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Voice App Helps Crew Share Insight on Mars Habitat Experience

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This is Part 2 of an in-depth look into the NASA Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation study. In the first part, Tech Times talked with crew members using a unique voice app technology built specifically for the simulation by app maker Voxer. In this segment we delve deeper into what researchers are learning about what it may take to travel and live on Mars.

How would a crew of astronauts maintain sanity, and their very humanity, in the years it would take to travel to Mars, reside there for research work, and then travel back? That's just one of dozens of questions NASA hopes to answer as it conducts research on what may one day be mankind's ultimate space journey.

The eight-month NASA Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-Seas) study involves six crew members who began living in a simulated Mars habitat this past October. The research focus is on the social, interpersonal and cognitive factors that impact team performance during long-duration space travel.

The crew members are using a voice-messaging application to communicate with mission control, as well as family. The app was tweaked to take into account the 20-minute time lapse in sending and receiving communications from Mars.

Tech Times wanted to know how morale was holding up during the eight-month-long study, what the crew does on a day-to-day basis and about life in a solar-powered dome in Hawaii. In a series of 40-minute exchanges, Crew Commander Martha Lenio and crew member Zak Wilson provide insight on the simulated challenges of living on Mars.

A typical day in the Mars habitat

"I guess its sort of like any other job," says Wilson. "You get up and check email and deal with that kind of stuff. Then you get to work on projects and habitat maintenance or whatever sort of responsibility you have that have come up that day. A big difference is, you don't get to go home when you're done with work."

A few afternoons during the week crew members suit up and embark on "extravehicular activities" which can involve taking measurements, soil samples, and photos, which are packaged into a report for mission control. The crew also simulates a search for water and caves and other objectives a Mars team would tackle.

Difficulties of life on Mars

"Most days are fairly similar," shares Lenio. "Zak mentioned in another interview we did that any surprises that we get tend to be bad surprises, like things breaking down -- there aren't a lot of good surprises."

The crew performs regular habitat maintenance, ensuring that water and power levels are adequate.

"Oftentimes, that's enough," says Lenio. "But we had a hurricane early on in the mission and around Christmas we had some dark, windy rainy days. So then it gets a bit more difficult to manage the power. We also couldn't see the battery status from our computers."

Keeping morale up not a big challenge

The combination of activity and simple pleasures keeps everyone upbeat and the crew of one accord, says Lenio. Cooking and elevating the flavors and textures of the dehydrated food is proving to be a valuable aspect of habitat life.

"It costs so much to send things into space," the crew commander explains. "But we requested some truffle oil. Just having that little something special to make your meals a little bit special, the psychological benefits are more than the cost of something small like that."

Along with finding out which crew member would be the best chef on Mars, the group also works out together. They play board games and watch movies together as well.

"Another part of the psychology is just making sure that people are busy and are being used to their full potential, as well as getting some downtime to do fun things together," says Lenio.

Ultimate research goal

"[NASA is] trying to figure out how to select a crew that can last for a long-duration space mission, operating fairly autonomously and not kill each other after three years," says Lenio.

"You can kind of do things like [this] on the space station, but the cost of having people up there is extremely high and just the sample size is quite small because you can't have very many people up there at a time," explains Wilson.

"I would like to be an astronaut -- I think going to Mars would be the greatest adventure, so maybe this will help me on my way," says Wilson.  

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