that might exclude them from future missions. (Russia, by contrast, became the early leader in the field, after being forced to abort several missions because of crew problems.) But in the nineteen-nineties, with planning for the International Space Station nearly complete, NASA scientists turned their attention to journeys deeper into space, and they found questions that had no answers. “That kind of challenging mission was way out of our comfortable low-earth-orbit neighborhood,” Lauren Leveton, the lead scientist of NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance program, said. Astronauts would be a hundred million miles from home, no longer in close contact with mission control. Staring into the night for eight monotonous months, how would they keep their focus? How would they avoid rancor or debilitating melancholy?

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Stuster began studying voyages of discovery—starting with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, whose deployment, he observed, anticipated the NASA-favored principle of “triple redundancy.” Crews united by a special “spirit of the expedition” excelled. He praised the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen’s three-year journey into the Arctic, launched in 1893, for its planning, its crew selection, and its morale. One icebound Christmas, after a feast of reindeer meat and cranberry jam, Nansen wrote in his journal that people back home were probably worried. “I am afraid their compassion would cool if they could look upon us, hear the merriment that goes on, and see all our comforts and good cheer.” Stuster found that careful attention to habitat design and crew compatibility could avoid psychological and interpersonal problems. He called for windows in spacecraft, noting studies of submarine crewmen who developed temporarily crossed eyes on long missions. (The problem was uncovered when they had an unusual number of automobile accidents on their first days back in port.) He wrote about remote-duty Antarctic posts suffering a kind of insomnia called “polar big eye,” which could be addressed by artificially imposing a diurnal cycle of light and darkness.

“Bold Endeavors” was a hit with astronauts, who carried photocopied pages into space, bearing Stuster’s recommendations on workload, cognitive impairment, and special celebration days. (He nominated the birthday of Jules Verne, whose fictional explorers headed to the moon with fifty gallons of brandy and a “vigorous Newfoundland.”) But historical analogies could take NASA only so far, Stuster argued. Before humans went to Mars, a final test should run astronauts through “high-fidelity mission simulations.” To the extent possible, these tests should be carried out in some remote environment, whose extreme isolation would bring to bear the stress and confinement of a journey to outer space.

One morning in February, I was lurching through lava fields in a white Dodge Ram truck, halfway up Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. Holding tight to the steering wheel, the driver, a University of Hawaii computer-science professor named Kim Binsted, told me that we were climbing the second-biggest mountain in the solar system. Mauna Loa is slightly shorter than its island neighbor Mauna Kea, but it is far more massive, rising gradually from deep below the surface of the Pacific to thirteen thousand six hundred and eighty feet above sea level. Binsted, who had a long side career in improvisational comedy, was soon quibbling with herself about the solar-system ranking—how to score the huge peaks in the Tharsis region of Mars?—but Mauna Loa’s claim is clearly impressive: if Earth were as dry as Mars, the mountain would rise nearly six miles from foot to summit. It is a slow-oozing shield volcano, like its Martian rivals, and the bleak terrain near the summit looks a lot like photographs of rough landscapes beamed from robotic rovers. The Johnson Space Center, in Houston, uses pulverized lava from its slopes to study potential agriculture in space colonies; its iron-rich basalt is a close analogue to the soil on Mars. As Binsted’s mentor, the NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay, put it, “Mauna Loa is our Martian mountain.”

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Binsted stopped the truck where a chain blocked the red-cinder road and climbed out to open the lock. A sign said, “Isolation study in progress, please do not enter this area, or interact with the crew . . . Mahalo!” Beyond a rocky parapet near the eight-thousand-foot elevation, a two-story white vinyl geodesic dome came into view, perched on the mountainside like a gigantic golf ball sliced high into the rocks from a Kona resort. Multicolored lava fields fell toward the valley, where a thread of highway could barely be seen. Binsted asked me to whisper. Inside the dome, six volunteers were mimicking the life of astronauts on Mars for a NASA-funded test of team dynamics in space. They had been in the dome since October and would remain until June; at the moment, they were just a few days away from setting a North American record for a study of the effects of isolation and confinement.

