Where’s Laura?

It’s been six months. I’m sure you know that I am living in a simulated Martian habitat in Hawaii. But I haven’t actually written much about the habitat’s surroundings.

I’m not going to give an address; this is an isolation study and we don’t want visitors. So without being too specific, let me tell you about the area around the hab.

The hab is at ~8000′ elevation. This has had some physical effect, especially at first. We’ll all come home with molasses blood. However, the main impact is to our weather. We almost never have rainy days. That’s not to say that clouds don’t come visiting – we just tend to be above or in them. This leads to some incredible sunrises and sunsets, and some eerie foggy days.

Just the usual sunset over a sea of clouds.
IMG_7518 2.JPG
I admit I have very little data on whether this is the usual sunrise.
But seriously, it’s crazy beautiful here.


We live about ten miles from the caldera of Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa is an active shield volcano. Once, about a month ago, we all woke up to a shaking as if a truck had rammed into the hab. We immediately went to the windows. Mauna Loa isn’t currently spewing lava, but the possibility came to mind. Turns out it was an earthquake, the strongest locally in 11 years.

The most recent eruption of Mauna Loa was in 1984. The most recent flows around the hab seem to be from at least 1935. I know this because while scouting skylights, a crewmate and I found what appeared to be a bomb half buried in the lava. Apparently the 1935 flow was headed towards Hilo, so they attempted to stop it by bombing it. This isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds – the idea was to disrupt the lava tubes near the flow’s source and force the release of lava and gas needed to sustain the flow. The lava stopped short of Hilo, though opinions differ as to whether the bombing was to thank.


This is right next to a 120m long skylight. Coincidence?   p.s. thanks for the picture, Ansley!

Anyway, disturbing the lava is very sensitive in Hawaiian culture. In fact, mythology has it that if you take lava rocks away from the Big Island, Pele (the goddess of volcanoes) will curse you. Apparently the tourist office receives boxes rocks sent by tourists who experience bad fortune after removing rocks from the island. We actually just received some ourselves (hi! we got your envelope!).

To disrupt the lava minimally, the habitat is located in a defunct quarry next to a defunct cinder cone. A cinder cone forms when a crack in the earth’s crust allows a magma chamber to vent explosively. Lava is flung into the air over a period of time, and builds up into a cone around the crack. The rocks found in and around a cinder cone tend to be deeply colored. This isn’t because of weathering, but because of the temperatures involved in this kind of eruption.

DJI_0360 copy.JPG
Hab next to the cinder cone. Definitely in the splash zone.

The rest of the area around the hab is covered by other lava flows. There are two main kinds. Pahoehoe flows are smooth and ropy, whereas ‘a’a flows are chunky and rough. The area around us is covered by some of each.

Pahoehoe is generally good walking. In fact, the flow that stretches from the cinder cone to the mini-LHR (more on that someday soon) is so nice to walk on that we nicknamed it “the pahoehoe highway”. But some pahoehoe flows are old and weathered. Traversing these carries the risk of punching through an inflation structure or a small tube with a poorly placed boot.

‘A’a flows are a different story entirely. Imagine that the ground is covered with styrofoam boulders ranging from the size of marbles to the size of small children. Now imagine that these boulders are covered with glass. Now imagine that the glass is covered with little lumps that break off randomly. So when you step, all the styrofoam balls roll around, then the lumps break off, and if you lose your footing, you fall on the pile of shards. That’s what ‘a’a is like to walk on. These full-body protective suits have an upside.

DJI_0230 copy.JPG
Pahoehoe and ‘a’a rubbing elbows with the cinder cone.


The dominant feature of our skyline is Mauna Kea. It’s our main landmark for navigation, by foot and by air. We can see the telescopes on top! Several times this year, a storm in the night has left us with the lovely view of Mauna Kea, snowcapped, smoke drifting from the base… wait, I should mention the military base.

Someday my children will be confused by these photos.


We have one neighbor. Our neighbor is a military base. There seem to be artillery units constantly coming through to train. Rumbles around here are more often artillery than thunder. We don’t mind – every so often, they run night drills and we get a show.

I’ll leave you with one last sunset-clouds-lava-snowy-mauna-kea picture.

I’m pretty sure every cloud in this picture was not made by a bomb.

Till next time! And if you’d like more in the meantime, there’ve been a couple more videos lately from the New York Times and BBC.

2 thoughts on “Where’s Laura?

  1. Thank you, dear Laura! Your posts are much appreciated (and too infrequent). We all look forward to your safe journey back from Mars to your fabulous renovated condo in Brooklyn!


  2. Hey, this is amazing. Do you all take time to hug? That’s a long time without human touch. Perhaps having me on Mars for a mission might be interesting (25+years as an LMT). I’d do it too. Life is about experiencing. I applaud your courage to follow your heart to Mars. Fascinating! Feel free to write me if you’d like to shed some emotion to someone on Earth whom has no political investment to you, the mission nor crew. How’s that sweater coming along? 🙂 hug,Cathy


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s