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The good, the bad and the ugly on a Hawaiian Mars

The crew of the HI-SEAS experiment answers questions about a four-month  simulated space mission aimed at studying which diets would work best for a trip to Mars.
/ Source: NBC News

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, also known as HI-SEAS, has just passed the one-month mark — and although there are almost three months still to go, some conclusions about the preferred menu for a Mars mission are already taking shape.

HI-SEAS crew commander Angelo Vermeulen responded to several questions from NBC News' Alan Boyle in an email sent from the mission habitat on Hawaii's Big Island. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

NBC News: About the food: what have been the greatest hits for the simulation? What have been the biggest misses? What conclusions have you drawn about food preparation for long-term spaceflight? Are you gaining or losing weight, and why do you think that is? What works and what doesn’t? (Sounds like the sour cream mix doesn’t.)

HI-SEAS: "At this point we can provide you with impressions. We’ll be able to give you more conclusive answers at the end of the 120 days mission, and after proper data analysis. However, there seem to be a few trends that have consistently established themselves. In general, the dehydrated and freeze-dried vegetables are a real success. They’re used on a daily basis in almost every meal. Some success meals were: Russian borscht, Moroccan tagine, ham and potato soup, and tofu smoothies. Wraps work really well: We combine tortillas, different vegetables, Velveeta cheese, and sausage or canned fish into ever-changing combinations. This is actually in line with the success of tortillas at the ISS.

"The freeze-dried meat is only really enjoyable when used in meals. In itself it’s too bland and hardly has any aroma. Our least favorite pre-prepared meal must be 'Kung Fu Chicken.' Gets tiring really fast. Notwithstanding several ingredients, it has a rather flat taste, and the texture of the meal could be best described as 'slimy.' The advantages of using pre-prepared meals is that they’re less time-consuming and less stressful. Hardly any thinking needed. But of course, they’re also less culinarily satisfying. Usually more water is needed when cooking a meal from scratch, due to the larger cleanup.

"One surprising finding is the fact that we hardly drink sugared drinks. We started off with Tang and finished our supply in no time, but after that other sugared drinks were hardly touched. We mostly drink water, tea and coffee."

Q: It sounds as if you’re taking on an expedition to lava tube, which also have been found on Mars. What research objectives are you pursuing with your expeditions to lava tubes and other destinations?

A: "Lava tubes are a really interesting Martian analogue. Some years ago, structures were discovered on the Martian surface that look like so-called 'skylights,' the collapsed ceilings of lava tubes. Lava tubes might actually be a key element for successful long-term human habitation on Mars. They can shield inhabitants from radiation, and potentially be converted into airtight structures — hence, living quarters in such tubes require less building materials.

Image: Lava tube
An aerial photograph shows the lava tube located near the HI-SEAS habitat on Hawaii's Big Island.

"The skylight that three crew members recently visited near the HI-SEAS base was identified using remote sensing. A similar approach would be used on Mars. The objectives of the first expedition were to plan a safe traverse using remote sensing data, 'ground truth' the predicted depth, structure, and flow direction of the lava tube, assess future descent routes, if any."

Q: I understand you’re testing stink-proof antimicrobial exercise wear. How’s that working out for you? What does it feel like, and how do you gauge the success of the clothing against a control experiment? I hear you’re also working with robo-pets? Details, please.

A: "We’re conducting a number of experiments with antimicrobial textiles. We’re testing NASA’s Advanced Clothing System, which includes lightweight astronaut's exercise clothing for extended wear.  We are part of the ground-based study that precedes an on-orbit study, in which astronauts at the ISS will be evaluating the best garments for long-duration missions beyond Earth orbit.  We don’t know which garments are treated with antimicrobial coatings. However, two crew members have been wearing the same exercise shirt for five weeks now without any problem, so we suspect they might have been treated. One of the crew members told us he was very impressed and that it was by far the best exercise shirt that he has used. We’re also collaborating with the company Cupron. They provided us with antimicrobial underwear, socks, gloves, towels and bed linens. All of these textile items are currently being tested. The actual antimicrobial treatment is hard to sense — we’re talking about very small particles embedded into the fabric. These textiles mostly feel like regular textiles.

"We’re currently testing two robot companions: Pleo and Romibo. Pleo has been taken care of by different crew members. Romibo is currently being reprogrammed to have more elaborate behavior for crew interaction. The focus of this test is to see which type of robotic personalities people will create a stronger bond with: a highly needy robot personality that actively demands and seeks attention; an assertive robot that will request attention but not mind if it is ignored; and a passive robot personality that will only interact with crew members when they initiate contact.

Image: Vermeulen
HI-SEAS crew commander Angelo Vermeulen plays with a Pleo robotic pet while he works in the Hawaii habitat.

"Crew members on a mission to Mars or to other planetary bodies will be separated from friends, families, and social stimuli for many years or longer. They will be spending the majority of this time in a highly mentally and physically demanding environment, often with minimal personal space. This creates an environment of constant stress. For that reason it is valuable to provide crew members with outlets that will allow them to not only reduce stress physically but emotionally.

"It has been well-established that domestic pets can provide a great deal of stress relief and create emotional bonds with their owners. At this time it is not practical for domestic animals to accompany long-term space missions, so it is of interest to examine the potential of providing robotic companions. For personnel in isolated environments, it can be surmised that this emotional bond would be of benefit for the well-being of the crew member if it can be created."

Q: Now that you’re more than a month into the simulation, what issues have arisen in terms of personal relationships during a long-term mission with relative confinement. My editors are asking about relationship issues. OK, they’re asking about sex. What can be said about these types of personal issues?

A: "Thanks for your question about interpersonal relationships. We’re actually getting along fine and keep professional relationships."

Q: One of the project leaders, the University of Hawaii's Kim Binsted, says that there will be follow-on experiments aimed at studying issues relating to long-term spaceflight. What issues do you feel are most in need of investigation during future phases?

A: "We believe it would be very valuable to improve habitat automation and efficiency. More automation frees up more time for the crew. And a higher resource efficiency using closed loop systems would make the habitat more sustainable, especially over longer periods of time."

Portions of Vermeulen's emailed responses were edited or co-written by other members of the HI-SEAS crew.