When your roommate eats the last Oreo in the freezer, that's an annoyance. When your roommate eats the last Oreo you'll see in months, you might have a problem.
On Sept. 17, six volunteer crew members emerged from eight months of isolation. Their quarantine, part of a NASA-backed study by the University of Hawaii, could one day help humanity plan a drama-free Mars mission.
For the last eight months, the six volunteers lived in a tiny shelter on the slopes of an active volcano, sharing their living space, meager kitchen, and solitary shower.
From a distance, their house-sized habitat looked like a golf ball sitting in the loneliest sand trap in the universe. Photo from HI-SEAS V Crew/University of Hawaii News/Flickr.
The shelter wasn't exactly luxurious. Sleeping spaces were small, food mostly came in freeze-dried pouches or cans, and communication with the outside world was purposefully delayed 20 minutes to simulate vast interplanetary distances.
And outside? The forbidding, rocky landscape of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano surrounded them. If that wasn't discouraging enough, actually going outside was strictly limited: teams only and spacesuits mandatory.
Given all that, it'd be understandable for everyone to get a little cabin fever. But that was the point.
If we want to send humans to Mars, it's going to mean asking them to spend a long time alone — at least a year. And with even relatively simple, robot-based Mars missions costing a few billion dollars, we don't want personality problems derailing a mission. This study will help NASA learn how to help people get along during their long spaceflight.
The HI-SEAS V crew. From left to right: Brian Ramos, Laura Lark, Ansley Barnard, Samuel Payler, Joshua Ehrlich, and James Bevington. Photo from University of Hawaii News/Flickr.
The group used a variety of methods to track their emotional states, from journals to voice recorders. They also tested ways to de-stress, like using virtual reality to take a trip to a tropical beach.
One big takeaway? Even the best teams have conflict sometimes. What's important is how you deal with it.
"We’ve learned, for one thing, that conflict, even in the best of teams, is going to arise," principal investigator and professor Kim Binsted told the AP. "So what’s really important is to have a crew that, both as individuals and a group, is really resilient, is able to look at that conflict and come back from it."
Binsted couldn't share any details about this year's crew but said in an email that past crews have dealt with things like miscommunications, the stress of problems back home, and — yes — what to do when a favorite food runs out.
This was the fifth of six planned missions. For their efforts, the newly-freed crew was rewarded with a buffet of food, including fresh pineapple, mango, papaya, and doughnuts. None of it appeared to have been freeze-dried.
NASA hopes to send humans to Mars as soon as the 2030s.