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.

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