This Alien Shore: 1 Month on sMars

There are a number of oddities inherent to space missions. Some are obvious and predictable: communication delays and dependence upon spacesuits, for example. Others are a little more…unexpected.


Sheyna Gifford, 2015

One of the unexpected twists on being in simulated space comes from this very blog. It turns out that when you when you go to space, or simulated space, and write a blog, people will sometimes hit you up for interviews via the blog.

This strikes me as a bit of a strange venue by which to approach someone for their time, particularly a scientist who also happens to be a journalist. After all, I am A) published, and therefore easy to find via a number of more formal means and B) going to look at you a little funny. Call me an old-fashioned journalist, but asking someone for an interview via their blog is a little like trying to pick someone up at their own birthday party. It’s not totally out of bounds. Points for boldness, I suppose, but it just lacks a certain style. One might even call it panache.

Then, just recently, someone attempted to conduct an entire interview with me via a comment on my blog. Now that was something special. A lot like asking the birthday girl to be your best girl, when you’ve never gone on a single date. Zero to orbit, without a 1st or 2nd stage burn.

But hey – I’m on a pretend mission filled with real life, real science and real people, both inside the dome and outside of it. Things are bound to get a little strange. All things considered, it may be a bit off-color for a someone to offer me their varsity sweater out of the blue, but it’s by no means the end of any world. Also, if this is a party, we should be open to having a good time, by several possible definitions. Finally, the mission one-month mark is a good time to reflect upon everything that may have happened so far. So let’s pour ourselves a tasty beverage, get as comfortable as possible, and take a look at why this fine fellow is being so forward:

1. It’s been more than 20 days since the beginning of the mission. How’s your current life? Are you satisfied with these days?

My life is pretty great, thanks. I eat well, exercise daily and take care of myself mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I also take care of others, which is a vocation I find very fulfilling. So far, I only have to harass 2/5 crew people about their health. One crew person needs more fiber and cultured foods. The other needs more exercise. Both have been quite good-natured about the aforementioned wheedling-for-the-betterment-of-their-physiology by the local physician.

IMG_1429 3

2. Do you get along with your team?

Shockingly well. On the other hand, it’s part of my job to get along with people. No matter what people do or say, or how they say it, I am required to care for them. So constitutionally, and by professional default, I like people.

What’s surprising to me is how well they all get along with each other. Because, from the outside, there is no reason they should.

You see, the previous crew was rather homogeneous: largely engineers who could sit around and bond over filing magnets and fixing the treadmill (not kidding). This crew, on the other hand, represents the most professionally diverse group to land on sMars to date. Right now, in the dome, no two people are alike. Skills overlap in a few areas, but not many. Personalities, proclivities, even food preferences vary widely. Sleep patterns, levels of personal and professional cleanliness, even exercise routines – frequency, duration, type, time of day – all are different.

The food is where our differences are especially apparent. On average, a maximum of 4/6 people will like any given kind of food. Yogurt? 4/6. Peanut butter? 3-4/6. There is someone in here who claims not to like bread. Another can’t stand anything with a vaguely viscous texture: pudding, jelly or even cream cheese.

In fact, so far, well can all agree on exactly one thing only: Chocolate. Specifically, REALLY good milk chocolate – the kind that comes in fancy boxes and cost upwards of $1/piece. Oh-and my pizza. Everyone likes my pizza. 🙂

Carmel Johnson and Andrzej Stewart

Carmel Johnson and Andrzej Stewart

I’m saying that you could potentially plot us all on the same Venn diagram, but, when you did, it would become rapidly clear that we each occupy a very different sector. Recipe for disaster?

Not remotely. At least, not yet. The best explanation I have for this is simple: respect. Respect for disparity, even for diversity. More to the point, respect for diversity under pressure. Pressure for what? If nothing else, for survival.

In this dome, not a single one of us is replaceable. From dawn to dusk, and at all points in between, the reminders are continual. Every time I turn to a computer to do a task, I fleetingly recall that I can’t run the habitat computer network by myself. I could be trained to, any of us could, but we don’t have to, nor do we have any time to, in light of our other tasks. Fortunately, the Chief Engineer takes care of that. He also maintains the space suits when we’re otherwise occupied. Similarly, I do not have to grow the food. I could, but the Astrobiologist and the commander have that in hand.

Everybody here is doing something I either can’t do or don’t have time to do. The Chief scientist designed and built an apparatus that collects water from the environment. The space architect makes the hab more livable. The fact that they have the crops, water, and hab largely taken care of frees me up to culture more complex food – yogurt, bread, tempeh for example – that keep everybody’s systems happily chugging away. Every day, their efforts free me up to do what I need to do and what I like to do: practice medicine, cook food people like to eat, stay in shape, and write this blog.baking

If you just can’t imagine living in harmony in a 1000 square foot dome with five other people, think about it this way: No matter how much someone may vex you, if you need them to eat, drink, and breathe you are going to find a way to get along with them. For all major tasks, we work in teams. In particular, we work as a group to keep the composting toilet running. On sMars, you can’t walk out the door, send an email or empty your bowels without a solid team effort.

Whatever happens, or doesn’t, during the day, we all keenly aware of our state of interdependence. We know this as well as we know the ratio of oxygen we need to stay alive. We also know that by keeping these other people healthy and happy, we’re maximizing our chances of the same. While we’re in here, we may forget what it’s like to go for a walk outside, to hear birds, to feel wind in our faces. To be in a supermarket with dozens of other people. To be at a music festival with thousands of them. It’s nearly impossible to forget this fact: I need these five people to live. In turn, they need me.

