Training for Mars: Interview with Astronaut Kim Binsted


Theo Binsted, Staff Writer

Imagine – you are isolated on a volcano in a habitat with five strangers you have never met. For a year. Your main source of food has to be grown by you. You have no contact with people outside of the dome you live in for the duration of the mission. Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?

HI-SEAS is a NASA funded analog habitat for human spaceflight to Mars with a purpose of determining what is required to keep a space flight crew content and healthy during a mission to and while living on Mars. HI-SEAS is located in the isolated slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawaii. In missions lasting up to 12 months long, crew members are chosen to carry out studies on food, crew dynamics, behaviors, roles, and performance.

I interviewed Kim Binsted, the principal investigator on HI-SEAS for information on her project, what she does, and how she became a part of HI-SEAS.


Theo: What intrigued you to study Mars and make HI-SEAS? What did that process look like?

Kim: So, when I started at the University of Hawaii as a professor, I decided to create a course about intelligence in general (human/animal/alien/artificial intelligence etc.) and I invited an astronomer from UH’s Institute for Astronomy to talk about SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) for the course. That was Karen Meech, now pretty famous. Anyways, I got involved with the UH-NASA Astrobiology Institute, which she ran, which in turn led me to be a crew member (chief scientist) on FMARS 2007, an analog-like HI-SEAS but on Devon Island in the Canadian High Arctic, for four months. That made me realize that analog research would be important for reintroducing some of the barriers to long-duration human space exploration. So I decided to start HI-SEAS (working with my colleague Jean Hunter at Stanford).

Theo: You mention you did a Mars simulation similar to your own – would you ever consider being a crew member in your own study, HI-SEAS, or have you? Would that look any different than other people’s experience in HI-SEAS?

Kim: Well, I’ve spent the night there several times, and would happily stay for longer, but I don’t think it would make sense for me to do a mission as such. I know a little too much about how it all comes together.

Theo: You’ve run over 5 missions with HI-SEAS, each with their own respective crew with highs and lows. What would you say you look for when picking a crew? Are there advantages to having certain people in the habitat together?

Kim: Well, we do a lot of psychological testing, but what it comes down to is what a colleague described as “thick skin, a long fuse, and an optimistic outlook”. I’d add “easily entertained” because if you require a lot of stimulation to be happy, you’re not going to be happy in the hab. Also, we’re looking for the right combination of people. I think of it like a toolbox. You don’t want to fill a toolbox with hammers, even if they’re all really good hammers. You want a variety of skills – not just professional skills, but interpersonal skills, coping skills etc.

Theo: I read an article or two about an electrical issue sending a crew member to a hospital, would you say that has been the low of HI-SEAS? How did that affect the project, your crew, or you?

Kim: That was bad for a number of reasons: someone got hurt, we had to break the simulation to make sure they got medical attention, and in the end (not directly because of the accident) we had to end the mission. It was pretty stressful, and of course the crew were really disappointed that they didn’t get to do their mission.

Theo: You mention ‘breaking the simulation’ – I know you try your best outside of the habitat to simulate no outside contact except for what would be considered an emergency. What does that look like for your role in HI-SEAS? What did you do for the missions, as the leader and outsider? Did you have cameras to see if they were doing okay?

Kim: It’s not “no contact” – it’s just delayed by 20min each direction (unless there’s an emergency). We don’t have cameras everywhere, because that would interfere with our results – people behave differently when they’re being watched. We do film specific things, like EVAs [(Extravehicular Activity)] and some meetings. As the Principal Investigator, I run the whole thing, but of course I delegate a lot. So, for example, we have a team of mission support people, who interact with the crew about mission tasks etc.

Theo: Do you contact crew by phone?

Kim: No phone, because I’d have to wait 40min for a reply!

Theo: Do you enter the habitat at all during simulations?

Kim: No, I don’t enter the hab during missions. If we have to go to the hab, we make sure the crew can’t see or hear us. We don’t go inside the hab proper, but we do leave things (e.g. resupply items) at a nearby storage area.

Theo: I read a blog post about you or one of the outsiders refilling a water supply when a ‘robot’ would have done that on actual Mars, is this something you did often for the crew?

Kim: That kind of thing happened about once per 6-8 weeks. We’d warn the crew that the robots would be working in the area, and they’d cover the porthole to avoid seeing us by accident. It’s a fiction, but one that makes a psychological difference.

Theo: What sparked your interest in science?

Kim: I decided I wanted to be a geneticist as a kid, mostly because I was annoyed that unicorns weren’t real. I figured I could cross and horse and a narwhal in the lab, and voila!

Theo: Did you start off university knowing you wanted to go to space or did that come as you studied?

Kim: I pretty much always wanted to go to space, but didn’t think it was a possibility until NASA put out a call for astronauts when I was in my 20’s (just post-PhD). So, I didn’t pick my degrees with “astronaut” in mind or anything like that.

Theo: You mention you did your Ph-D – was that related to HI-SEAS at all, or was HI-SEAS after your Ph-D?

Kim: My Ph-D was in AI, nothing to do with Mars. I wrote a program called JAPE (Joke Analysis and Production Engine) that made up puns from scratch. For example: “What’s the difference between money and a bottom? One you spare and bank, the other you bare and spank.” Or: “What do you call a Martian who drinks beer? An Ale-ien”.

Theo: Last question – do you think HI-SEAS has improved our knowledge of Mars? Are you (scientists) ready to send people to Mars in a matter of years?

Kim: HI-SEAS doesn’t help us understand Mars itself, but it does improve our knowledge of the people and systems we would send to Mars. I think scientists and engineers can solve the remaining issues with a Mars trip, but it needs money and political will.

Though there is no current project for HI-SEAS running, Kim Binsted continues on her own personal projects. HI-SEAS and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) would appreciate any support they can get for upcoming projects as it can help them to eventually send astronauts to Mars and continue research on space exploration. The Explore Mars foundation is also a way to support the research for Mars exploration projects, and can be found here. You can get updates on HI-SEAS here and here, and the CSA website can be found here.