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!