Gravity, inertial momentum, and limited financing team up to make an efficient round-trip to Mars a 2-to-3 Earth-year tour. Aug 28th, 2018 marked three Earth years since my crew – bright-faced, in clean, red polos – set off to spend a year on simulated Mars. It was both more simple and more complicated than any of us imagined. It was easier and harder. It was an adventure that began with the six of us together, discovering all the WEIRD things previous crews had left behind (The pool noodles and plastic leis I can understand. The Justin Bieber stickers…?). It ended 366 days later with the six of us standing inside the airlock listening to the throng of aliens outside: Earth-people who had landed in the night and might, or might not, have come in peace. We emerged moments later paler, thinner, bemused by lifeforms with wallets and keys and cars and cash and myriad things no sane Martian needs, and definitely ready for a vacation.
So, then what happened?
As far as I can tell, we Martians lived happily back among the Earthlings. 1.5 Martian years later, I continue to think about those 366-Earth-days we plugged along: nearly always healthy, sometimes happy, sometimes cold and missing home; making dried things semi-edible; flying (and crashing) drones; 3D-printing medical supplies; melting attempts at 3D-printing medical supplies into modernist slag; cleaning and cleaning and cleaning suits and surfaces and toilets. Oh, the toilets. I don’t miss those toilets. But I do miss my crewmates. Every one of them. When I think about them three years later, I often think, “I wish that the world knew this about ….” The anniversary of when we would have actually come home, if we had gone to Mars together for real, seems like a great time to fill in the blanks.
Every time one of my cats thunks into a door, I secretly suspect that the next sound I will hear is mechanical, maniacal laughter, followed by the spinning of gears and possibly the thrashing of a robotic scorpion tail. When it doesn’t happen, I feel a pang of Mars-sickness where, for better or worse, our chief engineer never had enough legos to make his mindstorm minions more than 40 cm high. Fortunately for us all, he had more than enough fortitude to endlessly repair the drone and the 3D printer, watch our water and power consumption like a hawk, cook beans like a Texan, and make tea like a Brit. Today, Lieutenant Stewart of the Civil Air Patrol is making good on all our hard work by giving the Orion Project a boost in at NASA JSC. Hoo-ah, sir!
A model of tenacity and dedication. If a three-letter government agency asked me to whom they should entrust a critical package for hand-delivery across a continent crushed in glaciers, forbidding mountain ranges, and chupacabras, I would point them in Carmel’s direction. Unrelated: I could live a thousand years and still not clean things as well as Carmel does with seemingly minimal effort. Or do as many push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups… pick an up. Carmel and I alone had the good sense to like Kombucha. She is also one of the only people on any planet who can make a rock that looks to me just like a rock that looks just like any other of the thousands rocks we collected a unique, special, and interesting rock. Rock on.
Have you ever met one of those people whose smile literally increases the lumens in the vicinity? I thought I had. But when Christiane smiled her big ol’ smile for the first time my bar was reset. For this reason and others it was fun watching her work on things that mattered to her: photography and writing, weighing radishes, building urine stills, playing cards, chasing stars during our astronomy EVA. I wish I had learned how to play Skat so she could have beat the spacesuit off of me and smiled. I’m sorry that I’m not much for cards game, Cookies. If we meet again, I would be happy to trade whatever baked good you want for another lesson. Some of my favorite times during the mission involved her and me, and sometimes others, outside at night, cameras and maybe a telescope nearby, looking for the ISS or a planetary conjunction, lying in wait for a meteor or an Iridium flare. Next time we’ll bring bigger telescopes and better cameras!
With his weirdly elongated toes (so bendy!) and his outstanding accent, Cyprien Verseux is simply one of the best human beings Earth has evolved in the past 4 billion years. A scientist to the core, when he overheard one of us say, “A watched pot never boils,” he filled a pot, flipped on a heating element, aimed a laser thermometer at it and proved otherwise. He’s kind, sweet, and one heck of a crepe-flipper. If you get to be stranded with on a desert island with Cypi…make sure you bring a crepe pan! I envy the Concordia crew their chance to have your cooking and your company. And possibly have you bench-press them.
Part flying matador, part bouncing marmot, all creative genius. Tristan makes places more fun just by dwelling in them. That’s not an exaggeration. If there was something beautiful, well-designed, or just plain weird but hilarious, odds were very good Marmot had a hand in it. Idiosyncratic hand-drawn portraits of the crew? Marmot! TV trays inexplicably stacked from the living room to the second floor landing? Marmot! Someone wearing a spacesuit like a pet monkey or a giant tent like a cape? Hanging used tea bags from the kitchen rafters at eye-level like a tepid version of Indiana Jones and the temple of doom? All Marmot, all the time. I hope you get to design a space hotel one day, sir. And a very, very much hope that I get to go stay in it. Congrats on completely the PhD, Dr. Bassingthwaighte!
Thank you all for being my crew! I hope that three-years-later finds you healthy, happy, and on your way to somewhere out-of-the-world. May the solar wind be at your back. May mission control give you plenty of warning when it’s time to hide from the space-weather. And may the solar storms remember: they can’t hurt you when the planet turns to the night-side.* Amen.
Thank you to the gracious people of Hawai’i for hosting us for that year and for making this research possible To the goddess Pele of Mauna Loa: thank you for allowing us to go to the lava rather than bringing the lava to us. To NASA, for the science funding, and to the scientists and support team: without your skills and efforts, there would be no space simulation, no space travel, no greater understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. Our friends, family, and supporters: You are how we do what we do. I hope that you know that. To the children of Earth: you are why.
A hui kaua, aloha nui loa. Hope to see you soon. Ad Astra.
*This is an inside (the dome) joke. I’ll explain it when the powers that be let me. 😉