While people around the globe are preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Americans landing on the moon on July 20, scientists are gathered in a tiny structure on the stark slopes of a huge Hawaiian volcano preparing for mankind’s next adventure to the Moon.
Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. Now, she personifies NASA’s program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, including the first woman and the next man. Through Artemis, the follow-up to the Apollo missions of the 1960s, NASA hopes to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028, using it as a springboard to uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements, and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy.
Beyond the Artemis Project, numerous private companies also want to put people on the Moon. As an example, SpaceX’s Elon Musk has announced a plan to bring a commercial rocket to a lunar orbit as early as 2023, with possible missions to the Moon’s surface soon after.
Thousands of miles away from where the Saturn V rockets brought the first Apollo astronauts to space, scientists are meeting at the remote HI-SEAS lab on Hawaii’s Big Island. Short for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, HI-SEAS is an isolated facility located on the side of Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa is the largest, by volume, of the five volcanoes that form Hawaii’s Big Island. Known as the largest subaerial volcano in both mass and volume, the active shield volcano has barren gentle slopes that rise up to 13,679 feet. Most of the volcano sits below the ocean, with another 16,400 feet to the sea floor. The 30,085 foot elevation from base to summit is greater than the 29,029 foot elevation of Mount Everest from sea level to summit.
In the vastness of the volcano, the HI-SEAS lab is a mere speck. But scientists working experiments at the facility hope to make a huge impact in efforts to get humans back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond.
Built in literally the middle of nowhere, the HI-SEAS lab is surrounded by miles of nothingness. Crunchy layers of lava in varying shades of red and black make the site look very un-Earthlike. Up the slope behind the lab is the summit of Mauna Loa, a still active volcano that hasn’t had an eruption in more than 35 years. Below the lab, the slope of Mauna Loa rolls down into the saddle area of the island that rolls back up to the slopes of nearby Mauna Kea, the second most impressive volcanic mountain on an island better known for tropical beaches and poolside umbrella drinks than it is known as a hot spot of space innovation.
But this isn’t the first time Hawaii was a launch pad for lunar exploration innovation. From 1965 to 1972, NASA conducted training missions throughout Hawaii’s Big Island, giving astronauts a chance to test equipment in an environment not that different from the moon. NASA used nine locations, including the Hualalai, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes. To simulate the craters of the Moon that NASA would eventually explore, a variety of craters of Kilauea were also used, including Halema`um`u and Kilauea Iki at the volcano’s summit, the nearby Aloi, Alae and Mauna Ulu craters, and at the northeast rift zone eruption site at Kapoho, which saw fresh lava flows during the 2018 eruption event.
One group trying to improve the image Hawaii has among the global scientific and space community is PISCES. The Hilo, Hawaii-based Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, or PISCES for short, is helping facilitate a variety of space-related projects on Hawaii’s Big Island. PISCES is a state-funded aerospace agency operating under the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism (DBEDT). PISCES’ core mission is to develop and grow the aerospace industry in Hawaii through “Applied Research, Workforce Development and Economic Development initiatives” according to their mission statement. PISCES Program Director Rodrigo Romo believes Hawaii could benefit from a small but robust aerospace industry.
“The value of projects like HI-SEAS is that they offer, for lack of better terms, a laboratory on which researchers can develop technologies aimed at lunar or Mars outposts,” Romo says. “Clearly there are certain limitations to the fidelity of the analog that a place like HI-SEAS can provide, but the value from a crew selection perspective, operations, and other aspects is quite valuable.”
Henk Rogers is the founder of the International MoonBase Alliance (IMA) which built the HI-SEAS facility. Rogers, who also serves as the Chairman for PISCES, has roots in video game development. In the 1980’s, Rodgers introduced The Black Onyx years before role-playing games Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were released. In 1989, Rogers was instrumental in bringing Tetris out of the Soviet Union and onto the U.S. and world markets. While he remains the sole agent for the Tetris franchise, Rogers now has sights that are out of this world: he has a vision of establishing a Moon base, using Hawaii’s Big Island as the proving ground for the giant mission. In September, Rogers appointed Dr. Michaela Musilova to be the Director for HI-SEAS missions for the International MoonBase Alliance.
