COURTESY PHOTO / JAMES HARRIS
Kim Binsted is a lead team member at the UH-NASA Astrobiology Institute. She participated in an April-to-August simulated Mars mission in the Canadian High Arctic, and says she plans to seek acceptance into NASA's astronaut program.
UH professor sets sights on Mars
Having just spent four months on a simulated arctic mission to Mars, University of Hawaii scientist Kim Binsted is hoping to be chosen now for the real thing.
"NASA just opened a call for astronaut candidates," said the UH-Manoa computer science professor. "I will be putting my name in."
Co-investigator with UH's NASA Astrobiology Institute, Binsted had been applying every two years to go on a Mars mission.
When that did not materialize, she joined six U.S. and Canadian crew members in an unprecedented simulated Mars mission on Devon Island in the Canadian High Arctic, a place with arduous Mars-like conditions 900 miles from the North Pole.
The mission, from April through August, produced "great science" and knowledge to help plan a human trip to the red planet, said Binsted, chief scientist for the simulated expedition.
The international Mars Society sponsored the pretend Mars project to investigate techniques that could be used on a manned trip to Mars. President Bush has set a goal of a manned mission to Mars by 2019, but an earlier mission is possible.
"Of course, there is a lot more research to be done, but we learned a lot and we learned a lot of problems that might be insurmountable can actually be solved," Binsted said in an interview.
For example, she said, "It is perfectly reasonable to expect seven people to live together (in close quarters) without killing each other."
Two other significant achievements: They found they could live on Martian time, which is 39 minutes longer than the 24-hour Earth day, and they could get by with little water.
"We had 24-hour sunlight and could switch onto the Martian clock, and we lived on that 37 days," she said. "It went very well." The crew kept track of any possible physical effects, such as sleep disruption or trouble doing tasks, she said.
"We haven't finished analyzing the data, but from my personal experience, I preferred the Martian day."
On the Earth day, she said, "You get to the end of the day and wish you had a little bit more time to do one more task. We had it -- an extra 39 minutes. It did feel like a bit of a bonus."
She said the crew wanted to get a good estimate of how much water each would need, because water is heavy and would be a large part of a payload going to Mars. "We did our best to use as little as possible."
Drinking water was not restricted, but they limited showers to one a week and used and reused cooking water, she said. "We got it down to 10 liters (2.5 gallons) per person per day, which is tiny, about one-third of NASA's current estimate."
Binsted specializes in artificial intelligence and teaches design for mobile devices. As chief scientist of the arctic mission, her role was to coordinate the crew's collaboration with an Earth-based science advisory group and lead some experiments.
"When you've got so many people in a small place, it's a serious concern," she said. But the disparate crew members blended well, she said. They got to know each other during a two-week training mission in February at the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.
They will be making some recommendations, she said, such as to send astronauts selected for a three-year Mars mission to the Arctic first to see how they do.
"If they can handle an expedition like ours, it's a reasonable sign they will do well on a trip to Mars," Binsted said.