> > > 8-month mission on "Mars": January 2015

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Cinderella Story

As I write this, my little sister is in the midst of her wedding day, looking like a real-life Cinderella, so beautiful and happy in her gorgeous gown. I sent over a wedding toast video and have heard that "there wasn't a pair of dry-eyes in the place." I was crying too, I'm so disappointed to be missing her big day, it's certainly the worst part about being on this mission. But all-in-all, I'm still so thankful to be here, HI-SEAS is the Mars edition of a Cinderella story for me.

Raising my glass (of non-alcoholic cooking wine) in a wedding toast for my little sister Kayla and brother-in-love Lee Eiland on their big day! Congratulations!!!

It is well-known that astronaut selection is an extremely competitive process. So this HI-SEAS simulated mission may be the closest I ever get to being a real astronaut. In 2013 NASA astronaut selection, there were over 6100 applicants and only eight candidates were selected. Then for the 0.1% selected from this elite applicant pool, there are still competitive layers for these candidates to filter through before donning a spacesuit and living the dream of a spacewalk.

One of the NASA researchers told us a story during training week that demonstrated the competitive nature of astronaut work-life. He said that they received negative feedback about one of their behavioral questionnaires, and it turned out that once they investigated the issue a bit further, it really had nothing to do with the primary content of the questionnaire. It was because one of the first questions asked whether or not crewmembers had been part of EVAs (extravehicular activities) recently. The fact that some of these astronauts were not selected to go on EVA tasks is what made the question unpalatable!

Here on simulated Mars, we have more-or-less a rotating schedule for the geology task EVAs. Even though we all love going on these long EVAs to explore the volcanic terrain, it has not been a point of contention. We might miss out on a “cool” task from time-to-time, but we all have had multiple opportunities to don the spacesuits and play pretend astronaut!

Thus far, I have only worn the bright yellow-green hazmat suits (aka "janky" spacesuits). Yesterday, however, I had the pleasure of suiting up in our mock spacesuit that we are testing for researchers at University of Maryland.  Check me out!!  I will gladly volunteer to be a space suit model if anyone is interested ;) Actually, the suit did fit perfectly as if it were made for me!  I was as happy as Cinderella putting on her lost slipper, and the crew was delighted that it didn’t take the usual amount of effort for sealing someone inside!

Recent EVA to a nearby cave-like lava tube that could be an emergency shelter

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Surprise, Surprise!

The crew has noted that we don’t get many surprises here. The landscape never changes; it’s always other-worldly, red, and desolate. Our schedules are similar from week-to-week, and when we do get a surprise, it’s usually a negative, such as a back-up energy system failing to engage. However, there are many aspects of this mission that have been pleasant surprises for me! 

Mostly sunny, sometimes cloudy, this surreal view never gets old!

Numero Uno:  The shower situation is not bad at all!  Note that, this is coming from a gal who used to shower for at least 15 minutes per day, and here we each get about 7 minutes per week!!  Tonight, I took a 1.5-minute shower and felt clean, satisfied, and refreshed.  Well actually, I was in the shower for 10 minutes, but I had the water running for only 1.5 minutes.  I can’t imagine going back to my old routine when I return to Earthly life, it wasted so much water!! 

Checking the water level in our tanks that “bots” refill about once per month

Number Two:  I underestimated how much I would crave new music and photos, and I overestimated how much reading I would do here. I loaded down my suitcase with eight books that I’ve been wanting to read, and unfortunately, I have only read two of them.  What really makes my day is reading emails, seeing photos of family and friends, or hearing a new song that someone sends me.  I listen to music most of the day while I am working, mainly because there’s quite a bit of background noise (sound-proofed walls are lacking in the dome), and at night we play music of the chef’s choice while having dinner together.

Martha and Neil making their own music, aka "Fake Band on Fake Mars" ;)

Number Three:  We are learning so much in the kitchen!  Everything is homemade here, each week, there's at least a couple days with baking involved.. breads, rolls, pie crusts, bagels, scones, pizza dough, doughnuts.. you name it, we’ve probably tried it in glutenous and gluten-free forms!  As for our main dishes, last week, we did “take-overs” where we each learned to cook one of the meals that another crew member had made in the past, and that is literally the first time that any of the meals have been repeated, so much variety and deliciousness!  We also have ice cream parties from time-to-time, started out by trying plain ole vanilla, but since then we’ve had success at nutella gelato and raspberry-lime sorbet. And for me, solely based on learning to make "out of this world" flan, I can say that this mission has been a success!