Musilova is no stranger to the HI-SEAS lab. Musilova served as the Science Officer for HI-SEAS VI, the sixth of a series of NASA-funded experiments designed to study humans in a Mars-like environment. Funded by NASA’s Human Research Program, missions stretching from 4 months to a full year were deployed at the facility from 2013 to 2018. The last mission, HI-SEAS VI, began on February 15, 2018 but ended abruptly four days later due to an accident that occurred at the facility that gave one of the test subjects an electrical shock. While Musilova was not harmed in that incident, her career path was impacted. With HI-SEAS VI unable to go on after another crew member was unwilling to continue after the accident, Musilova worked for the Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) waiting for a new HI-SEAS mission to start.
With the HI-SEAS human research programs paused indefinitely and the valuable facility not being used, the IMA re-launched the facility as a simulated lunar environment, bringing the first lunar based experiment to the lab in November of last year. Rogers offered Musilova the job as director of the facility to achieve goals he had in mind with the IMA. Prior to the facility’s first lunar experiment, repairs and upgrades were made to make sure the facility was better suited for lunar missions while also making improvements to make it safer than it was before.
“The terrain around us from a geological perspective is very interesting and relevant to performing missions on the Moon or Mars,” Musilova says. “Similar kinds of material can be found on both the planet and the Moon. We also have lava tube formations and other geological features which can also be found on the Moon and Mars. So again, we’re able to do research here that’s very relevant to what could be done on the Moon and Mars. “
As an analog to either the Moon or Mars, Musilova told us the location is perfect for such research. “The station is located about 8,200 feet up high on Mauna Loa; it’s a very remote location, difficult to get to, but convenient enough that you can bring supplies here and we can bring help if necessary.”
Unlike the spacious mega resort hotel rooms that dot the Kohala coast a 90-minute drive away, the HI-SEAS quarters are tight. The compact 2-story facility is about 1,200 square feet. The ground floor features a kitchen, a bathroom, a lab, and space to work on computers or work-out. The second-floor features pod-like bedrooms that are smaller than single college dorm rooms. A similar structure could be built on the Moon in the future.
While the facility takes into consideration the space required for a habitat on the Moon or Mars, great consideration and care was also taken in where to locate the facility on Mauna Loa. “We chose this site because it’s an old quarry and therefore we wanted to use land that had already been used and damaged to some degree,” Musilova said. The team there wanted to be as respectful to Hawaiian land and customs as possible; this included having thorough archaeological and other inspections of the site prior to gaining permission to operate the research site there.
Musilova added, “And then it looks kind of like another planet around here. And that’s very important from a psychological perspective; when you’re doing the simulation, you really want to feel like you’re away from the rest of the world that you know….that’s why it even looking like Mars or the Moon is very important.”
The HI-SEAS site does indeed seem out of this world. Void of any vegetation, lava of different colors surrounds the area, with no other people or towns visible for miles. The telescopes atop the distant Mauna Kea are the only structures visible that stand out in an otherwise stark landscape. “No place is ever going to be perfectly like the Moon or Mars, so we do the best that we can,” Musilova describes the area HI-SEAS sits within.
“You can’t simulate absolutely everything. So, our goal in this facility and other facilities of this type around the world is to try and make it be as real as possible. But of course, there are some caveats. You can’t have everything. So that’s why the space suits are not going to be just as extremely heavy as the ones that are on the International Space Station. Instead, we’re going to make them be approximately as heavy and as dexterous as the ones we think people will have on the Moon or Mars. “
The simulation experience continues inside as much as it does outside at HI-SEAS Musilova tells us. “We get to try and imitate the amount of space people will have in such a colony on another planet, the same kind of food and the same amount of food. And as an example, for hygiene, you can only take a shower up to 8 minutes a week. So, everything that we can try to simulate we do here to the best of our ability.”
“The main differences between the missions we’re preparing for now and the ones that we had before are the ones before were all based on NASA grants with NASA funding. So those were approved for a specific set of research goals, and then other experiments could tag along if there was space for them. But the main ones were mostly psychological except for the very first one, which was a food study. Whereas now we’re opening up this facility to anyone in the world who wants to do research. And that’s why they can do everything from just technological experiments to having perhaps purely a psychological study. And therefore, the missions can go from two days because that might be enough to test mapping with a drone for example, of a kind of volcanic Mars-like terrain, to several weeks or months if they want to do a psychological study. So, we’re open to all options. When we receive proposals, we review what’s most relevant, what can be done here.”
Once such mission of using HI-SEAS as a Moon simulated experience occurred in February. That mission lasted two weeks and was part of the EuroMoonMars initiative led by the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG) of the European Space Agency (ESA), in collaboration with IMA, European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) and Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam.
