Former crewmember Martha Lenio during a previous mission. Image Credit: YouTube // University of Hawaii

This past Sunday (August 28), six pale, grinning faces greeted the sunlight for the first time in a year. The crew of the longest-ever Mars simulator mission in Hawaii has come back to Earth. 

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program tests crewmembers’ ability to cope and get along while stuck in a small habitat for months at a time. Their convincingly Martian habitat is situated on the desolate, rocky slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano. The site’s high elevation keeps it barren and alien-looking, and its soil is similar to that found on Mars. At 36 feet across and 20 feet tall, the dome itself is a snug fit for six crewmembers, their possessions, and all of their scientific equipment. With limited contact with the outside world and nowhere to go, the dome offers endurance socializing at its most extreme. (If this appeals to you and you want to join the next mission, you can get the details and sign up here.) 

HI-SEAS has staged three previous missions to Hawaiian Mars: two four-month ‘voyages’ in 2013 and 2014 and an eight-month stay, also in 2014. At exactly 365 days, HI-SEAS IV was the longest mission yet. The international, multidisciplinary crew included astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux, physicist Christiane Heinicke, physician Sheyna Gifford, engineer Andrzej Stewart, architect Tristan Bassingthwaighte, and soil scientist Carmel Johnston. 

Image Credit: University of Hawaii News via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Beaming and squinting in the bright Hawaiian daylight, the newly grounded crew expressed elation and optimism about our future on Mars, saying “a mission to Mars in the close future is realistic,” as Verseux told the press. “I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome.” 

HI-SEAS principal investigator Kim Binsted said the crew was most looking forward to a plunge in the ocean and the opportunity to fill their plates with all the fresh produce they’ve been missing.

Although they never truly left the ground, the HI-SEAS IV crew returned with the awe, vulnerability, and hope of so many space travelers before them. Writing in her blog mere moments before the end of the mission, Gifford wrote

The roots of our humanity are buried in it and reach for it, growing towards the light of the only sun we have ever felt on our skin and beyond, to other suns, to other stars. This was a year of my life. Light from our sun traveled 5,878,499,817 miles out towards other words, 3,375 of which are known to us as of this moment. Light from their suns hurled the same distance towards are. We are, in a metaphorical and physical sense, reaching for each other – not for any reason. It just does. We just are. 

Gifford closed her post with an exhortation to her fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth. “For you all out there: just keep going,” she wrote. “It will be the hardest and best thing you ever do. For me, for now—I’m going on vacation.”

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