Space experiments on the HI-SEAS

Space experiments on the HI-SEAS

Three days before her lunar mission was scheduled to end, Lauren Fell and the other members of her party “died” – or at least they would have if they’d really been on the moon.

It was fortunate that Fell’s team was instead at Hawai‘i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), a research facility that replicates the conditions astronauts face during space missions.

“You learn a lot about yourself in situations that challenge you,” says Fell, a space enthusiast, quantum cognition researcher and associate lecturer at QUT.

Visually isolated, the HI-SEAS habitat is designed to simulate the physical and psychological conditions that go hand in hand with missions to the moon or Mars.

“It’s far away from civilisation, which adds to the realism because, if someone did injure themselves, you’re a long way from any kind of emergency support,” says Fell.

Up to six “analog astronauts” live in a dome resembling a giant golf ball embedded in the barren rocky slopes of the active Mauna Loa volcano on Hawai‘i Island, 2500m above sea level.

With 366sqm of usable floor space, they share living and working spaces, including a kitchen, laboratory, bathroom, simulated airlock and engineering bay area.

Compact sleeping quarters are their only private space.

The astronauts have no contact with anyone outside the facility except for “mission control” – a round-the-clock support team located offsite.

The rocky environment outside was treacherous, with a hole called “Mordor” that was so deep that if you threw a rock into it, you couldn’t hear it hit the bottom. But there were no rails or guards around it.

“That just freaked me out on the first day,” Fell says.

To explore the eerie lava tubes and tunnels outside the habitat or to conduct research amid the lunar-like landscape, the astronauts had to seek permission from mission control, complete extravehicular activity (EVA) protocols and don spacesuits.

A woman in a space suit
Lauren Fell. Credit: Supplied.

It was after just such an excursion that Fell’s crew made the mistake that would have meant mission over.

She and another team member had ventured outside the habitat to attempt to manually fix a broken heater.

As they were returning via the engineering bay, a colleague who’d remained inside the habitat breached the airlock in search of a screwdriver.

On a real space mission, the difference in pressure between the inside and the outside habitat would have resulted in an explosion, removing all the air from the habitat, Fell explains.

“Because it was towards the end of the mission, there was maybe some forgetfulness,” says Fell.

“When I heard the directive from mission control over the radio to get the screwdriver, I did think to myself, ‘I hope they realise they can’t just walk in here and get it right now’.

“I trusted that they would realise the airlock was depressurised – in this case, I was too trusting.”

She suggests the contemporary focus on building trust in teams is misguided.

“It’s important to not just increase trust arbitrarily but ensure we’re able to calibrate our trust appropriately to each situation,” Fell says.

Matter of trust

It was an especially interesting plot twist for Fell, given that she’d entered HI-SEAS as part of her PhD on quantum models of trust – or how actions and interactions that occur in volatile environments can affect how we make decisions about who and what to trust.

Her research was designed to explore how trust developed over the course of the mission by looking at the interrelationships between crew trust, trust in mission control, and trust in the technology and external environment.

“In spaceflight, the consequences of making an inaccurate trust decision can be really dire, so I wanted to have a look at how that works,” Fell says.

She employed quantitative and qualitative research methods, undertaking two surveys per day, and three sets of interviews with each of the three other crew members over the 14-day mission.

We all sell ourselves short in terms of what we can endure and what we can thrive in.

While Fell is still sifting through all the data she collected, she notes that the way we usually think about trust, in terms of one person or thing in isolation from others, is superficial.

“When forced to consciously consider all of the trust decisions we might be making at any given moment, people can identify a wide range of them,” Fell explains.

“Things that came up included trust in the other crew members, support systems, the terrain, mission control, the food, and many more.

“These trust decisions are often interrelated, but without being prompted to consider their trust decisions holistically,  people generally tend to focus on simple entities, such as a particular person or technology.”

Another surprising theme to emerge was the role and importance of self-trust.

“Sometimes we might outsource (trust) decisions and say, ‘Well, I don’t know whether this information is accurate, but I trust mission control, and they’re the ones telling me this’.”

As we learn more, and thus learn to trust ourselves more, we wrest back some of that control.

“There was also a need for (the astronauts) to trust themselves to be able to deal with new circumstances and situations,” Fell explains.

With the current clamour to establish sustained human presence on the moon or even Mars, understanding trust and self and others will prove critical.

“Particularly for missions to Mars, where you don’t have ground control and you don’t have an army of people telling you what to do at any given moment, self-trust and crew-trust and trust in instrumentation are going to be really vital,” Fell says.

Some of the crew members demonstrated a low self-trust at the start of the experiment, she notes, but this increased rapidly as they proved they could cope with conditions.

“We all sell ourselves short in terms of what we can endure and what we can thrive in,” says Fell.

“And we have this innate need to trust – we have to we trust people, simply because that’s the only way for us to live, as a social species.”

Fell has previously published on the erosion of trust at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, how humans judge the reliability of AI, how a pre-conscious “alert mechanism” called proto-trust can underpin decision-making, and more.

Exploring the peaks and valleys of the active mauna loa volcano on hawaii island
Credit: Supplied

All at sea

The configuration of HI-SEAS makes it possible to conduct all sorts of other experiments.

The other researchers on Fell’s mission considered emotional regulation in this environment; the effects of astronaut age on physical, mental and social aspects of life in the habitat; and microgravity effects.

To that end, Fell found herself running on a treadmill in simulated zero gravity conditions.

“We stepped into a harness that approximates what our weight would be on the moon and then went for a bit of a run,” she explains.

“One thing I noticed is that you don’t feel it so much in the legs because you’re not holding up as much weight, but I felt it a lot in my core, because your body’s just not intuitively used to moving in that way.”

As a research station, HI-SEAS has been operational since 2013, and accepts applications from anyone intending to conduct relevant research.

“It’s rare in research that you get an opportunity to really embed yourself in your own subject matter,” Fell explains.

“Not only could I experience first-hand the trust environment I was studying, but I was also afforded an experience in my life I will never forget.”

Please login to favourite this article.