Simulated Mars: 200 Days Later

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We’re rounding the corner into mission day 200. 199 days have past – days of sun where we were able to cook, turn on the heater, clean ourselves with warm water; days of dark rainy skies and fog when we wore five layers, hid our fingers in gloves, filled and refilled our flasks with hot tea. 166 days remain in which to grow plants, run experiments, design and build space suits; to avoid injury or succumb to it; to build friendships and amend personal affronts; to fail and succeed; and to take photos of ourselves standing on the surface of the swirling red, black, and grey lava rock.

Looking back on the last 200 days feels like flicking through a photo album: a single, distinct image, followed by a blur, and then another image. That’s how it should be, I suppose. There’s no reason to scratch days away one at a time. By definition, days, minutes, and hours mark themselves. That’s their province and power: to permit us count and recount certain, particular points. What remains in the end isn’t a teeming pile of seconds, but rather a starred display of flashbacks; a sensual chronology, complete with thunderbolts of touch, snowmelts of taste, carillons of sound, and tendrils of smell.

If you could peer into the kaleidoscope of my memory from the last two hundred days, turning it over in your hand, you would see:

  • As I crest the hill behind the dome for the first time, great broken fields of frozen lava turn their scarred faces upwards and greet me. I think: at some point, the whole world looked like this. Maybe at some point every solid planet looked like this.

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  • The persistent tapping grows louder and louder. A child of the desert – I saw water fall from the sky for the first time when I was 11 – it takes me a while to place the sound. It’s raining for the first time since the mission started. Then it hits me: I’m living in a tent. A tent resonant with the sound of rain falling from the sky. A tent that holds a hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment, supported on a wooden platform a few short inches above the ground. Wind whips the white fabric stretched out over the bare metal  frame. The fabric ripples, tense, like the sleeping surface of a lake.
  • There is a hurricane somewhere off-shore. On this volcano, the only truly solid thing with a door that closes is the Sea Can, a steel shipping container where we keep our food and power system. Fitting all six of us in there at once is going to be some trick. If we dump out all of our suit gear and move the telescope… yeah. We could all SIT in there, probably. If this storm hits us head-on, get ready to get cosy people! My dark blue “bug out”dome in the darkness2 bag is packed and sitting at my feet. It holds shoes, socks, a toothbrush, water, a hat, granola bars, and a kindle. If you were about to spend a day locked in a trailer with 5 other people, what would you bring? I stand, walk towards the bookshelf, grab “Cards Against Humanity” box and stuff it in my bag.
  • For the first few months, we discover item after item stashed all over the habitat. It’s like a treasure hunt with no clues. One day we find a piece of lab gear from the 1950’s: a pea-soup-green masher than seems to be hand-powered. The next day we find a stove-top espresso maker. Curious, because these coffee makers don’t work on convection ranges, which are the only kind that we have here. I seriously consider the amount of heat transfer I can get by partly submerging the giant red device in a large pot of boiling water. Not enough. I try anyway.
  • Finally, our tomato crop is ready. We’ve been living off tomato powder for what feels like forever, stalking the marble-sized fruits as they retreated from green into deep orange on the mutant, fist-sized tomato plant. In my pale palm, they look like unpolished jewels. I raise one up to my nose, inhale… and cough. It smelled like….Earth. Earth in the heat of summer, panting and dipping under a sweltering blanket of soil. It injected its ripe perfume right up my nostril. For ten minutes or more, I hold this tiny thing, and smell. Hold, and smell. Breathe in, breathe out. I pick one little fellow up by his green stem and twirl him around. Even tomatoes at the farmer’s market are typically stripped of their pointed crowns by the time you get ahold of them. This one looks regal, even jolly, in his cap, which is about the same size as he is. When I finally take a bite, another surprise. Burning. The juice of this living thing, unprocessed in any way, stings my mouth like a potent acid.

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It goes on an on like that. I don’t have days, weeks, and months here. I have moments, strung out like fairy lights. They flash on, and they flash off. Lying on my side in the gravel, I press my cheek against the invisible inner curve of my helmet and watch the Milky way overrun the night sky overhead. In my thick gloves, I’m struggling to find the best way to strap someone in a space suit onto a longboard for safe transport.* I am sitting in my bunk room writing to a dying friend back home, saying, “I am so sorry, T. I cannot call you.” Every day I send video, audio, and hope into the void. The replies are swift, sometimes. Sometimes they are slow.  At times, they never come at all.

