mauna loa lava fields hawaii mars
Hawaii's Mauna Loa lava fields make for one of the best approximations of the martian surface that can be found on planet earth
Lucas Brasileiro
By Lee Ferran / March 23, 2020 12:37 pm

Lucas Brasileiro cleaned and checked the space helmets first, one of his less glamorous but essential tasks, even if he knew they were likely to fog up later. His small team was preparing to leave the relative safety of their habitat for a mission, or Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA). Once assembled and ready, Brasileiro and the others stepped carefully through the airlock and out into an entirely forbidding landscape of sharp black rock. Outside, the only thing providing any variety to the endless expanse of barren land was a volcano looming in the distance.

For Brasiliero, friends, family and the earth itself might as well have been a million miles away. They weren’t, of course: he was standing in Hawaii’s Mauna Loa lava fields, one of the closest terrestrial approximations of the frightening nothingness found on the surface of Mars or the moon.

“We had complete isolation, so we really lived as if we were on the moon,” Brasileiro says said of his six-person crew who participated in the two-week exercise. “When we left [the habitat], there was only lava. You know, lava … but completely isolated. So whenever we left with those helmets, it was like we were on another planet.”

Brasileiro, 30, was the chief engineer on the third lunar “analog” project for EuroMoonMars IMA HI-Seas, or EMMIHS, an international venture to prepare for manned missions to the moon and Mars to eventually set up long-term extraterrestrial bases there, perhaps in cave systems that would provide natural protection from cosmic radiation.

The purpose of the projects, he tells InsideHook, was both to test the habitat —  nicknamed the “hab,” a la The Martian — for life-support capabilities, and to evaluate the prospective astronauts themselves against the physical, mental and social stresses that come with relatively long-term stints on the lunar or Martian surface. That’s the “human” part, Brasileiro says, “where we are tested. We are all scientists. We are psychologically, physically tested.”

He continues: “They were really, really observing us. There were cameras everywhere,” he said. “… [H]umans are unpredictable. Sometimes you can just snap and starting acting in a crazy way.” Some prospective astronauts on other trials have “freaked out,” he says, but the crew he was on didn’t have any major issues. “Honestly, I think I was lucky, because everyone was super nice.”

I ran into Brasileiro in Kona, Hawaii, and as bright green geckos stalked the wooden patio at our feet, the relaxed, bespectacled Brazilian told me what a day is like on the “moon” — from eating protein in cubes and powdered peanut butter to watching Interstellar with the rest of the crew — and what a shock it’s been to come back to civilization, even after only a couple weeks. It’s all made him more excited than ever to venture among the stars.

lucas brasileiro hawaii mars
“They love my cooking.” ( Lucas Brasileiro)

Cooking breakfast on the moon

According to Brasileiro, a typical day on the simulated moon began around seven in the morning, when he would wake up early to cook breakfast for the crew. The food was as space-age as you’d expect: powdered everything, including fruit, that could be mixed with water to turn into something like what it was advertised as being. The protein, like chicken, came diced into small cubes. All things considered, Brasileiro swears it was pretty tasty. “They love my food,” he says with a laugh.

Breakfast took place around eight in the morning, and afterward the crew would prepare for one of the day’s two EVAs. Despite the name, they didn’t involve lunar vehicles, except for robotic rovers that were part of the crew’s scientific experiments. Rather, EVA referred to any time the crew suited up and left the relative safety of the habitat.

For this they wore more slender “space suits” than they would on the moon or Mars, and their helmets had vents installed — two concessions to the Hawaiian heat — but were otherwise designed to replicate what it would be like to walk on the lunar or Martian surface.

The EMMIHS missions specialized in researching “lava tubes” — essentially underground cave systems in the lava fields that also exist on the moon and Mars — and how they could be used to potentially house a longer-term habitat. The surface of both extraterrestrial bodies, Brasiliero said, would be too dangerous for long-term living because unlike the Earth, they do not have magnetic fields that naturally protect people from solar and cosmic radiation. So for several of the EVAs, the team went space-spelunking.

Though the team wasn’t nearly as far from help as they would be on a real mission if things went wrong, Brasileiro said it was still “dangerous” since rescue was at best an hour away and some of the lava rocks were especially sharp. Some parts of the lava fields were better at simulating the moon; others, Mars. But a feature that dominated the prospective astronauts’ view when they left the habitat no matter what was the epic volcano of Mauna Kea in the distance. It was “really beautiful,” Brasileiro says, and a pretty good stand-in for Olympus Mons, a massive volcano on Mars.

The crew totaled six people, led by mission commander and astrobiologist Michaela Musilova, and each had a different scientific specialization related to space exploration. They took turns going out on the EVAs to support each others’ experiments, while some would stay back in the habitat to monitor their progress. Brasileiro, an aerospace engineer who focused on materials and structure, said his experiments dealt with testing the effectiveness of specially treated drill bits on basalt lava rocks, similar to those found on the moon.

After the first EVA, the team would regroup in the habitat for lunch before heading on a second EVA in the afternoon. Then came dinner and, at some point, the crew was encouraged to do something creative — one crew member made mock-horror movies, for instance. Later they were subjected to a battery of exhaustive anonymous surveys as part of the monitoring of their mental health. 

“As living together with a small group of people can lead to stresses in the personal and professional relationships, the social health of the crew should be closely monitored to ensure an optimally functioning group,” the EMMIHS website says.

The crew could email their friends and family or upload short video logs in their downtime, just like astronauts would be able to, but there was no access to social media or any news from “Earth” unless they asked for it from mission command, Brasileiro said. He says he was shocked to learn of Kobe Bryant’s death days after the rest of the world found out. The crew also watched movies from time to time. Appropriately, Interstellar was a favorite.

lucas brasileiro mars hawaii
Is this life on Mars? (Lucas Brasileiro)

The shock of “coming home

The EMMIHS missions only last two weeks, compared to earlier months-long projects, but Brasileiro says it was still a shock to come back to “Earth” when it was over. After seeing little else beyond hardened lava fields for 14 days, Brasileiro says the lush greens of the rest of Hawaii surprised him, and it took some time to get used to seeing more than five other people in one place. 

Regular showers were a welcome change after only being allowed one per week in the habitat —– though he did game the system there by using a bucket to spread out his water usage. “As a Brazilian, we must take a shower every day. It’s a real deal for us,” Brasileiro says.

And though the food wasn’t bad, he said he binged on some “real,” non-cubed food as soon as he was able to.

As for what’s next, Brasileiro said there’s another EMMIHS mission going on right now, and there will be other projects, either back in Hawaii or elsewhere in the world, to further hone future missions to the moon and Mars, and to evaluate the lucky few astronauts who will get to go.

Brasileiro, for one, is more excited than ever. He said he’d wanted to be an astronaut since he was a child and couldn’t believe there really might be a chance — even if it means a harrowing, months-long trip to Mars.

“It’s wild. It’s Mars. You can actually die, you can really die.”

When I asked if he’d sign up, there was no hesitation.

“Yes. Yes.”