NYC vs dome

The following is an illustrated discussion of the ways in which life in New York prepared me for life in a Martian habitat.

Physical awareness

To operate smoothly in the flow of the sidewalks and subways of New York City, you have to pay attention to the space that you’re occupying. You keep your elbows in, you plan the path you’re walking, you keep your suitcase close. On the subway, you’re cognizant of whether you’re fragmenting the available space on the hand rail, you always take off your backpack, and you might put your book away if it gets crowded. Similarly we must consciously share space in the hab. Some areas are particularly congested. For example, every day we repurpose the main floor space for exercise and must be careful not to kick the experiments, desk items, or each other. Physical awareness is especially important when we suit up for EVAs. The airlock is roughly 8 by 8 feet and at times contains a wagon, EVA equipment, and four people simultaneously pulling on extra-large hazmat suits.

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Living space

My first apartment in NY was 350 square feet, shared with my boyfriend, two cats, and frequent houseguests. And by New York standards, it was pretty luxurious. It had a bedroom. The bedroom had a door. For comparison, the hab has about 1200 square feet divided into 6 small bedrooms (with doors!) and a few nice big common spaces.

Neighbors

Like a New York apartment building, the dome is pretty low on sound isolation because of both the size and the material. In that first apartment, I remember being able to hear our upstairs neighbor gently tapping his foot while he played guitar. I also remember being able to hear our upstairs neighbor playing basketball at 3 am, but that’s a different story. We got a lot of street noise too, so I’m both used to an environment with a lot of ambient noise and to having to keep my own noise production low. For the most part, the crew sleeps and wakes at the same time, but when some are sleeping (or filming, or just need some quiet), we need to be conscious of our noise production. The hab has assorted fans and the crew is running a couple noisy experiments, so noise tolerance is also important. That said, one of my favorite parts of living in the hab is having no neighbors other than my crewmates. I can finally blast music and watch movies as loud as I want to! I can stomp if I want to! When the crew came to this realization, we had a stomping party.

Access to nature

I don’t live in the woods. I don’t have much opportunity to hike. New York has beautiful parks, and I even live near one of them, but I admit I don’t go there very often. My main greenery is the street/backyard tree tops I see from my window, and even those go bare come November. So I’m already used to a lack of growing things. The area of Mauna Loa where the hab is situated was chosen in part because it is barren. We do occasionally come across some brave bush when we hike away from the hab, but there is little to no greenery to be seen from the hab itself. As in a city, the exception is the plants we are growing inside. I’ve got some enthusiastic peas planted in one of the gallon cans that used to hold our freeze-dried food. My crewmate has a much more scientific setup. He is growing cabbage, bok choi, and other plants using the same equipment as they do on the ISS.

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Constant company

During my commute, I stand in a subway with a hundred strangers. At work, I sit in an open space with my coworkers. When I walk outside, the sidewalks are crowded. When I’m at home, my husband is usually also there. I’m perfectly happy without much alone time. In the dome, we aren’t necessarily interacting all the time, and there are certainly places we can go to be alone; we have individual bedrooms, and there are spaces in the hab (e.g. the attached workshop/storage container) that are less heavily used than the main common spaces. But for the most part I am constantly accompanied by some or all of my crewmates. Even when we go outside in our suits (EVA), we must make sure that at least two go out and at least two remain.

Number of people

I’ve found one way in which living in New York made the transition to the dome more difficult. It’s not the liveliness; I love the energy of New York, but I’m a homebody and there’s plenty of energy and creativity here. It’s not the food; I eat better here than I do at home. Who knew fruits and vegetables freeze-dried so well? It’s the number of people around me. It feels like the time I visited Seattle after moving to New York and the streets were empty at 8 pm. It feels like a meeting when half the team is home sick. Or like a morning Queens-bound E train car with two other riders. Occasionally even now, 7 weeks in, the crew will be sitting all together and I’ll get a strong feeling that somebody is missing. I’ll count heads, or name names. Everyone is present, but the feeling persists. Where is everybody?

