The moon in our backyard

  • Tiffany Swarmer and Ross Lockwood of the HI-SEAS Crew 2 exit the simulated Mars habitat to demonstrate their EVA suits on July 24, 2014, on Mauna Loa. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — A small dome on the slopes of Mauna Loa used for the past five years as a NASA-funded Mars simulation is being given a new mission.

While preparing for space exploration remains the overall purpose, the next generation of would-be astronauts could be looking at the surrounding a landscape a bit differently.

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That’s because Henk Rogers, a Hawaii resident who owns the structure, said he plans to use it next to simulate stays on the moon rather than the red planet.

Returning to the moon and establishing bases could be a precursor to stepping foot on Mars, he said.

“We’re kind of pivoting from, ‘Let’s go to Mars,’ to, ‘Let’s go to the moon first,’” said Rogers, a space exploration enthusiast who also founded the Blue Planet Foundation.

“It’s kind of like we’re on Maui, and we just invented a canoe, and someone says, ‘Let’s go to England,’ and someone says, ‘Maybe we should try Lanai first.’”

The dome, located at the site of a former quarry, was previously used by Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation to test group cohesion and personality characteristics on long-term missions, such as to Mars.

Teams of four to six people would stay in the structure for months and only venture outside in space suits. Communications with the outside world were placed on a 20-minute delay.

Rogers, who made his money in the video game industry, said he purchased and then leased the structure to the University of Hawaii, which runs HI-SEAS, because UH couldn’t legally own it.

It wasn’t hard to convince him to be part of the program.

“One of my life missions is to make a backup to life on Earth,” he said, “by taking life to other planets. The moon is the first step in that mission.”

HI-SEAS’ last grant-funded simulation ended abruptly last February when a crew member received an electric shock while in the dome.

According to Rogers, the crew member was trying to figure out why the dome’s electric battery wasn’t charged and touched a wire he shouldn’t have.

Kim Binsted, HI-SEAS’ principle investigator, said he was transported to Hilo Medical Center per protocol but was quickly released.

“It didn’t do any damage,” she said. “It was a shock. Shocks are to be taken seriously.”

The simulation ended because another crew member didn’t feel safe following the accident and didn’t want to return.

“The fault that allowed him to be shocked has been corrected,” Binsted said. “There was a review by everyone as you might imagine.”

While the last simulation, which would have lasted eight months, was a dud, she said HI-SEAS collected 36 months of data through the program, which is being analyzed.

Binsted said additional NASA grants will likely be sought.

In the meantime, Rogers plans to run his own simulations.

He said the first moon simulation will begin in February in collaboration with the European Spaced Agency. A mission control center will be located at his ranch on the island.

Rogers said the main differences between the simulations are that the ones replicating a trip to the moon can be shorter and will focus on conducting ongoing missions or objectives.

“The Mars missions are all about six people who have to get along for a long period of time,” he said. “On the moon missions, they are coming up on a regular basis.”

The site at the 8,200-foot elevation overlooks the saddle between Maunakea and Mauna Loa. It was selected in part because the barren landscape made of volcanic rock is similar to Mars and in some ways the moon, though the latter is ridden with impact craters.

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A benefit of the topography is the use of lava tubes, Rogers noted. He said one of goals of the mission could be to simulate exploration of caves on the moon.

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