A white, dome-shaped research station sits on Mars. The inhabitants are scientists who have left behind friends, families and the joy of fresh fruit. When they go outside, they have to wear spacesuits. They cannot feel the sun, wind or rain on their skin. Any signal takes up to 20 minutes to reach the rest of humanity, making e-mail the only reasonable means of communication.

For six scientists, these are the current conditions they face. The only difference being that Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano is our Red Planet. I am one of those scientists, taking part in a one-year Mars exploratory mission simulation.

In late August I moved into the white dome to take part in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation IV (HI-SEAS). This NASA-funded study is headed by the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and aims to find out more about how groups fare in isolated, confined and extreme environments. The simulation aims to learn how crew members deal with being far away from home while having very limited contact with loved ones. It also provides an environment to study how their performance changes over time, how individuals overcome conflicts and how outsiders can support them during their mission. Hopefully, at the end of the simulation these questions can be better answered.

Christiane Heinicke collecting soil samples.
Credit: Cyprien Verseux

So what would a Martian exploration crew look like? Considering the required level of autonomy, it should comprise at least one engineer to keep the station running and one medical doctor to keep the crew healthy. For scientific tasks, the crew would require a geologist, maybe a biologist and a physicist. Ideally, fields of expertise would be redundant among crew members.

The crew must also possess strong interpersonal skills: They need to be emotionally resilient and able to solve conflicts rationally and peacefully. Even though we are all scientists, we are humans, too. We make mistakes, have bad days and might become homesick. Still, we cannot keep out of one another's way; there is simply not enough space inside a 10-meter-diameter dome. Therefore, beside our practical skills, we have been specifically selected for our ability to deal with stressful situations.

Our selection process included elaborate questionnaires about our personalities, an aptitude test and a weeklong outing in the Rocky Mountains in which eight final candidates participated. The trekking trip was particularly helpful for preparing us for our mission: Not only did we get to know one another very well but we also acquired various skills for dealing with our unusual situation inside the dome. We were also able to express who we thought would make the best match for life in tight quarters, thus participating in selecting the final six team members.

Credit: Cyprien Verseux

The final crew is a mix of three men and three women. We grew up on various continents and speak three different native languages yet are united by a common goal: Together, we want to perform our best, and after a year in confinement exit the dome as close friends. Here are the six Marsonauts of the HI-SEAS IV simulation:

Carmel Johnston, Commander: She is a soil scientist from Montana whose last job involved camping under the stars in Glacier National Park. The crew is convinced she would be able to take on a physical fight with a grizzly and win. We are also convinced that we could put her to flight by threatening to smear make-up on her face.

Sheyna Gifford, Chief Medical and Safety Officer and Crew Journalist: We call her Doc Mom, because she is really like a mom: taking care of everyone and everything—especially the kitchen—and reminding us what's best for the team. She also helps us fight off overly nosy journalists. Hopefully, we will not need her medical skills during the mission.

Andrzej Stewart, Chief Engineering Officer: He's one of those big guys who look like bears but are just little boys on the inside. He's loudest of the team, even when he's whispering and tiptoeing. A skilled engineer, Andrzej has already solved a number of our technical problems.

Cyprien Verseux, Crew Biologist: We call him Dusty, because he wears a cool cowboy hat. Plus, Dusty is a lot easier to pronounce than Cyprien. At times, his French accent can be a challenge to understand but is often a source of great entertainment, too. Luckily, if you joke with him, he is likely to laugh and respond with a joke of his own.

Tristan Bassingthwaighte, Crew Architect: We call him Marmot, because his eyes turned into supersized puppy-eyes every time he came across one of these furry rodents during our trekking tour in the Rockies. Whatever got him on our team—as our crew jokester he is indispensable for team morale.

Christiane Heinicke, Chief Scientific Officer and Crew Physicist: That's me. The others call me Cookies, because I like—surprise—cookies. I also like snow and ice, but I guess I will not see much of that in Hawaii. So I will just ask for extra portions of cookies during wintertime.

Offerings to the volcano gods.
Credit: Christiane Heinicke

Now, why do we isolate ourselves from the rest of the world? Some of us want to become astronauts. Some already work in space research. Others came to the mission via a detour, but all of us are space enthusiasts and want to advance human spaceflight and help get the first humans to Mars—and back—safely.

We know that to achieve this a number of technological problems have to be solved. The biggest uncertainty for long-duration space missions, however, remains the human factor. Without the possibility of escape, small conflicts can swell up and result in the crew sabotaging one anothers' work. Hopefully, our participation in this study helps reduce the likelihood of these kinds of situations during future missions to—the real—Mars.