Yours truly with homemade pretzel rolls (the lighter ones are gluten-free)

Number Four:  I am surprised that I am never bored!  After living in the vibrant city of Chicago, one might think that hanging out with the same five people for eight months in a 1000 square foot dome would be a hellish contrast.  However, time is flying by, the six of us are still getting along great, and I’m not even bothered by being inside most of the time.  It helps that I have alot of research going on.  Also, we have quite the extensive inventory of board games.  So far, I think my favorite games are Citadel, Puerto Rico, and King of Tokyo.

Number Five:  One of the subjects that NASA is researching here is how to facilitate crew autonomy.  With missions to the International Space Station, the crews can still continuously communicate with mission support.  In contrast, with a Mars misison, there is a 20-minute delay as communications travel the wide-distance between Earth and Mars.  Since it is logistically burdensome to rely on directions and orders from mission support, a Mars crew should operate in an autonomous manner to efficiently achieve goals.  I’ve been surprised by this whole dynamic with mission support.  Rather than giving orders, they are on-call for 12 hours per day, waiting to support our needs, and not only our needs but also our wants!  We receive daily news updates, and we can request recordings of sports games or special broadcasts like the State of the Union address earlier.  I still feel connected to current events on Earth, even though I have limited internet access and communications with the outside world.
Gunshow in our Hexoskin shirts, which monitor and record workout performance

The Sixer:  After a few months of living in confinement and cooking like we do, you might wonder if we'll be needing some larger clothing in the next resupply ;) However, on the contrary, we actually are becoming healthier and stronger as the mission goes on.  We stay on schedule with our daily workouts, take vitamins religiously, and give ourselves time to relax when needed!  Also, because we do not have any physical contact with the outside world, we aren’t faced with flu bugs or common colds.  A real Mars crew will have other health concerns that are not simulated here, such as radiation damage from being outside Earth's protective atmosphere and muscle / bone atrophy from working against less gravity.. but on fake Mars, it seems only fat deposits are shrinking!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Exploring the New Year

On the first day of the year, I treated a new page in my journal as if it were a blank canvas of highest quality, writing each word carefully because I wanted to preserve the purity of a new beginning; but instead of a perfect start to the new year, jumbled thoughts came tumbling down. In shaky penmanship I wrote something about making this new year better by not eating so many cookies ;) No matter how many cookies I will gluttonously consume, I have a feeling that this year will be a special one. There’s no place like the dome!

We still have five months of the mission to go, but I’m already starting to plan some vacation time with my family. I look forward to golfing, scuba-diving, tandem jumping from a helicopter, ordering from restaurants (what a treat that will be after eight months of cooking everything homemade), beach time, etc. etc. However, I'm mindful that in life after the dome I won't be able to wear slippers to work anymore, and I will certainly miss days like yesterday where instead of sitting at a desk writing code, I was outside all day exploring!

While on the EVA yesterday, my senses could have fooled me into believing that I was scuba-diving in saltwater. I sipped on my camelbak and my lips tasted salty as my eyes burned from the sweat dripping down my face. Exploring lava tubes gave me the illusion of cave exploring in ocean water.  

Altogether, we explored eight lava tubes, which are cave-like channels where lava once flowed during an eruption. Our task was to collect data about lava tube size, condition, and formation in order to assess their feasibility as human shelters. We targeted skylights which are basically pits where lava once pooled. Some of these skylights were too steep and inaccessible, so we couldn't actually see the lava tube openings, but we were able to climb down into other skylights and check out the lava tube openings.

Top left: deep, inaccessible skylight, Top right: view from inside an accessible skylight, Bottom: lava tube opening in the interior wall of an accessible skylight

For this task, we made a tool that we have nicknamed “TAD” for telescoping airflow detector. Airflow at the opening of a lava tube serves as an indication that the channel is open and connected to other openings. TAD also has markings on the line to enable depth measurement. It looks like a fishing pole, we're living the saltwater life on simulated Mars!

Reeling the TAD down to measure the depth of the pit, while watching the lightweight paper at the end of my line flutter from airflow in the lava tube.

We hiked about 3km in rocky, sloping terrain, the planned path is on the left, and the actual path our teams took through the lava field is on the right.

EVA #31 was strenuous, exciting, and a great success. This was the first geology task EVA in which we were able to collect all data in one sweep, without needing a follow-up EVA on the next day. I am also proud of the fact that we still did our P90x workout later in the afternoon! In a few days, we will be P90x grads, a big thanks to Tony for getting us in the best shape of our lives!