Kilauea eruption sparks Mount St. Helens memories

Kilauea eruption
An ash plume rises from the Kilauea volcano’s caldera on May 15. (USGS Photo)

The ash plumes, red alerts and evacuations caused by the Kilauea volcano’s eruption are stirring up wonder and worry in Hawaii, but they’re also stirring up memories on the 38th anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ big blast in Washington state.

St. Helens’ eruption of May 18, 1980, ranks as the deadliest volcanic event in U.S. history. Fifty-seven people were killed, and hundreds of square miles of forest were destroyed. Ash rose 16 miles into the sky and was carried by the wind as far east as Montana.

I was one of the journalists who got caught up in the eruption’s aftermath, as an assistant city editor for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. Even hundreds of miles away, the cloud of ash turned the afternoon to night. A thin layer of pumice coated the entire city, gumming up traffic and forcing a lot of us to don face masks when we stepped outside.

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Make-believe mission to Mars begins in Hawaii

HI-SEAS habitat
The terrain surrounding the HI-SEAS habitat on Mauna Loa looks like Mars. (Univ. of Hawaii Photo)

Six volunteers – including two with connections to Washington state – have begun eight months of being cooped up in a Hawaii habitat that’s meant to simulate life on Mars.

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation project, known as HI-SEAS, is one of several long-running experiments that use earthly environments as a training ground for future Red Planet expeditions. This is the fifth simulated mission to be staged on the slopes of Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island, 8,200 feet above sea level.

The University of Hawaii at Manoa has conducted the simulations since 2012, thanks to $1.2 million in NASA funding. The best-known simulation lasted for a year and ended last August, paralleling the “Year in Space” mission conducted by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station.

NASA re-upped with a $1 million grant for Mission 5, plus Mission 6 in 2018.

During the simulation mission, the volunteer crew will be confined to a 36-foot-wide geodesic dome, except when they don bulky mock spacesuits for treks across Mauna Loa’s Mars-like terrain.

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Crew ends a year on Hawaii’s make-believe Mars

Image: Simulation crew
Andrzej Stewart, chief engineering officer for the HI-SEAS simulation, looks around after emerging from a habitat in Hawaii. Other crew members celebrate in the background. (Credit: Univ. of Hawaii)

After spending 365 days cooped up in a habitat and mock spacesuits in Hawaii, six volunteers say astronauts can cope with an even longer, real-life mission to Mars and back.

“A mission to Mars in the close future is realistic,” said Cyprien Verseux, a French biology student who was part of the HI-SEAS simulation crew. “I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome.”

Verseux and his crewmates were held in isolation for an entire year inside the 1,200-square-foot habitat on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. They were allowed to venture outside only for scientific expeditions while wearing simulation spacesuits.

The experiment is part of a NASA-funded program aimed at identifying psychological, technological and logistical factors that might pose challenges for a long-term mission to Mars. This was the fourth and longest simulation managed by HI-SEAS at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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