Contrary to what we’ve seen in movies like “The Martian,” the greatest danger to early explorers of the red planet might not be massive dust storms and toxic cosmic rays. Instead, it’s more likely the threat of being driven to near insanity by a crew mate’s loud music or her habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink.
A manned mission to Mars is the next great frontier to be conquered in space (multiple are planned to blast off in the next two decades), and this trip is going to require a different kind of astronaut.
Gone are the days of recruiting cocky, adrenaline-junkie types — living embodiments of “The Right Stuff” — as with the 1960s American space program. Space agencies these days will need a person who is psychologically strong enough to survive the long trip to Mars and the isolating experience of being there.
What kind of person is that? The new movie “Red Heaven” offers a look at six of them. The documentary is part of the DOC NYC film festival and can be viewed online at docnyc.net until Nov. 19.
The film follows six volunteers who are quarantined in a small habitat for an entire year in order to simulate living conditions on Mars. The experience devolved into a living nightmare.
The NASA-sponsored experiment was known as the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) and took place in a 1,200-square-foot dome built atop the rocky face of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, 8,000 feet above sea level and miles from civilization.
Filmmakers Lauren DeFilippo and Katherine Gorringe were fascinated by the exercise. They became determined to arm the participants with cameras before they entered isolation in August 2015.
“There were a number of filmmakers and bigger broadcasters circling around, and we were naive enough to immerse ourselves in the experience and get to know everyone at an early stage,” DeFilippo told The Post.
The legwork paid off and the film was approved. They raised some of the funds needed on Kickstarter.
DeFilippo and Gorringe were there as the six participants entered the habitat, enjoying their last in-person contact with other humans for a full 365 days.
All of the volunteers were in their 30s and experts in different scientific fields: German geophysicist Christiane Heinicke, French astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux and the Americans, space architect Tristan Bassingthwaighte, physician Sheyna Gifford, soil scientist Carmel Johnston, and engineer Andrzej Stewart.
“I was probably the one who got into it the most on accident,” Bassingthwaighte told The Post. “I was abroad at the time doing a grad-school exchange program in China. I had always wanted to be an astronaut. I found the blog about HI-SEAS and applied on a lark. I didn’t know HI-SEAS existed, then four months later, I was in it.”
In addition to scientific knowledge, potential participants were screened for a psychological profile that was best suited for the unique life in the dome. They had to tolerate both extreme stress and extreme boredom.
“I was pretty sure that I would have a good chance of withstanding, but you can never know for sure,” Heinicke told The Post. “We were warned that the stress would be very high, but what does that mean? We just entered and learned along the way.”
The setup certainly recalls a reality show, but the directors were worried that the subjects might not turn out to be particularly compelling.
“As filmmakers, you’re always looking for human drama, and they were specifically selected for not being dramatic people,” Gorringe told The Post. “But once we got to know them, human drama is always there, even with people who aren’t going to be overdramatic.”
Living on top of five other strangers day after day might bring out the worst in all of us. The habitat had a small living room, 1.5 bathrooms, a galley kitchen and tiny living quarters for each of the six up a flight of stairs. Power came via solar panel, water via large storage tanks outside.
Comforts were few. A timer limited the length of their hot showers and meals were assembled from freeze-dried foods, such as ham and cauliflower. The crew also grew salad greens inside the dome, munching on a leaf or two every few weeks.
Exercise was required, and the group members worked out on the dome’s treadmill or performed improvised muscle-building activities, such as walking up and down the stairs carrying a heavy pack.
It wasn’t even two cliques as much as two tribes. Soon, all your personal time was spent with people who weren’t driving you crazy.
– space architect Tristan Bassingthwaighte
The crew completed various tasks each day. They experimented with plants or carried out geological studies. There were also household chores to do, such as washing clothes and dishes.
In their free time, they read, played games or music, or in Bassingthwaighte’s case, created T-shirt designs that he now sells on Etsy under DeepSpaceStore.
Privacy and sound-proofing were virtually nonexistent. No phones, no Internet, no contact with the outside world, beyond e-mail (which had a 20-minute lag, like on Mars) and a weekly news summary provided by NASA.
