That’s a great question! I received it from a friend a while ago and realized I should do a better job of explaining it here on the blog.
Why Analogue Missions Exist
NASA and other organizations fund and/or run analogue missions to study challenges that future astronauts will face on long-duration missions. (Ours is funded by NASA, but run by the University of Hawaii)
Right now, our manned missions are to space stations- large research laboratories orbiting closely to the Earth. For the U.S, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada, this means the International Space Station (ISS), a joint international project.
The ISS is relatively quick to get to in comparison to going to another planet. This means in the case of some emergencies, it may be possible to send someone down in an emergency.
But long duration missions, such as one to Mars, will take months, not days. An entire mission would likely be closer to two years or more, depending on when you launch (where in the orbit) and how long you decide stay. As you can imagine, this type of trip could hold some serious challenges both technically and psychologically.
That’s why despite having visited to the Moon, this challenge is very different in nature.
Analogue missions are typically held in different environments, often isolated and extreme. Some examples are ones held in the Arctic, NEEMO where crews live under the ocean in the Aquarius laboratory, and of course, HI-SEAS on a large active volcano.
That’s right, Sebastian – Astronauts live “Unda da sea”, too.
These analogues and their missions vary in duration, depending on their intended study. Shorter ones are sometimes used to test equipment or operational procedures. How well does it work having a module that docks directly with a rover? How do you handle communications with several teams on Mars and with Earth at the same time?
Our Mission is more focused on studying us and psychological issues. It’s focus is BHP research (Behavioral Health and Performance). NASA’s BHP research looks at factors such as how well our team performs together, what variables influence that, and how our stress levels change over time. They are attempting understand team dynamics in order to decide how to select the right crews for future missions, to understand what problems may come up, and to develop mitigations and countermeasures for those issues ahead of time.
It attempts to simulate a space-like environment and restrictions. Examples include isolation- we cannot go outside, except in our suits and following all of the safety and communication procedures. All of our communication with friends and family are one 20 minute delays each way, making the following exchange:
(Normal) Person 1: “Hi, How’s it going?”
(Odd) Person 2: “I’m ok. Just living in a bubble on the slopes of a sacred active volcano”
(Normal) Person 1: “Bro, you really need to get a job.”
Takes about sixty minutes, minimum.
The type of food we receive is limited to shelf-stable items, and we receive resupplies once every 2 months or so for things that we need. For 8 months, we won’t see anyone but one another making our entire world be comprised of 6 people.
To my hermit friends, I can’t help but think this would be a treat for you, if you liked space a bit more.
So what do we do here?
Our primary task is to fulfill those BHP studies. This means taking surveys, participating in research games, and fullfilling geological research challenges around the volcano.
In addition to that work, we participate in opportunistic studies and research. Each of us is responsible for at least one personal research project, ranging from working with DNA, 3D printing, plant growth, environmental monitoring systems, and mapping terrain with drones. We also partake in or help with outside studies that want to use our unique situation as a testing ground for devices. The volcano itself is an area of geoligical interest with its long history of activity, and is where some of the original measurements for changes in C02 in the atmosphere were taken.
Our tasks are typically packed throughout the day and are updated via a scheduling program used by NASA on the International Space Station.
In addition to all the science stuff, we also get tasks related to upkeeping the habitat. This can range from dumping out the compost toilets (It’s a glamorous life), to vacuuming or keeping inventory. We also rotate chores and cooking duties each day, which helps with getting one on one time with other crewmates, as well as makes for some delightful variety in meals.
Lastly, we work on outreach projects. Some of this is filming and editing. For example, I film 360 degree videos for the NY Times, fly our droneto gain footage for crew use, and create videos for outside programs. Others have worked on entertaining film tours for children in different schools around the country, and answered some thought-provoking questions. We’ll also be featured on a Japanese television show soon because why not.
Outside of that, we try and fit in our leisure activities. There’s not a ton of time for this, so we are conscious of utilizing our time wisely. This ends up being very important on the weekends, where we hold special events and gatherings to make sure we take time to have fun all together which is important in developing our relationships.
The other major component of what we are doing here is based on our own personal goals, and the reasons we decided to apply for this adventure. That, however, will have to wait for another day.
I’m not going anywhere.