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!