Crew to celebrate end of simulation with parachute jump

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They won’t be the first crew to complete a Mars simulation on Hawaii Island.

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They won’t be the first crew to complete a Mars simulation on Hawaii Island.

But no one has finished it quite like this.

When their eight-month stay in a dome on Mauna Loa ends June 13, six crew members participating in the longest Mars habitat study hosted in the United States will leave their simulated red planet in a Chinook helicopter and “re-enter” Earth’s atmosphere by skydiving with the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team over Kailua-Kona.

The jump will begin at about 11 a.m., and the team will land at the Old Airport Recreation Area’s soccer fields, a spokeswoman for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation said.

The idea came from one of the crew members, who has a friend in the Golden Knights, said Kim Binsted, a University of Hawaii faculty member and principal investigator with HI-SEAS.

It’s not officially part of the study, just a “cool way for them to come back,” said Binsted, who will jump with them.

Additionally, the crew will be joined on the jump by fitness celebrity Tony Horton, who created the P90X workout. Binsted said the workout has been a daily routine for the crew members.

“This crew in particular latched on to P90X,” she said.

Crew member Jocelyn Dunn, who responded to questions via email, said she looks forward to seeing the Big Island from the air.

Since the simulation started in October, the crew members have only seen the island through a small porthole in the dome and through the lens of the spacesuits they have to wear outside.

“I’m not nervous about the jump since we are jumping with the Army’s best of the best!” she said.

To simulate communication delays on a Mars mission, all email to and from crew members is on a 20-minute delay. They also have limited Internet access, though one crew member wrote on his blog that he downloaded all 50 gigabytes of Wikipedia to take with him.

Dunn described the view from the dome at the 9,200-foot elevation as surreal. The only visible structures are a few scattered military buildings at Pohakuloa Training Area or the observatories atop Mauna Kea.

“The other day I felt a fear about going outside after the mission ends,” she said. “By pretending that the atmosphere is toxic, and wearing our spacesuits when we got outside, it will be strange to just walk out the front door.”

As with the end of the last two HI-SEAS simulations, the crew will be treated to a meal featuring some of the dishes that they’ve missed for the past eight months. Inside the dome, they can only cook with items that are freeze-dried or considered shelf stable.

Among the requests: pineapple, bananas, a “massive burger with a massive salad,” whole milk, and steak.

Dunn said she looks forward to eating fresh fruit and enjoying many of the comforts people take for granted, including a big bed and daily showers.

Missing some of the little things surprised her, she said.

“I didn’t realize how much I would crave new music and even banal sounds like dogs barking or children playing in the park,” Dunn said.

The purpose of the simulation is to test group cohesion on long space missions, and the crew has had to perform numerous tasks to see how well they bond and communicate in isolation.

But not all of the challenges were planned.

The dome is mostly solar-powered, and the crew ran low on backup fuel during a few cold and dark weeks in March, Martha Lenio, crew commander, wrote on her blog. The crew had to limit power to “critical systems,” such as toilets and a lab freezer, until another fuel shipment arrived.

Naturally, interpersonal conflicts became an issue in such a confined space, Lenio said in an email. The dome is 36 feet in diameter.

“Mostly we’ve been able to over-come everything we’ve been faced with by keeping up our communication and doing our best to accommodate each other’s emotional needs,” she said.

The current simulation is the third to be hosted by HI-SEAS, and its longest yet.

The earlier missions lasted four months, and the first was focused solely on creating palatable food based on the limited ingredients a Mars-bound crew could take with them.

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Binsted said none of the crews have shown signs of “third-quarter syndrome,” or mission fatigue, but that will be put to the test again in August when another six volunteers will spend a year in isolation.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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