The eight-month journey to Mars is expected to be arduous, with its cramped conditions, isolation, and monotony. By simulating Mars-like conditions on Earth, NASA hopes to learn how to mitigate the challenges.

On Thursday, the latest simulation began. Four men and two women – carefully selected from over 700 applicants – moved into a vinyl-coated pod just below the summit of Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano. During their eight-month stay, which mimics the journey to and life on Mars, they will eat primarily freeze-dried foods, have limited personal space, and experience a 20-minute lag in communications (the length of time it takes a message to travel from Mars to Earth).

Each simulation provides valuable data about the human experience, and the knowledge gained is integrated into future simulations. During this expedition, researchers hope to investigate how much self-direction the space travelers will need to promote group cohesion: do they feel most positively toward one another under conditions of autonomy, or when instructions come from mission control on Earth?

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