199 days have passed. 166 remain. The vivid slideshow behind my eyes plays on, even though, looking through the pictures I’ve taken, I know our tiny world is wreathed in glowing white, patient grey, and bloodrust red.

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* Hint: It’s really hard. Carrying that board with someone in a space suit on it while you are in a space suit is even harder.

8 thoughts on “Simulated Mars: 200 Days Later

  1. Hi Sheyna,
    I have been following your blogs and really enjoy them.
    I am student currently carrying out a masters project on the psychological effect of living in isolation and confinement in terms of designing habitats for long term space exploration, and have a few questions that I would love for you to answer if it all possible?
    Best wishes,
    Orla

  2. Hi, Sheyna! Since I learned of this mission a month or so ago (your story was featured in URI’s alumni magazine), I’ve read what I could find about you and your colleagues–which consists mostly blog posts. One thing I didn’t see mentioned: your training in how to get along with crewmates under these conditions. (–not counting your days spent navigating in national park.) I assume we know a lot about the psychology of constructive social interactions, so I imagine one of the things being tested is a particular training regimen that you and the others went through. Becoming aware of your own modes of interaction, communicating in positive ways, that sort of thing. Can you describe the training, or advice, you were given?

    1. HI Jeff! Great question. Outside of NOLS, we were not given advice or training in regards to communication. At NOLS, they focused on identifying everyone’s communication style, how that results in approaches to conflicts; how it results in different leadership styles (or doesn’t result in leadership); and how every style has its strengths and weaknesses. NO BIG SURPRISE: most of the people who go on space missions are straight-forward go-getters, with approaches and leadership styles to match.

  3. Doc Shey – As I was driving to work this morning in a blizzard (also known as spring in Colorado), I was struck by the thought of ‘what if this was dust?’ It got me thinking about the bad dust storms I’d been in my past (shudder!) and that led me to thinking…well, about you, your team, and your project. Dust storm dust seems to get into everything, rather like having a zillion nano-kittens. I would think that would be a big deal on Mars even with the much lower air pressure. I was wondering how you could/would replicate those mind numbingly boring house keeping duties to keep dust under control?

    1. Dear Bill – A zillion nano-kittens is right. Just as fuzzy, not a cute, dust is. However, there’s a lot of good news about dust storms on Mars. #1: Planet-wide dust storms are relatively rare, only occurring about every 5.5 Earth years. In fact, Mars is over-due for one right now. #2: The storm winds top out at effectively 60 mph. Nothing to be terribly afraid of when the atmosphere is only 1/100 as thick as it is on Earth at sea level. Rovers survive them by going into standby mode and waiting them out. They don’t usually have to wait more than a few weeks. Someday, humans will do the same. The realy problem with dust storms is that they can completely block out the Sun. So we’d better bring lots of back-up power. Here’s the real problem with dust, as you pointed out: it gets EVERYWHERE. Worse, it’s ultra-fine and MAGNETIZED. Oh boy! Dust that sticks to metal surfaces. Just what a space mission NEVER wanted.

      The answer to this is to never let the outside meet the inside – or, to do so as little as possible. How do you do that? Standby for my next blog post 😉

  4. What would have been the protocol if your habitat had been hit by the hurricane? Is the idea to treat it like a storm on Mars?

    1. Hi Sean: Good question. If there had been a hurricane, our response would have been proportional to the size and direction of the storm. Near the beginning of our mission, there was a hurricane warning. Our plan was to shelter in place in our Sea Can: a cargo shipping container of mighty steel proportions. Between that and the giant volcano at our back, we would be in excellent shape. For storms on Mars, again, the response needs to be proportional to the situation. Here’s the thing, though, Sean: There’s no storm on Mars that I know of worth running from simple on account of the storm itself. High winds speeds amount to very little with the atmosphere is 1/100 of what it is on Earth. 160 km/hour winds in 1/100 of an atmosphere wouldn’t straighten the flag next to the base, much less threaten structures on the base. What might be a problem is if everything is solar powered, and the storm is projected to last months. That…could be an issue. Martian storms themselves are solar powered, and, by blocking out the sun, burn themselves out. If they are going to burn out the habitat power systems first – that might be something worth running from.

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