The Kiwi helping humanity reach the Red Planet

Bryan Caldwell, a New Zealand-based project manager, was one of the key people behind one of the most ambitious Mars mission simulations to date. But are we ready to go to the Red Planet for real?

Bryan Caldwell.

You probably know that we (as a species) are trying to get to Mars. But what you probably don’t know is that a New Zealander could be crucial in getting us there.

That’s what could happen, anyway – with internationalisation becoming the name of the game – if you ask Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) Mars Exploration Analog project manager Bryan Caldwell.

The HI-SEAS mission involved six scientists from around the world who spent an entire year living in isolation as a way to prepare for a possible future human mission to Mars. They emerged from a 92 square-metre (1,000 square-foot) dome on the red, rocky slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii on 4 September.

“We’re on call for 24 hours,” Caldwell says of his job as project manager. Having to always be available, he says, was meant to simulate mission control for a Mars mission as closely as possible.

And the simulation went far beyond just mission control, he explains. Every time one of the astronauts ventured outside the habitat for any reason, they had to wear spacesuits – just as they would if they were actually on the Red Planet. “The insights that we’re gaining about teamwork and group cohesion are going to be very applicable to environments on earth,” says Caldwell. “A lot of people work in isolated, confined, even extreme environments, like oil rigs or deep commercial divers. So what we learn in space can really be applied on earth in terms of resilience training, conflict, training in extreme environments. Even the workplace.”

Mars may be our generation’s “moon shot,” but unlike the race to get to the moon in the 1960s, Caldwell says one nation going it alone simply won’t do it. He’s not alone in his views either – it’s also shared by the likes of Space X’s Elon Musk. Even Barack Obama recently said that internationalisation, along with government and private businesses working together, is the only way humans will be able to set foot on another planet in our solar system by the 2030s.

Also a research fellow at the University of Auckland, specialising in cardiac research at Auckland Bioengineering Institute, Caldwell says research into space isn’t just limited to governments or major private companies like Tesla or SpaceX, either. Private enterprise can help provide an array of innovations, including headsets for VR technology and 3-D printers. “There are lots of opportunities. A lot of NASA contracts go to private businesses.”

Deciding who’s among the first people to go to Mars won’t just come down to where someone is from, Caldwell explains. “We look for balanced crews. We want balanced genders – equal numbers of men and women.” The reasoning is simple, he says. “We don’t want someone to be isolated from the group.”

The most recent year-long HI-SEAS mission was the latest of several studies funded by NASA Behavioral Health and Performance, with the previous HI-SEAS missions lasting for four and eight months respectively. “The current missions were all about team cohesion,” he explains. “How crews can work together in isolated, confined conditions during planetary exploration.”

Video and audio data recorded the scientists during practically every moment of their experience in the habitat. Also taking part in countless studies at the same time, Caldwell also says it wasn’t uncommon for them to have eight or more different gadgets at any one time recording everything from heart rate to perspiration levels and number of steps taken during a day.

While many of the ‘crisis’ situations that arose during the mission were naturally-occurring, Caldwell says there are a few that were artificially created to mimic something that could possibly happen at a human colony on Mars. “There’s water restrictions,” he says of one of the challenges. “There’s certain days we tell them they have to restrict water.” This, he says, owes to the fact that water on Mars is much harder to get to than on Earth. 

Caldwell started his career as an award-winning professional theatre and event lighting designer in New Zealand, designing nearly 200 productions since 1987. After receiving his PhD with a major in physiology at the University of Auckland and completing a postdoctoral appointment in Syracuse, New York, Caldwell started working for NASA by managing a sensory physiology study for Cornell University at the NASA Flight Analog Research Unit in Galveston, Texas.

All those experiences helped instill a certain adaptability and resilience, Caldwell says – and is also exactly what he says NASA is now looking for. “NASA is looking for a new type of astronaut,” he explains. “A resilient astronaut. You can’t be controlling things like on the space station. You have to be autonomous. At HI-SEAS that’s what we do. That autonomy means astronauts have to be trained to be resilient. They have to adapt. And that’s that kind of No. 8 wire [mentality] we have here in New Zealand.

“A mission to Mars is probably going to be a three-year mission. It’ll probably take six to seven months to get there, then you go into an elliptical orbit. And you’ll probably stay on the surface for a year and a half. Then you have to get back to earth, and that’s another six or seven months.”

That means it’s not just technology that has to be innovative, the astronauts need to be able to think innovatively, too. “I think what NASA is realising is they can’t train astronauts completely for that mission,” he says. “They’re going to have to train astronauts along the way. So we need people who can learn along the way.”

And one thing they can learn is how to build tools and replacement parts to help them solve unforeseen problems. “3-D printing is one way to make new technologies, to make spare parts,” Caldwell says. “So that they can make parts for repair rather than take it with them.”

Space farming could play a role too, “but probably not for the first few missions.” That would most likely be used more for colonisation of Mars and long-term missions, he says. VR could be a way to communicate with families and friends while in space, or send messages, Caldwell says. Plus, it could help maintain mental health of astronauts by allowing them to do things like walk through a virtual forest while in reality they were still in the middle of Mars’ frozen deserts.

Maintaining the health and safety of astronauts remains the biggest barrier to getting to Mars. That’s why NASA is funding missions like HI-SEAS which may help make space explotation safer. “What they’re looking for is countermeasures for any risks to something they want to study,” he explains. “There might be physical, psychological risks. And they want a countermeasure to that. That could be medicine, or new technology.”

Some of that technology research might combine something we’ve been doing for centuries with things we’re just now developing. “One idea is to have the crew do journaling, and through automatic text recognition look for usage of words that suggest stress,” says Caldwell. “And we have researchers looking at crew badges that measure distance between each other and level of voice. And we can look at who’s spending time with who, and if they are stress interactions.”

Understanding stress interactions is especially important, Caldwell explains. “Essentially, there’s an understanding astronauts may not report when they’re stressed. So when you get an indicator they’re stressed, you can apply countermeasures.”

But whether it’s new tech, new partnerships between governments and businesses, or a new type of astronaut, if we’re successful in one-upping the moon shot, Caldwell is surprisingly understated in what that would mean. “The first few missions to Mars are going to be historic.”

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).