The remote slopes of a volcano on Hawaii's main island offer some of the clearest views of the night sky on the planet.
For the six fake astronauts soon to be living inside a geodesic dome there, including the Canadian mission commander, those views will be for naught. For eight months, their world will consist of little more than the 1,000-square-foot dome and a shipping container. They will don space suits to go outside, conduct their own research within the dome, and be guinea pigs for a NASA project studying the impact of long-term isolation.
"I'm like the fake Chris Hadfield," jokes Martha Lenio, the 34-year-old Canadian chosen to lead the crew of Americans. "I'm the leader of a fake mission to fake space."
When she enters the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) dome on Mauna Loa on Oct. 15, Ms. Lenio will become the first Canadian and the first woman to command a mission there, and only the third female commander of any NASA mission.
It was a winding path to reach this point. Ms. Lenio studied mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo because she wanted to one day be an astronaut, and thought it would be handy if she could fix her own spaceship. But her path veered quickly toward more earthly concerns. She was a volunteer teacher in Ghana for six months, did her PhD in photovoltaics in Australia, and worked in renewable energy in both Canada and the United States.
Throughout it all, though, her childhood dream of being an astronaut hovered like a moon. "A lot of the astronauts, you just do your thing and concentrate on your career, get yourself as personally ready as you can, and when there's a call for astronauts you do it," she said. "There isn't really a wrong way to get there."
So when she heard about the call for applications to the HI-SEAS project – on the day applications were due – she threw together a project pitch and crossed her fingers. Now, she's preparing to live like an astronaut.
This is the third mission at the HI-SEAS dome, and it doubles the duration of the previous longest mission, said Kim Binsted, a Canadian who runs the project for the University of Hawaii Manoa and NASA. This mission is one of three that will study team cohesion.
"Long story short, we want to know how you pick a team, and then support a team, for these long-duration space missions so they won't kill each other," Ms. Binsted said. "These are long-duration isolation missions … in a really harsh environment. This isn't the swaying palm trees and beaches most people think of when they think of Hawaii. It's very Mars-like."
Mauna Loa is the second-largest volcano in the solar system, behind Olympus Mons on Mars. Both are shield volcanoes created by millennia of lava flow. The two look eerily similar. It is a barren landscape which the crew will be able to see only through the small window panel in the white dome, or when they suit up and go outside – a process that takes hours.
But it is the mundanity of daily life, not the extremes of the environment, that has NASA most concerned. "That can be wearing and a little trippy, in a way," Ms. Binsted said. "Your world compresses to this one space."
Observers will pay close attention to team performance and psychological stressors, particularly watching for the "third-quarter" funk that lurks after the initial excitement dies down, but before the project nears its end. They will also watch for "crew-ground disconnect," a phenomenon that affects many major expeditions and leaves both the mission crew and ground-control feeling frustrated and misunderstood.
"That kind of communication breakdown can cause real problems," Ms. Binsted said. "When it happens in an Earth-bound organization, everyone just goes for a beer and works it out, but we can't do that with our crew."
An Internet connection will allow the crew to communicate and post videos. They hope to channel some of the outreach efforts perfected by Canada's space darling Commander Hadfield. But live Q&A sessions are out of the question – the connection will be on a 20-minute delay to simulate transmission from Mars.
Rather than be otherworldly, Ms. Lenio laughs that it will probably feel just like her days spent using dial-up at Internet cafes in Ghana. Similarly, the communal living space smacks of backwoods camping in Algonquin Provincial Park and growing up in a house with four siblings.
"I never had my own room until second-year university," she said. "I've done bucket showers and handwashing clothes for six months. I'm not addicted to the Internet. I'm not going to miss those kinds of luxuries the way maybe other people would."
While leading the mission, Ms. Lenio will run experiments growing food in the dome, composting waste to make soil and, they hope, offering up an occasional salad for the crew. (Her hopes to also bring along chickens were dashed due to the very un-Mars like threat of vermin.)
"I feel this is a very extreme case of sustainability. You have to reuse all of the water, all of the food. Everything you do has to be self-sufficient and reused," she said. "I would like to get a very simple, stripped-down way of living that can be applied here and now for people's benefit. If I can demonstrate that, and get that outreach to people, hopefully I've added something."
And if the experience helps punch her ticket to the stars, that's even better.