All the Ways You Can Kill Yourself on Mars: The Most Disastrous Astronaut Simulation Ever
With all our technological cunning, with everything at our disposal, at this point in human evolution, just how wrong could a human mission to Mars actually go? As perhaps the most disastrous Mars colony simulation in history proved this past February, the answer, it seems, is horribly wrong.
We're talking the-experiment-had-to-be-stopped-after-just-four-days wrong.
We're talking about calling 911 wrong.
But first, let's back up.
Two years ago, when asked about the first missions to Mars, Elon Musk told interviewers: "It's dangerous and probably people will die".
It was a shockingly candid statement, but an honest one: For all the progress humanity has made since the Space Race, space colonization has remained uncharted territory.
The best we have are simulations, and one of the most in-depth and long-running programs in the world, the University of Hawaii's HI-SEAS simulation, showed that isolating small groups of people on another planet can quickly turn into a sci-fi nightmare.
The dome is a simulated Mars habitat that usually hosts six "astronauts" for several months at a time, with the goal of understanding how people will react to the stresses and daily living conditions.
Participants go through rigorous psychological screening beforehand, wear devices that track their behavior and sleep schedules, and are asked to journal about their feelings, all of which is intended to give scientists a more complete picture of their mental states.
This is because the most important variables in the HI-SEAS simulation are the minds of the crewmembers themselves.
In fact, the experiment is so dedicated to making the simulation real in the minds of the crewmembers that any contact with the outside (apart from messages to their handlers in Mission Support) can ruin it—as soon as the immersion is broken, the simulation ends.
In the past, a crew dealt with a member leaving the simulation due to health problems by pretending that the sick crewmember had died—they even went as far as carrying out a mock burial procedure.
According to Ross Lockwood, a participant in one of the previous simulations: "You really do get the sense, when you're going to sleep and you're closing your eyes at night, that this could be a distant planet. This could be Mars."
So what happens when things break down?
During the sixth HI-SEAS simulation this past February, which was meant to last eight months, the experiment was halted after only four days. A crewmember had experienced an electric shock while trying to help restore power to the habitat (cloudy weather had prevented the habitat's solar panels from soaking in enough energy to power the dome), and the emergency calls to Mission Support's on-call medical team were met with no response.
With the crewmember's condition apparently worsening, the team had a choice to make: Break the experiment to get their crewmember medical help or continue with the experiment and hope Mission Support would come through.
Almost immediately, the chain of command in the dome started breaking down.
The crew's "commander" initially opted to call 911 to ask for medical advice rather than an ambulance so that the crew could keep the simulation intact, but arguments started breaking out over which was more important: fulfilling their mission (which some of the crewmembers had left real-life jobs for) or saving a life.
In the end, the crew decided they needed to call the ambulance.
"We've learned all the ways that you can kill yourself on Mars, and we've learned to prevent those things," said Eric Wiecking, HI-SEAS tech support lead and the energy lab director at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy.
"So it's been very, very valuable, because it's way better to do it here, where you can drive up and go, oh gosh, a water valve opened up and now you don't have any water. Instead of on Mars, where it's like, you don't have any water, you guys are gonna die in a couple of days."
With one member removed from of the simulation, there was still a chance to continue the experiment, but one participant, Lisa Stojanovski, asked the researchers to make some guarantee that this wouldn't happen again. When they couldn't, she decided to leave the experiment too. With too few remaining crew members to continue the simulation, NASA and the University called it off.
The failure of the experiment raised all kinds of questions, including whether astronauts on real missions should be under constant surveillance to make sure their behavior is correct.
According to Sonja Schmer-Galunder, a researcher associated with HI-SEAS, while it's an ethical question that deserves serious consideration, astronauts give up their right to privacy when they sign on:
"I mean, if people are signing up to go to Mars, I think everything should and must be done in order to bring the crew back safe," she said.
"When you're signing up for a Mars mission, you know that you're giving yourself away in almost every aspect of your life. You become a tool that is being sent out there."
The most worrying part though?
These experiments show just how alone astronauts really are when they're on another planet—because a team on Earth can't be expected to guide them through every crisis due to communication delays, astronauts are given a lot of leeway to make their own decisions.
Even the roles of the participants, like the commander, are more provisional than a true chain of command.
"That's the complexity of humans," says Jenn Fogarty, NASA's chief scientist in charge of their Human Research Program. "They are going to do things on their own, maybe outside of the mission rules...So thinking you can keep them in this tight little box of emotions is unrealistic."
Whether it's a tiny Mars habitat or a little box of emotions, it looks like the pressure can get to anybody.