The February study is an example of many Musilova expects to occur on Hawaii. But don’t expect HI-SEAS to become a tourist attraction or an AirBNB for those looking for a lunar vacation getaway on Hawaii.
“We want to make this strictly be a research facility. So that’s why we would only allow people who actually want to do some research or test technologies and so on.”
We traveled to the #HISEAS lab across from #MaunaKea on #MaunaLoa to see how scientists there were preparing for future manned missions to the Moon and beyond as we hit the #Apollo50th anniversary! #TMT isn’t the only thing here with an eye on space here. 🌚 pic.twitter.com/L8wjizciOD
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) July 18, 2019
For now, the focus at HI-SEAS is on lunar research that could ultimately aide NASA’s Artemis project, ESA’s endeavors, or other educational institutions or private firms dreams of bringing humans to the Moon. Musilova told us Rogers’ commitment to the moon is one reason for the lunar focus. “One of the reasons why we are now transitioning to focus more on the Moon than Mars is because of Henk Rogers’ long term plan to actually want to build a facility on the moon itself. And before that, he wants to build a prototype here on the Big Island, which will be ideally using robots and things to actually build structures like it would happen on the Moon. And that’s why he wanted to test as many of these things as possible here at the station before we start building that prototype.”
And while there is a short-term focus on the Moon, HI-SEAS may return as a Mars simulator too. “We have these motivations, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve excluded Mars missions,” Musilova explains. “And actually, there is a possibility we’ll be working with NASA again on long duration missions, perhaps from about 2020. For the moment, we’re trying to open-up to everyone else in the world who wants to use this facility and do testing here. And so far, we’ve had a lot of interest.”
Those interested in using the research facility are encouraged to apply through Musilova. Even local researchers and students in Hawaii are welcome to apply, says Musilova. “The call for proposals that we’re planning on having is open to everyone. We’re really hoping to recruit locals and have the University of Hawaii be more involved. Thanks to PISCES, we have some collaboration. For example, they’d like to bring one of their rovers here for testing and that will be mostly local people who have been working on that or from local universities that are involved in that project.”
After working at the out-of-the-world facility, Musilova would like to turn her simulation experience into the real thing. “That’s my childhood dream: to be an astronaut. So ideally to go into space if nothing else, but my real dream is to go to the Moon or to Mars. That has been one of my main motivations why I have been taking part in the missions at HI-SEAS and elsewhere in the world. I’m an astrobiologist, so my main focus in research was life in extreme environments. I spent a lot of time in Greenland, Svalbard, and Japan, going to extremely cold places trying to understand how life can survive there and see whether something similar could live on other planetary bodies.” Musilova knows an experience in space will be much more challenging than what can be simulated here on Earth. “It is very difficult, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. This is going to sound weird, but it gives me pleasure; I really enjoy being in these remote places and I really enjoy that part of my job. I’ve trained myself over the years to work really well in these extreme conditions.”
“Maybe I’ll try to become a commercial astronaut or something like that. I’m keeping my options open. I think for me the most important thing is knowing that I did everything possible to make it happen. Even if it doesn’t work out, I won’t regret that I didn’t put the effort in. And the best part is that I enjoy everything that I do. I enjoy being outdoors, I enjoy doing science, I enjoy scuba diving, and doing a lot of sports related to training for space missions. So again, even if I don’t become an astronaut, I will have lived a full life of fun activities.”
The HI-SEAS lab has clearly inspired Musilova to dream big for her possible future in space. Such a spirit of exploration has been in Hawaii’s soul since it was first inhabited by Polynesians around 300-600 AD.
Hawaii’s first settlers were highly skilled in not only sailing but navigating as well. Through a thorough knowledge of the stars, their rising and setting points along the horizon, and their meridian passage as a function of latitude, the original Polynesians in Hawaii from the Marquesas and Tahiti looked up to the heavens not only for spirituality, but as a scientific tool to explore the Pacific.
Now nearly 1,500 years later, people in Hawaii continue to look up to the heavens, using Hawaii to not only learn about Earth, but to leverage it for explorations to the Moon and beyond. And through the efforts of HI-SEAS, PISCES, Rogers, and others, Hawaii’s volcanic landscape may do more than just inspire tomorrow’s explorers; it will likely play an important role in helping people settle on the moon just over 50 years from mankind’s first visit.