Walking on theis hard work. My spacesuit is getting hot, the helmet is weighing me down and I’m carrying a heavy backpack that’s piping air to help me breathe. I’m so constricted by all this gear that if I want to look around, I need to turn my entire body.
I slide on the jagged lava rock a few times, but I’m slowly acclimating to this uneven, barren landscape with each step.
Then, just as I think I have my footing, the rock, or aa, starts to crumble.
“The joke is it’s called aa because of the noise you make when you walk on it — ah-ah!”
Astrobiologist Michaela Musilova is showing me how to spot the treacherous lava rock. The terrain looks so foreign it really does feel like I’m on the moon.
Fortunately, I’m still on Earth. Just a few hundred feet away from us is a white dome called Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. It’s a purpose-built habitat used to.
Situated on Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii, the location was originally chosen to house the faux astronaut base back in 2013 because the landscape is so similar to what’s on the red planet. There’s very little vegetation and plenty of lava rock.
In the past, HI-SEAS has been funded by NASA to run simulations of life on Mars, but in late 2018 it was converted to host lunar missions. As part of the International Moonbase Alliance, a consortium of scientists, astronauts such as Buzz Aldrin and entrepreneurs like Henk Rogers (who also owns the dome), it plays an important role in establishing a sustainable human presence on the moon.
It’s a critical change, given NASA’s accelerated timeline to put astronauts. Other companies are also trying to take humans further into space. Blue Origin, backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, wants to send humans to the moon on a similar timeframe and . Elon Musk’s SpaceX has and has said it will get a cargo ship to Mars by 2022, with a crew following a couple of years later.
I’m in Hawaii to experience what it could be like to live as an astronaut on a mission to the moon or Mars. With Musilova, director of HI-SEAS missions as my guide, I’m going to learn how would-be astronauts prepare for life on another planet; from the food they eat to how they explore foreign terrain.
We’re all living in a simulation
HI-SEAS looks fairly small from the outside. It’s just 36 feet (11 meters) in diameter, but inside the dome feels deceptively big; almost like the Tardis from Doctor Who.
Musilova is showing me around the habitat that she jokingly calls her “dome sweet dome.” It accommodates six crew members with individual sleeping quarters, workstations, a lab, kitchen and dining area plus two bathrooms. I try everything from freeze-dried food (pineapple tastes great, but carrot will break your teeth) to the composting toilet (not as gross as it sounds).
The kitchen has a microwave, fridge and stove for eager cooks, but because food needs to be rehydrated, spices are key to add some flavor. “I joke that the only difference between chicken and beef is the color,” Musilova says.
Would-be astronauts come to HI-SEAS on weeks- or months-long missions to perform science experiments or test specific technology like new spacesuits and communication systems. Missions can also be focused on something more simple like growing food.
“We’re kind of like the test rabbits,” Musilova says as she tells me about a recent experiment by Slovakian students that used chemically treated hair from crew members as fertilizer.
Mission control is about a 50-minute drive from the habitat, but they can monitor elements like power levels, the inside and outside of the habitat, or the astronauts remotely. On a mission that studies the psychological aspects of living on another planet, they might wear monitors on their chests, arms and hands to keep an eye on heart rate or stress levels.
Contact with the outside world is delayed anywhere from three seconds to over 20 minutes to replicate the distance from the Earth to Mars — and there’s no override. For a mission to Mars, even in a crisis, it would take up to 45 minutes for mission control to respond astronauts on Mars. Bandwidth is also limited on purpose, so most missions can only use email and messaging.
Exploring the unknown
Outdoor exploration is just as important as indoor studies on some missions. Called extravehicular activities, or EVA, astronauts put on modified spacesuits and then venture outside to collect samples, map areas for future exploration or perform maintenance on the habitat. I get changed into my spacesuit, add some protective gloves, knee pads and helmet. It’s not an actual space helmet because it’s not entirely airtight, but it still feels claustrophobic. Passing through the airlock, we venture outside.
The air is thinner up here thanks to the elevation. We’re at 8,200 feet above sea level, and my body is still getting used to the altitude. My lungs are struggling to suck enough air as I scramble up and over lava rocks. It starts to rain and the backpack fan doesn’t have enough power to stop my breath from fogging up the visor. The rock suddenly disintegrates underneath me and I come crashing to the ground. Fortunately, it’s mostly my pride that’s wounded.
Unlike me, Musilova has performed dozens of EVAs here and knows this terrain like the back of her hand. I follow her toward a geological feature called a skylight that once had lava flowing under it but now is more like a giant hole in the ground, with red rocks falling off into a cavern so deep I can’t even see the base.
“This kind of environment is what you would find on the surface of Mars and similar things on the moon,” says Musilova. “That’s why we study it here and do our research in the spacesuits to make it feel as real as possible.”
Setting up shop on the moon
The HI-SEAS habitat is powered by a solar array, and the panels charge battery packs throughout the day. A hydrogen fuel cell acts as backup.
The next big change to the habitat will be adding in a closed-loop system to recycle water. Vincent Paul Ponthieux, designer of the habitat, tells me it’s a precursor for a much larger project: an entire moon village.
Mahina Lani, as it will be known, is set to span more than 1,000 acres and consist of a campus, testing facilities and more analog habitats for isolation studies. “This is going to be an international effort,” Ponthieux says. “It’ll be open to all of the international space agencies, just like the habitat we have now.”
You can only bring so much with you to the moon or to Mars, so using the local resources is key to any sort of long-term habitation. Musilova tells me they’re working on technology to extract water from the soil to use that to drink. By breaking down this water further, humans could breathe the oxygen and even use the hydrogen for fuel.
Being able to practice living off-planet — first here on Earth and then on the moon itself — means that when the time comes to go to Mars, it will be that much easier. But that doesn’t mean that the simulations here on Earth feel any less real, as Musilova tells me a few anecdotes of astronauts trying to reacclimate when it’s time to leave a mission.
“Suddenly you’re meant to open the door and you’re not wearing a spacesuit, it’s like ‘oh my god, what’s happening? Am I gonna die now?”
Like those astronauts, I feel a little disoriented when it’s time to leave the habitat. Coming down from the highs of the EVA (and the elevation), being back on sea level is almost jarring.
Experiencing the HI-SEAS simulation is probably as close as I’ll ever come to setting foot on the lunar surface, but it’s given me a newfound appreciation of how physically (and mentally) tough you have to be to live on another planet.