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Science & Technology

In Hawaii, NASA To Launch 'Fake Mission To Fake Space'


From NPR News, This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, two, one, zero. All engines running. Lift off.

SIEGEL: For anyone who has imagine him or herself rocketing into outer space, just the sound of that countdown can conjure images of leaving the Earth's grasp and floating weightless. But how would the same astronaut-hopeful react to spending eight months under a geodesic dome, on a remote island, meant to simulate the long-term isolation of a mission to Mars? Well, this June, we'll be able to ask Martha Lenio because starting Wednesday, she will lead what she has called a fake mission to fake space. Lenio is mission commander of the third mission in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation Program. Welcome to our program.

MARTHA LENIO: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, tell us how large will the space be that you are confined to? How many people will there be? And eight months?

LENIO: Yup. (Laughter) So there are six of us - the six crew members. And the space is actually larger than I had expected. There's a geodesic dome. Its two floors - 36 feet in diameter, I think, at the base. And then there's an attached shipping container as well for extra storage and lab space. And we can get food drops or resupply drops every few months because they could send food out before or after us. But it won't be common. And we will be like rationing things like water.

SIEGEL: And what will you do all this time to keep your mind engaged - to fight boredom. What will you be doing?

LENIO: Yeah. That's exactly actually what NASA's studying. So this is - it's kind of a two-tier project. So NASA's studying us for the psychological impacts. And then to keep us busy and happy, we each have brought in our own research projects as well. So mine is growing plants indoors and - because the only food we're going to get is whatever we grow ourselves.

SIEGEL: That will be a very small garden, however, for you to be working on for eight months.

LENIO: Yep - it's like a - we will probably get like a salad a week or something out of it.

SIEGEL: Now, Kim Binstead, who runs the project for the University of Hawaii, is quoted as saying long story short, we want to know how you pick a team and then support them for these long-duration space missions so they won't kill each other. So part of the challenge here isn't just individual. It's not just what you'd do yourself, but how you get along with five other people.

LENIO: So we're pretty lucky. We got to go on this camping and leadership course. And I think a lot of us heading into this were a little bit hesitant partly because you don't want to, you know, be stuck in a dome eight months with a bunch of crazy people or really, really passionate people who are hard to deal with. So I think that went a long way just towards easing our fears at living together with eight months with people we had never met before.

SIEGEL: Haven't we had people up at the international space station or haven't we had so many submariners on long cruises by now that we have some sense of what it's like living in close quarters for a long time?

LENIO: In a sense, yes, but nothing for this long duration and nothing with the communication being the way that it will. So any Mars mission would be like two to three years at least. And one of the things we're simulating is how communication would be like on Mars. So for a message to get from Earth to Mars, it takes 20 minutes. And then to get back from like Mars back to Earth is another 20 minutes. So it's a 40 minute delay in your conversation. So Skype can't be done. Phone conversations can't be done. You can't get this instant response and this instant support from mission support all the time. You're going to have a fairly autonomous crew. So this is part of that simulation. How do you pick that crew to be able to think on their own? How do you get psychological support when there's no one that you can talk to in real-time back on earth?

SIEGEL: Well, thanks for talking with us about it.

LENIO: Yup. You're welcome. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Martha Lenio, who is commander of an eight month long mission organized by the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.