The crew was allowed to exit the habitat just twice a week. They strapped on heavy space suits and exited through the simulated airlock to explore the desolate terrain around them.
“We realized the antagonist of the film is the wall of the dome,” Gorringe says, “and time.”
To measure their moods, the participants were required to fill out numerous surveys a day. A few weeks in, the vibe was rated excellent.
“Everyone was trying to be good and be nice to everyone and try to establish a good relationship, setting a positive tone for the whole mission,” says Heinicke, who now works at the Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity at the University of Bremen. “Over time you’re getting used to each other and you’re less keen on always showing your positive side and hiding your negative side.”
The crew starts out friendly enough, chatting politely over meals and participating in movie nights. As the months drag on, however, some of them are barely speaking to each other. A schism quickly formed, with Gifford and Stewart on one side and the rest on the other.
“It wasn’t even two cliques as much as two tribes,” Bassingthwaighte says. “Soon, all your personal time was spent with people who weren’t driving you crazy.”
Gifford and Stewart were more rigid and refused to leave the habitat unless absolutely necessary. The other four enjoyed hours-long walks during their twice-weekly missions.
After a few months, the group’s mood went from fair to poor. The drop was something the filmmakers anticipated.
“There have been studies done on ship voyages and any long-term experience of isolation,” Gorringe says. “It always kind of follows this four-quarter structure. There’s always third-quarter syndrome [when things get bad].”
Minor annoyances become major when there’s no escape, such as a crew mate’s loud footsteps, or a propensity to leave half-filled cups of water around, or playing loud pop music.
Johnston would clomp loudly up and down the stairs while exercising. Stewart rubbed some the wrong way by using the washing machine to clean his clothes instead of hand washing, which used much less water.
“When Andrzej shouted ‘burritos!’ with a Mexican accent, that wasn’t great,” Bassingthwaighte says dryly.
Members of the group sometimes disagreed about how to handle problems, such as when the water pump failed. Though there were never any blowout fights, tensions in the dome ran high.
“[Gifford] was a bit difficult for me because she has this need to be in control,” Heinicke says. “We could have given up and be bitching at each other, but we managed to keep working together.”
One reason Heinicke was able to hang on was that she had struck up a romance with Verseux. (They broke up soon after the year ended.)
“It helped a lot, just for the simple fact that you can go to your room and have a private conversation, or have a shoulder to cry on,” Heinicke says.
The coupling worried some of the participants, because they feared what would happen if the two broke up mid-mission. Heinicke and Verseux had a conversation in which they agreed that if they did break up, they’d remain professional and wouldn’t date anyone else in the dome.
“It didn’t bother me,” Bassingthwaighte says. “The most I ever saw or heard was a sweet kiss at dinner once. There was none of that ’80s movie stuff where my postcards are getting knocked off the wall and I’m strapping on my Bose headphones.”
In August 2016, the mission drew to a close and the participants were allowed to exit, feeling the sun and wind on their faces for the first time in a year.
“When we saw them walk out of that dome, it was pretty shocking,” Gorringe says. “They were pale, had lost weight, their teeth didn’t look very good.”
Today, NASA is still analyzing the data collected and a report will be issued next year. The directors suspect that the findings will highlight some of the same techniques that are getting us through quarantine.
“Exercise stands out for [helping relieve] that time fog,” DeFilippo says. “Also, definitely have a collective goal and something to work towards each day.” Keeping in contact with friends and family is also important to stave off feelings of isolation and loneliness, they concluded.
Despite all the challenges, “I had a good time,” says Bassingthwaighte, who’s now a terrestrial architect in Honolulu but applies to SpaceX every six months. “There were difficult times, but I went into the dome after living in Shanghai, with so many people and so much pollution and culture shock. Suddenly, I’m up on a mountain not paying rent and pretending to be an astronaut.
“It was like an adult Disney.”
The other participants might not go that far, but all would jump at a chance to travel to Mars for real. They might truly be made of different stuff than the rest of us. Especially Verseux. Shortly after HI-SEAS concluded, he signed up for another year-long isolation in Antarctica.