On Aug. 28, in a mission funded by NASA, six scientists entered the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation habitat (HI-SEAS), a solar-powered dome located on the slope of a dormant volcano. The scientists, representing the U.S., Germany and France, will remain there for a year.

This is the fourth mission to take place in the HI-SEAS habitat, and the third to study how a small number of people will handle living in a small space for a long period of time. The previous mission was eight months, and the two before that were four months each.

Long-term studies including psychological elements are important as NASA estimates that a trip to Mars would take one to three years. Knowing how people would react to the unusual and potentially high-stress nature of "close quarters" will provide insight into how to prepare astronauts both physically and mentally for a real journey to Mars.

In a video tour provided by the previous HI-SEAS habitat mission, life inside the dome is revealed to be regulated by schedules — but not as sterile or primitive as one might imagine. The scientists are able to cook a variety of dishes and desserts (including fresh bread and flan). They work, eat, exercise and spend downtime together. The Mission III scientists even had a pet Beta fish, named Blastoff McRocketboots, for additional company. Blastoff might be joining HI-SEAS IV 365-Day Simulated Mars Mission crew as a veteran dome inhabitant. Crew Commander and soil scientist Carmel Johnston confirmed via email that Blastoff is currently enjoying a vacation, but that he is welcome back inside the dome at any time. Will Blastoff be the mascot for Mission IV? It’s too soon to tell.

The HI-SEAS website describes the layout and design of the dome. The dome has two stories. The ground floor, containing the common areas, is 993 square feet. The second floor, which provides the scientists’ personal spaces, is 424 square feet, with a 160-square-foot workshop (formerly a shipping container) attached to the structure. It’s cozy but not a shoebox.

The European Space Agency (ESA) will conduct a 60-day bed rest study in Germany. On Sept. 9, 12 volunteers will be positioned in beds with their heads at a slightly lower elevation than their bodies. The experiment will take place at envihab, a special medical facility inside the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine. The study will determine what long-term periods of bed rest will do to the human body, and how such “wasting effects” can be offset. Microgravity is already known to have a negative effect on bone mass and also on muscle tissue, and that, combined with limited movement, could provide further hazardous conditions for astronauts on their lengthy journey to Mars. These studies are of tantamount importance in sending women and men into space for long periods of time.

Biosphere 2Biosphere 2 was created to see how humans would survive away from Earth. (Photo: CGP Grey/flickr)

However, the HI-SEAS missions and the ESA’s bedrest studies are not the first times that humans have been cooped up in the name of space travel research. Remember Biosphere 2, the large enclosed system in Arizona that was front page news in the 1990s? Biosphere 2 was an early experiment in human isolation that centered on farming and ecosystem aspects.

In a TED Talk, former Biosphere 2 resident — or "biospherian" — Jane Poynter describes her experience in the three-acre sealed dome. The mission of Biosphere 2, which was created by the now defunct Space Biosphere Ventures, was to research how humans might survive off Earth. The experiment’s other goal was to understand how life on our planet functions by observing/experiencing it in a confined and controlled space.

According to Poynter, who spent two years in the sphere, the main problem with Biosphere 2 was the depletion of oxygen, which was detrimental to both physical and psychological health. In fact, Biosphere 2 was only active from 1991 until 1994. The Biosphere 2 structure still exists and is now run by the University of Arizona as an educational and outreach facility. If you are wondering, Biosphere 1 is Earth.

What’s next in store for isolation-oriented experiments conducted in the name of space travel? Perhaps submerging humans in undersea environments for long periods of time is a next step. If the success of the HI-SEAS habitat continues, will longer missions be commissioned? The real hard-hitting question is, however, if any of these experiments will inspire a sequel to Pauly Shore’s "Bio-Dome."

Living like sardines in the name of science
Scientists and volunteers endure strange circumstances to understand the needs of space travel.