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After Several Months On Simulated Mars Voyage, Indiana Psychologist Recounts Experience

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"You might remember that back in March, we brought you an interview with Ronald Williams. He's a neuropsychologist from Fort Wayne Indiana. He was preparing to be part of a team to live inside a very small, geodesic dome high up on a Hawaiian volcano. The goal was simulate what it would be like to live on Mars. His particular mission was to study the group dynamics and sleeping patterns of the six-person team. Well, Dr. Williams has now returned from what's called the HI-SEAS mission so we wanted to know how it went," says host Barbara Lewis.

Interview highlights

Lewis: We spoke to you in the spring as you were preparing to embark on a simulated trip to Mars. The plan was to spend about four months in a habitat set on a barren landscape 8,000 feet in Hawaii.  Tell us about this habitat. How big was it? How comfortable was it? 

Williams: It was 36 feet in diameter, and about 15-20 feet high. It was cozy inside. It was a little bit like being in a big camping tent. We each had individual rooms on an upper level. Those rooms were roughly six feet by six feet in size and they had a slope to the roof. We had a small kitchen and a good supply of food. We were relatively non-picky about food and so we were easily satisfied with the food that was available. Basically we had all the food you can imagine having at home except it was all freeze dried or canned. And there were some characteristics or consequences of that. 

Lewis: How many people total then?

Williams: There were six of us. Three women, three men. 

Lewis: This project resembled a reality show in some ways. All of your interactions were observed by video cameras. What elements of your surroundings posed the biggest challenge?

Williams: There were a couple of video cameras in there in certain sections.. such as where we held group meetings and planning meetings. The rest of the dome really wasn't covered by cameras. We wore monitors around our neck that did not record our conversations but recorded when we were interacting with one another. The specifics of the interactions were not recorded. But these sensors could tell who we were interacting with, individually, in small groups or as a whole. 

...

Lewis: One purpose of the project was to explore the psychological issues that arise when several people are confined in a small environment over a long period of time as on a Mars mission, as you were saying. So as a neuropsychologist, you were going to explore group dynamics among the participants. What did you observe?

Williams: Early on, I observed a lot of cohesiveness. We bonded very well together. There was a little bit of gender-defined bonding that took place. We talked about that later, and even talked about it during the debriefing after the mission.. that we kind of wished that the initial training week that we had we had not been separated into two housing units for the training. There happened to be two units we were housed in and they happened to hold three people a piece. And wouldn't you know it, it ended up, three guys went in one, and three women in the other. And it caused some bonding that I think was a strength in some ways, especially for the females, but in others ways it may have interfered with bonding for the group as a whole. I think when I had to leave early, it created a bit of an imbalance that they told me they were very much aware of after I left and they were telling me that throughout the mission and at the end. 

Lewis: Can you give me an example of that? Because a lot of times in society, in schools, you get the girls at one lunch table and the boys over at another.

Williams: I'm not so sure it really caused problems. I know that it didn't cause problems that seriously interfered with the missions and its goals. But the women I know bonded so well based upon some common interests in exercise. When we were in there together the three women were very physically fit and the women were very into this video exercise called Insanity. The guys weren't just as into it, and they probably couldn't have handled the physical stress of what they were doing. They bonded well in that way, which was helpful to them, but then they say at times at it seemed a little bit of a distance between the women and the men. 

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Lewis: What did you take away from this? 

Williams: One thing that I observed and learned is that when you put a number of equally, very bright individuals together, they are all used to having other people in their lives listen to them and their directions and let them take the lead. When you mix them together, there's naturally going to be some disagreement in how things should be done. You have strong personalities that feel that their way of doing it is the right way. And we have to have a plan for how those disagreements are settled. And although we had a mission commander, the roles weren't really clearly defined and that may have been one of the things that they wanted to see as part of the mission, how that would work out... Without clearly defining roles; without clearly defining consequences of not listening to the commander, of not going along with the group decision. That wasn't really ever spelled out. So some of the difficulties took place because each person had their opinion about how something should be done. Usually a group consensus, but there were times when if the person's opinion was strong enough, they may go ahead and do something their own way. 

Lewis: What other big, grander themes played out? 

Williams: One of the things I felt very strongly about was just how much a person in a confined environment like that needs to have communication with the outside, and we did have that through delayed email. It was just really important for your sanity and happiness. The other thing was that we needed to have a purpose in there. In that, each time there was a crisis, like a power outage or our water supply actually went dry at one point when the sensors weren't telling us that it was going to happen, when these little emergencies would happen, or communication breakdowns would happen, it was kind of a positive thing because it gave us a sense of purpose. Like, 'oh, we got a problem. We got to put on our space suits, we got to go outside and measure the water directly, or we have to go get that antenna that blew down.' It was those crises that actually gave us purpose and lifted spirits. 

Lewis: Would you do it again?

Williams: I would, and I tell you what, when I had to leave, I kept thinking, 'I know how to get back to that dome. I know right where it is.' I was so tempted to say, 'to heck with this, I'm risking it. I'm going back there with my crew.' I would strongly consider doing it again. 

HI-SEAS, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, is a NASA-funded space simulation program.