As an added bonus, none of these people are especially difficult to get along with. True, like most professionals, each of us wants to have our way in our own idioms (soil science, water capture, astrobiology, engineering, medicine). However, as we are the only ones in our respective domains, territoriality typically isn’t an issue.

3. You are living without fresh air, fresh food or privacy… What are the most difficult point?

Explaining to people that we have fresh air, fresh food and privacy.

We don’t have these things in abundance, mind you. But even a real Mars crew is going to have some of these things: Fresh air via the fuel cells and plants; fresh food via the cultures (and plants); privacy via doors that shut and flaps that close.

Future crews will have these things because the people who design missions are wise, as well as smart. They know that mission success means a thriving group dynamic. A thriving group dynamic means happy individuals. Individuals need more than just personal survival to be happy. We also need empowerment and varying degrees of personal comfort. So they,the good folks back home, make sure that we, individually and collectively, have a few things we enjoy and some measure of control over our daily routines.

DSC06447To that end, ground support basically insists that we do more than just eat, excrete and get our tasks done. A good day’s work for mission control entails knowing that we got our tasks done in good order, and that we then went for a run, read something entertaining, cooked and shared a good meal, made a dent in our personal research, and wrote the folks back home. If we feel lonely, hungry, or uncomfortable, they are unhappy, unsettled and unsatisfied. Knowing that we did more than just get by today- that we also had some fresh air, some fresh food and a bit of personal space – puts all the people back at NASA in their respective happy places.

4. I saw in some articles HI-SEAS crews really can’t prevent interpersonal conflicts over these long-duration missions. What did you quarrel about? and How do you get over that?

The only human who cannot prevent interpersonal conflict is he who is living by himself on an island with a single palm tree (devoid of coconuts). And sometimes, not even then.

Just as all roommates will, we butt heads about mundane stuff: laundry and dirty dishes. Who used the last of the milk?! (Not a major discussion, since you can just reconstitute more). Once in a while, we disagree about science, or mission procedures. By en large, those disagreements are respectful and resolve rapidly.

5. What kind of things do you eat? What would you most want to eat?

Welcome to space, where we eat home cooked meals everyday.

Sometimes they are whipped up in a hurry: reconstituted soup with a side of rehydrated veggies. Sometimes, the crew slaves in the kitchen for hours. No joke, last week, my crew mates made a very realistic chicken marsala. This involved reconstitDSC_4589uting chicken bits; using flour as a binder to form them into patties; rehydrating all of the many ingredients for sauce; stirring them into a reduction; finding substitutes for things we don’t have, which is most everything; and producing something that, cross my heart, I would have paid money for in a restaurant without complaint.

True enough, sometimes we make things that are kind of weird. Edible, but strange (fried tuna patties, anyone?). On Mars, the scientists have been let loose in the kitchen! Sit yourself down, put a napkin in your lap and prepare to be part of the experiment.

Whatever else is true, we get fresh bread, fresh yogurt and fresh cheese pretty much everyday. It does not suck.


6. What did you do to take part in this mission?

A lifetime of learning and physical fitness, coupled with an indefatigable interest in space. Plus, I like people.

7. Do you have a plan to apply the real Manned mission to Mars later?

Photo Courtesy of Christiane Heinicke

Photo Courtesy of Christiane Heinicke

If we surmount the mind-bogging number of barriers standing between us and an actual Mars mission – the human factors, the mechanical mysteries, the plant-based conundrums, the software gaps, the confounding fuel issues – if we weave evidence, trial-and-error, and the fundamental laws of physics into a cloth that successfully covers the giant pile of nearly complete guesswork that is every first endeavor, and do this so successfully that we can have a Mars mission…I will most likely rouse myself from my state of awe at the capaciousness of the human intellect and spirit long enough to sign up. Assuming I’m still alive.

8. What is your role in this mission?

Intermittent harasser of mentally and physically fit space nerds, and advocate for generally safety, MD.

9. Recently, the movie has become the talk of the town. Did you see?

It’s not out yet. Did you? If so, unless you’re on the ISS, there are some folks at Fox Pictures who would like a word with you…

10. What do you think the key to survive Mark Watney in Mars? Outstanding scientific knowledge? Positive mind?


Assuming he were an actual person? A calm, focused, finely honed mind encased in a total unwillingness to quit, topped with a healthy helping of luck, sprinkled with snark.

11. What would you do if you are Mark Watney?

Sell the movie rights to my life story. Retire to France. Culture grapes that taste nothing like potatoes. Learn to appreciate disco.


12. Mission is 339 days left. Please tell your aspiration for the rest of this mission.crew at 1 mo

  • Contribute to Mars science.
  • Stay humble.
  • Be able to do 5 pull-ups in a row.
  • Finish a book chapter on global health policy.
  • Stay sane.
  • Run 6 miles a day.
  • Get into a full downward dog, effortlessly, every time.
  • Speak Russian at least as well as a reasonably intelligent 5-year old.
  • Teach my crew how to do search and rescue. Not just in case something happens to me while we’re out here – in case something happens to anyone in their circles, ever. So that they can be there for those people – especially if those people happen to be them. This will be my way of always being able to help, even when I’m not physically present.
  • Make the best bagel on sMars.
  • Write the wittiest, most informative blog in the history of Mars…. except for my crew mates’ blogs.
  • Find a way to keep the space oddities I live with healthy and happy. It’s the only way that any of us survives.

The crew (click for more information and links to their blogs):

Christiane Heinicke

Carmel Johnston 

Tristan Bassingthwaighte

Cyprien Verseux

Andrzej Stewart