What We Learned About Designing A Mars Base From Trapping People On A Volcano For A Year

If you’re going to be stuck in a small space with the same people every day for a year, alone time is very important.


If you hate working in an open office, imagine living there for 12 months straight, unable to leave or talk to anyone other than your coworkers.


For 365 days, six crew members lived in a 1,200-square-foot dome on the side of a Hawaiian volcano–completely isolated–as an experiment in how people would be able to deal with living in close quarters on Mars.

One of the crew members, an architecture student, is now trying to figure out how to design a space less likely to drive people crazy. One of biggest challenges, he says, was constant contact with five other people.

“There’s always somebody either making their own noise, or being near you, or you’re trying to be cognizant of others so you’re not making too much noise,” says Tristan Bassingthwaighte, a doctoral student in architecture at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. “Especially with the lack of soundproofing we had, I would say probably the entire year you never really felt like you were alone.”

The experiment was the fourth NASA-funded HI-SEAS simulation, run by the University of Hawaii, and the first to last so long. Though it tried to simulate the landscape of Mars–since it was on the side of a volcano, when the crew went outside (in spacesuits), all they saw were jagged rocks–it didn’t try to replicate the whole experience, and crew members didn’t really make the cognitive leap to believing they were on another planet.

“The sky is blue, we can see white clouds, we can see the Mauna Kea observatory on the opposite mountain, so we know there’s probably a person up there,” says Bassingthwaighte. “We’ve got normal gravity, there’s no lethal radiation. An actual Mars mission will have more stressors.”

But the isolation was realistic. If the crew wanted to email someone “back on Earth,” there was a 20-minute delay, to simulate the time it takes to send a message to or from Mars. If someone had a problem with another crew mate–something that came up fairly frequently–the team had to figure out how to solve it on their own, rather than being able to call mission control the way someone can on the ISS.


“On the ISS, you can call them up on the phone,” he says. “You’re farther away than down the street, but L.A. to New York is a lot farther than ground to the ISS. So you can just have people tell you what to do or give you help.”

The habitat, a simple solar-powered dome, was also realistic. The dome had an open plan with common areas (the kitchen, shower, lab, exercise space, work space), and a second-floor loft with six separate bedrooms.

[Photo: University of Hawai’i News]

Now Bassingthwaighte is using his experience to reimagine how the space could be better designed. “I’m doing my doctoral work looking at the social, psychological, and environmental stressors of living in the Arctic, Antarctic, on the moon, in space, on Mars, and finding the best architectural response to dealing with that,” he says.

Technology, he says, can play a large role, such as simulated weather, virtual reality, and programming that makes a small space appear larger than it actually is. As he works on his design for a new Mars base, he plans to use the game design platform Unreal Engine 4, so his dissertation jury will be able to don virtual reality goggles and explore the base themselves.

Then he hopes to actually build it. “My dream job right now would be to graduate college and have Elon Musk make an architect position for me at SpaceX, and then I get to make the ship,” he says. “Then I would get on the ship and go to Mars and I would make the Mars base, too.”

Related Video: This Vacuum May Be A Space Exploration Game Changer

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."