Binsted wore a red polo shirt with the project’s logo: HI-SEAS, for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. Her short brown hair was barely cinched in a ponytail. As the principal investigator for the study, which is being run by the University of Hawaii, she had recruited and trained three men and three women, ranging in age from twenty-six to thirty-eight, preparing them for the austerities of travel to another planet. The dome is twelve hundred square feet, divided into a kitchen, an exercise area, and pie-slice sleeping quarters upstairs. Water is doled out as if it were being squeezed from the atmosphere by robots; each person is allowed eight minutes of shower time a week. The six crew members keep in touch with mission control only by computer, with a twenty-minute lag in each direction to simulate communication from Mars, and they leave the dome only on E.V.A.—extra-vehicular activity—wearing Velcro-sealed approximations of spacesuits. The crew members are engaged in small personal research projects and in team projects, mapping nearby geological features. All the while, they are themselves the subjects of the real research.

Binsted, five feet six and briskly friendly, speaks with the intensity of someone who drinks a lot of Diet Coke. She was born in New Jersey and grew up near Vancouver in the nineteen-eighties, during the post-Apollo period, when public interest in space travel had abated. She studied artificial intelligence and got a doctorate at the University of Edinburgh, where she performed in her spare time with a troupe called the Improverts. For her thesis, in computational linguistics, she developed software that generated puns. (“What do you call a Martian who drinks beer? An ale-ien.”) Even then, she thought of her work as a way to connect to a longtime side interest in space. A friend of hers, the writer Sarah Rose, said, “The first time I met Kim, twenty years ago, she told me, ‘When the aliens come, I want to be the first person they call.’ ” Binsted noted, “ ‘They’ was the researchers, not the aliens. I just want to point that out.” A marathon runner, she applied five times to NASA’s astronaut-selection program and once to Canada’s (she holds dual citizenship), each time making it past the medical exams and reference checks and into the “highly qualified” pool. On her most recent attempt, in 2013, eight new astronauts were chosen from a field of sixty-three hundred, and Binsted was not among them. At the age of forty-three, she figured that she had finally aged out. “I stopped exercising the next day,” she says ruefully.

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The dome has a porthole, looking across the saddle at Mauna Kea—a legacy of the first study there, during which the benefit of a windowless exterior (protection from radiation) was found to be less significant than the drawback (the crew hated it). For our visit, the porthole had been covered over to keep the crew’s isolation complete. Quiet as parents on Christmas Eve, we ferried tubs of rice cakes and wet wipes from Costco into a back entry porch. Menus had been worked up during two previous missions in the dome, lasting four months each, during which food cooked ad libitum, even from reconstituted ingredients, rated much higher than the kind of meals-in-a-pouch necessary during zero-gravity travel. Back into the truck went black plastic bags of trash and boxes of saltines that had passed their shelf date. “ ‘Principal investigator’ sounds pretty glamorous,” Binsted said, as she climbed behind the wheel. “But a lot of what I do is space janitor.”

For years, NASA has run experiments replicating the environments of space and alien planets. Rovers and robotics have been tested in the Arizona desert and in the Canadian Arctic. “Human factor” studies in preparation for space-station duties have been carried out in a capsule at the Johnson Space Center and in an underwater lab off Key Largo. These days, the International Space Station provides an analogue for future long-duration missions; the astronaut Scott Kelly, who has just begun the first full year for an American in orbit, is the subject of psychological as well as physical tests. The Hawaii project represents another step for NASA: a test of group dynamics and morale to help design systems that will send a team into deep space.

Binsted and her colleagues sorted through seven hundred applications, winnowing them to a hundred and fifty serious candidates, many of them fit, well educated, and spunky—younger versions of Binsted. All six chosen for this round are aspiring astronauts, which makes them ideal subjects, Binsted said. They think more like modern space voyagers than did the sailors in earlier studies of isolation, but they are less wary and reticent than real astronauts tend to be. She wasn’t looking for volatile personalities, in the way of a reality-television producer; it was more like finding roommates to share an apartment. Astronauts tend to be resilient, low-drama types. On top of these qualities, she wanted sociability—a thick skin, a long fuse, an optimistic outlook, and a tolerance for low stimulation. The HI-SEAS crew includes an Iraq War veteran and microbiologist, a NASA aerospace engineer born in Azerbaijan, and a robotics graduate student who finished her degree and was named to Forbes’s “30 Under 30” in science while cooped up in the dome. In addition to their duties on sMars, as they sometimes call the simulation, they communicate with the outside world by blogging and posting photographs and videos. They are ferociously motivated, having…