> > > 8-month mission on "Mars": November 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Battling against the clock!

When envisioning life in a dome, my research ambition was inspired by the valuable data to collect and analyze from this experience, and a big part of me was excited for leaving distractions of the real world behind.  I looked forward to reading a long list of books and imagined these eight months of living in a dome as an intellectual and spiritual retreat.

We've reached the milestone of completing one month of the mission.  In this month, I can say I’ve read exactly one book, and it’s a short one, Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. The battle for personal time that is fought in our great big worlds on Earth, still blazes from a tiny dome in Hawaii.

In daily surveys for the NASA study, we are asked if our day has gone by abnormally slow, fast, or just normal.  Thus far, I have repeatedly indicated that time is moving more quickly than normal.  I decided to investigate our hurried pace by outlining my schedule with some detail.  Now I can see why the days are flying by so quickly!  The schedule here is intense!  

We all have different responsibilities here in the dome in addition to lingering commitments to our lives back home.  Despite our numerous and varying tasks, as a crew, we all sync our schedules to do P90x workout each night, have dinner together, and often play a game or watch a show afterwards.  In dome life, I am free of social media distractions, but I’m probably more prone to the phenomenon of peer pressure.  

Last night provided the example that inspired this blog post.  I planned to do some coding for my analysis of our jawbone wristband data. That plan began to derail when we decided to watch an episode of the Firefly TV series while having dinner.  Prior to this, we had already declared that we will only watch Firefly when all crew members are present, so that no one misses out.  Are you seeing the pressure point?!  If I would have opted out, then no one would get to watch Firefly.  

After one episode, the crew applied some pressure for another, and even more pressure subsequently, until we watched four episodes of Firefly together!!  I definitely lost this battle.  Sorry research, forgive my gluttony, I promise to find extra time for you soon!  It is crucial that we keep a balance of team and individual goals.  If I choose my research all of the time, then our team dynamic will suffer.  But mission success will also degrade if I am not mindful of my personal responsibilities. 

Though the binge-watching felt sinful, I have to say I’m thankful that the crew has introduced me to the Firefly TV series and the concept of a “Space Western”.. yep, cowboys and space exploration!!  It took a couple episodes for me to warm up to the lead character in particular, but only because I saw him first as Captain Hammer, the annoying arch nemesis from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.  So far, my favorite episode is called Mrs. Reynolds, I was so surprised and delighted to see Joan from Mad Men as a sly space cowgirl, check it out!

Monday, November 10, 2014

On the transition to dome life

As a crew, we're often asked how we prepared for this mission, and my answer to this question has a glaring contradiction. To prepare for life as a simulated astronaut, I worked on my physical fitness, while also eating as much pizza and sushi as I could find! I was worried that I would not like the food on “Mars.” I thought I would have trouble adjusting to the 2-min showers. I predicted that I might feel cramped, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to have this dome life focused on research and teamwork.

HI-SEAS habitat on Mauna Loa, there's no place like the dome!

Now that 25 days have just flown by, I’m thinking the transition back to “Earth” might be harder than our transition to “Mars.” It’s a challenging, busy schedule here, but it's worth every minute, since we are doing stuff I love: research, fitness, satisfying meals, and teamwork. I’m a fourth-year PhD student, so I’ve been immersed in research environments for a while now. The major difference is that the nature of my prior graduate student life was quite solitary. Learning processes are satisfying and fun on their own, but now I realize how much I've missed working together as part of a team.

Here, I'm interacting with crew members to accomplish our mission goals and to maintain a healthy team chemistry, while also gaining confidence in applied engineering and insights for proposing novel research. This past week, we worked on the first Geology task of the mission. Our task was to estimate the volume of a nearby ridge-like feature that is composed of a type of lava called spatter, which is a possible insulating material for building surface shelters on Mars. So, the question was basically how much spatter is deposited in this geological feature.

An aerial photograph of the geological feature 

We divided the task into two separate EVAs. On Monday, Sophie and Allen suited up and headed out with the goal of determining the location of the ridge-like feature relative to the habitat and gathering information about where to start measuring and about the difficulty of exploring the terrain. From this information, we decided to tackle measurements with a three-person crew. On Tuesday, Martha, Neil, and I went out to track the feature and completed the longest EVA we’ve had so far. It’s hot and sweaty in those suits, but we kept going up and down the slopes of the 575-meter ridge to measure angles, input GPS waypoints, and to wave hand signals when radio communication failed.

Steep slope of the ridge with loose surface rocks, tread lightly...

At times, it felt as though I was skiing, when on the way down rocks would start slipping and rolling away. If it was not too steep, sometimes I would decide to just slide along with the lava rocks, in my clumsy hazmat suit holding a trekking pole! My golf experience also came in handy as I was pacing yardages to verify GPS calculations. The 1-yard stride I have ingrained on manicured golf course fairways still ended up being quite accurate on the rough terrain of a lava field.

Suited up for hiking (or skiing) through the lava field.. and staying hydrated!

What a great day, experiencing awe and wonder as if we really were exploring another planet! We faced challenges, stayed positive, and pulled together to successfully complete the task (estimated 155,500 cubic meters of spatter).

Monday, November 3, 2014

Domestication in progress

Resourcefulness is one of the traits I’ve always admired about Momma Dunn, a mix of creativity and a positive attitude.  She can make a bad day into a lovely one, and she can whip together a hearty meal out of seemingly random, lacking ingredients.  It’s easy to fill up a grocery basket with fresh ingredients, take it home, and toss it together like a master chef.  But putting together a meal from a limited pantry is the sign of a true kitchen master!

The HI-SEAS kitchen is well-equipped with a mini-fridge / freezer combo, a toaster oven, induction burners, microwave, dishwasher, bread maker, coffee maker and an electric kettle.

Cooking on “Mars” requires some gambling and imagination.  Before I served my first meal, and actually it was the first meal of the mission, I recited a quote by John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway!” The dehydrated ingredients seemed so foreign to me.  The first step in cooking here is always add water and wait for the ingredient to rehydrate, which can take several hours.  Though the ingredients are mostly pre-cooked, cooking here takes a similar length of time due to the preparation and experimentation.

The shelf-stable ingredients include freeze-dried meats, veggies, fruits, and powdered dairy.

Initially it was quite intimidating to cook with shelf-stable ingredients, so I was keeping it simple.  Last week, however, I made what the crew dubbed a “taco extravaganza” that included chicken and steak taco options with a traditional spicy salsa and a sweet pineapple slaw.  For some inspiration, I had mission support download and email me the menu for Taco Joint in Chicago.  Here’s a photo of the spread; there were leftovers, still working on the ideal portioning for this group, but at least I am confident with the cooking methods now!

Chicken, steak, yellow rice with black beans, tomato salsa, pineapple slaw, and fried tortillas