In the first segment of a two-part series, Tech Times examines an app astronauts are using in a Mars simulation study. Our spotlight features interviews with crew members Martha Lenio and Zak Wilson, who share what it's like living in a simulated Mars habitat for months on end. Tune in Wednesday for the second installment.
Traveling no more than a mile from their dome for eight months, the cadets in NASA's Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation study are communicating with mission support and the rest of the outside world via email and the Voxer voice-messaging app.
The Voxer software was selected to help simulate the 20-minute delay in communications between Mars and mission control, and that's just one aspect that made building the voice communications tool a bit of a challenge, Voxer President Irv Remedios told Tech Times in an interview.
The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-Seas) project is the second collaboration between Voxer and NASA, explains Remedios. The first joint effort was Project Neemo, a study on an underwater habit that sought to simulate living on Mars.
When Voxer was released about seven years ago, partnering with NASA to further research Mars wasn't on the minds of Voxer leadership or staff. But the idea spurred everyone's imagination, says Remedios.
"When we heard about this opportunity and when we heard about the Neemo opportunity, the first thing that came to our minds was that this was why we developed this technology. This is why it exists: to serve instances like this," says Remedios.
When NASA approached Voxer, the space agency requested the app be modified so that it could be operated privately instead of running on the public service, explains Remedios. The Voxer app was built so it could run behind NASA's firewall and to allow the agency to authorize is own set of users.
Beyond being modified for user authorization, Voxer's infrastructure had to be modified to simulate the 20-minute delay that would occur if mission control sent messages to a real Mars colony or was receiving such communications.
"When I send a message it needs to somehow be queued and then be sent and heard 20 minutes later -- and the reverse also has to happen," explains Remedios, adding: "That's really the piece that differentiates the experience from anyone else's."
When Tech Times "voxed" with HI-Seas crew member Zak Wilson, he shared that beyond missing his friends and family, he also misses going outside and eating fresh food. The six crew members entered the two-story dome on Oct. 15 to study the social, interpersonal and cognitive factors that affect team performance during long-duration space travel.
"I miss not being able to go outside a lot, not being able to go out for a run or rock climbing or just even feeling the sun on your face or the wind on your skin -- that's kind of weird to not have that anymore," says Wilson.
While mission-critical information is primarily passed along through email, Crew Commander Martha Lenio says Voxer is one of several technologies that has brought comfort to the HI-Seas crew.
Remedios notes one crew member "voxed" him to thank his team for the app and the ability to use it for a Christmas Eve conversation with family.
"So this person reached out to us to say thank you, which was unbelievable to us," says Remedios. "You don't realize the power of this connection until it delivers something like that, which was really awesome to hear."
Voxer's primary objective is to connect people, and Remedios says the use cases for the app extend beyond the unique application of the HI-Seas project.
"You've heard the term 'push to talk'," says Remedios. "It's really push to 'x' for us. It's push to anything. We could be pushing files across Voxer. In fact, we recently introduced that for business customers."
In part two of this series, we will report further on our 40-minute Voxer exchanges with the HI-Seas crew members Martha Lenio and Zak Wilson to find out what it's like living in a simulated Mars habitat for months on end.