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On surreal experiences

Sometimes during the day, I sit at my desk, reading and responding to email, drinking coffee, listening to whatever my crewmates are listening to. Then I abruptly come to the realization that I’m sitting in a geodesic dome on the side of a volcano miles from any person other than the crew of 6, and that I will be doing so for another 7 months. This realization does not make me question my life choices.

Other times I am standing in the kitchen, microwaving leftovers and I remember that we live with a box that contains 36 large cans of freeze-dried salmon, 23 bags of raisins, 20 jars of ghee, 18 of gallons of freeze-dried applesauce, enough Tang to water the NFL, and a bag of broccoli big enough to hold a comfortably seated person. And 53 cans of SPAM. Yes, I counted. Maintaining an accurate inventory is important when you’re planning your food supply this far in advance.

In the afternoon, you’ll find me exercising with the crew, music blasting, and I suddenly imagine the hab from the outside: a camouflaged dome alone in miles of lava field, pumping out stomping sounds mixed with Chili Peppers or Beyoncé or whatever happens to be on. Then I imagine a similar hab on Mars, the sound dimmed by the thin atmosphere.

Silly experiences get a notch weirder. I’ll be writing a silly song with my crewmate and we’ll be laughing at some line we made up, and it’ll get funnier when I remember that earlier that day I scraped a week’s worth of excrement out of the composting toilet, bagged it, and stuck it in a tub to wait until the next time we don our “space suits” and haul it down to our storage container where it will sit until the resupply “bots” pick it up some time in the next few months.

Other surreal experiences are more direct. We were assigned our first geology task. In order to accomplish it, we needed to walk along a ridge formed by spatter from a series of cinder cones to collect GPS data. Two crewmates and I strapped into our green hazmat “space suits”, complete with fans, GPS, cameras, radios, and snacks. We waited in the airlock for decompression to finish. We stepped out of the airlock into a densely foggy, windy landscape. We walked along the ridge – lines of black and red rocks faded away into the fog in all directions. On this particular EVA (extravehicular activity), I was the one responsible for maintaining communication with my crewmate in the hab (habcom) and for making any decisions necessary for the success and safety of the EVA, so I brought up the rear. As I followed my crewmates in their bright green hazmat suits through the fog and the lava, buffeted by gusts, the strangeness of the situation again struck me.

When I first arrived here, the weirdness of living as if on Mars was constantly present. Now it intrudes only occasionally. As hab life becomes the new normal, I’m curious to see whether it ever stops feeling this bizarre.

Knitting on Mars

I’m beginning a sweater. It’s with ridiculously tiny yarn, so I’m hoping it will take me the whole mission. So far, the project has been an entertaining microcosm of the way we have to work with limited resources. On Mars, it takes a village to knit a sweater.

For my first attempt at beginning the sweater, I used rubber bands for stitch markers (many patterns give instructions for how to place markers and then use the markers in the following instructions rather than giving stitch counts). They stuck to my needles and were too wide, resulting in big gaps between stitches. So my crewmate 3D-printed me some excellent stitch markers. (Yeah yeah, in a pinch I could have busted out my contrasting color yarn, but I prefer stitch markers.)

For my second attempt, I used the 3D-printed stitch markers, which worked perfectly. However, I had no idea what “make 1 right” vs “make 1 left” meant. Actually, I was guessing at how to add stitches at all. My second attempt again had lines of giant holes because I was adding stitches improperly. So I contacted Mission Support and requested instructions for how to add a stitch right vs left. Mission Support did some research and sent up a video that explained how very clearly.

For my third attempt, I referred to the video from Mission Support and ended up with a nice little V of added stitches, so I’m keeping this one.

 

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Training for hab life

Mission 5 has started, but I’m here to talk about training week. Some of the highlights:

First EVA

We spent two days up at the hab learning about the systems that keep it running, and practicing some of the tasks we’ll be performing. For example, we learned how to turn the compost in the composting toilet. But most excitingly, we went on our first simulated EVA! EVA stands for extravehicular activity – it’s when we put on our “spacesuits” and go outside. We all geared up with flashlights, camel packs, radios, headsets, fans, gloves, boots, helmets, and suits, then entered the “airlock” for decompression.

