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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with UNC professor Gerald Cecil

On Friday, six participants of a NASA-funded isolation study entered a dome enclosure, where they will live together as part of a psychological experiment about group cohesion.

Gerald Cecil, a UNC astrophysics professor, shared his expectations for this fourth Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation mission and the potential for a Mars expedition.

The Daily Tar Heel: Why did the HI-SEAS mission select a French astrobiologist, a German physicist, an American pilot, architect, doctor and journalist, and soil scientist instead of astronauts?

Gerald Cecil: Astronauts are really preselected to be pretty stoic. I think they’re selected with a fairly narrow set of criteria; they’re not really selected to go on long duration missions like this. The whole point of this I think is to get a broad spectrum of human personality types rather than just the types that have been preselected to be specific types of astronauts. Because what we’re evolving toward in the space program is not you and I going but a broader spectrum of people going than military test pilots or you know, Type A personalities that have been driven since grade school to do this and so on.

DTH: Do you predict astronauts will be the ones sent on the eventual expedition?

GC: Well, I think the pool of candidates who would be drawn to build up such a mission crew would be broader than just the people in the current NASA work. There are no geologists in the astronaut program at the moment. So rather than get a military test pilot, you would select a geologist who would specialize in Mars but wouldn’t be an astronaut. It’s similar to the people who go down to Antarctica now; they’re not all Antarctic explorers. They’re all scientists or chemical engineers or technicians to support the program.

DTH: Do you expect language to be an isolating factor in the study?

GC: English is the international language of science, and so all scientists speak it quite fluently. And so the usual dynamic is that the “foreigners” always speak fluent English, their own language and then perhaps another one. And then Americans learn the languages at a level where they can converse at some level. Americans in the International Space Station are trained in Russian; they speak Russian quite fluently, and the Russians of course, speak English fluently ... When they’re in the range of (Russian) ground stations, they talk to the grounds in Russian — even if they’re American. And if they’re in range of U.S. stations, on the other side of the Earth, they talk in English. So the same thing is not necessary on a Mars mission because there’ll be a mission control. But most likely the discussions would be in English. But you know, then people would converse in whatever languages they want, especially if there’s more than one of them in the same group. If you want to wax poetic, you might wax poetic in different languages.

DTH: Geographically, how does Mauna Loa, Hawaii, mimic the Mars, red rock environment?

GC: If you’ve never been, it is pretty strikingly Mars-like. I mean, if you ignore the blue sky and look down and ignore the few plants that stick out here and there, it’s very Mars-like, volcanic. I think part of the reason why they chose it is also because (of) the altitude ... It is the case where if you run around without adaptation, you’ll feel a little out of breath. So that’s (an) extra stress element in there for the environment. The other aspect is whenever they go out, they have to put on a spacesuit and that means they can’t just pop out the door. They have to go through this sort of 20 minute procedure, getting on the thing and checking everything out ... That also can isolate them. Going out to do something — they’ll think, “Eh, do I really want to go through that?” It introduces a realistic element of stress in the process which is the whole point.

DTH: The astronauts are going to be living in a “geodesic dome.” What does that look like?

GC: Geodesic domes were very popular in the 1960s, ’70s, hippie culture. They’re based on a design by a famous architect Buckminster Fuller, who worked out the architectural structure that would encompass the most volume with the least material. So if you think about it, a conventional house has thick walls, thick ceiling and so on. This is a very airy structure. It basically looks like a golf ball partially embedded in the ground.

DTH: Do you expect different results from the first three, shorter studies?

GC: Any factor that depends on time of isolation will presumably be amplified by a longer isolation mission. That’s the variable they’re trying to isolate. Some people can take something for a few months, and then they kind of explode after that in frustration so that’s what they’re looking for. They’re looking for, often, not just somebody going postal, but more like things that irritated people that they could suppress for a while but just finally got fed up with.


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