Immediately we realized that only one of the six of us had a functional radio and headset. The rest of us couldn’t speak and/or couldn’t hear. During the 5 minute decompression, one crew member relayed the instructions for the EVA (walk down the hill, then come back) to the rest of us. Each suit has two fans installed to circulate air – these fans are very noisy. This meant that the only way for us to speak to each other was to touch our faceplates together and shout. During EVAs on the surface of Mars, person-to-person communication would have to happen in a similar way, especially since the air is so thin. When I imagine astronauts on Mars, I imagine them walking around with bubble heads, but I never imagined them leaning their bubble heads together to talk. Conveniently, another crew member and I both know some sign language, so we were able to communicate much more comfortably.

First aid training

If one of us were to get seriously injured (e.g. by falling down a lava tube, or more likely, the stairs), we would break simulation and call 911. EMS knows we’re here and how to get us. That said, if that happens, the rest of the crew would still need to provide first aid to the injured crew member. Since our crew doesn’t include any medical professionals, we all took a first aid/CPR training course together. So don’t worry, mom, we’re all certified now.

Bald spot for science

One of the studies collects hair samples from us every month to measure the stress hormones stored in the hair. Right before entering the dome, we collected our baseline samples by shaving a small spot at the crown of each of our heads. Those with long hair are lucky, actually, since the spot isn’t usually visible. Since my first sample was about 30″ long, I’m hoping I can get a nice empirical history of my stress levels since… college.

Geology training

The highlight of training week was spending 3 days in Volcanos National Park learning about the geology of volcanic areas. We learned how to use maps showing different kinds of aerial data (e.g. color, temperature, reflectivity, surface feature size) to identify types (a’a or pahoehoe), boundaries, and relative ages of lava flows. Then we got to validate our conclusions by hiking to the mapped area (near Mauna Iki) and inspecting points of contact between lava flows, weathering, and texture of the lava. One of the most interesting features we visited was a giant crack running from the crater of the volcano down to its base. We could tell that all but one lava flow predated the crack by looking at whether the lava flowed into the crack or the crack cut through the lava.

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We also made quite a few interesting side trips. We got to see the monitoring station at Kilauea and the glow from the crater. One stop was to see a lava channel: a groove that builds up as the edges of a lava flow cool. Some lava channels crust over at the top and become lava tubes. We also got to hike out to see some petroglyphs – it’s interesting to see, in the middle of miles and miles of mostly unvegetated lava flows, evidence that people spent time there.

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I also really loved learning to navigate with GPS. Despite growing up hiking, I had mostly stayed on trails and only ever used a map to navigate. We’ll be using GPS to navigate during the mission; ignoring the possibility that we might have something like GPS set up for Mars by the time humans get there, systems already exist that can be set up in a small region for location detection, so this is not unrealistic. We hiked across old lava flows to the summit of Mauna Ulu, which has a crazy deep crater, then navigated to a few nearby skylights (a skylight is a section of a lava tube that has fallen in, creating a hole down to the cave). On our hike, we also encountered quite a few steam vents, which oddly were more easily detectable by the chill from the humidity than by the heat from the steam.

The highlight by far was our hike to where the current active flow is meeting the ocean. It was about 10 miles round trip, and we made it back long after dark, but it was absolutely worth it to see actual molten rock pouring into the water.

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Now back to hab life! I’ll tell you about that soon.

Going to Mars

On January 19, I will enter a habitat on the side of Mauna Loa with 5 other people. For 8 months, we will pretend to be astronauts on Mars, complete with freeze dried food and a 40 minute round-trip communication delay.

Q: 5 other people, you say. How big is this habitat?

A: About 1200 square feet downstairs, 400 upstairs. Or in other terms, four times the size of my first NYC apartment with only three times the people.

Q: But why?

A: BECAUSE SCIENCE. I believe that human space exploration is critically important for our species, both practically and culturally. Also it actually sounds like my idea of a good time.

Q: What are you going to do there?

A: Read this blog and find out!