aAt a time when I lived on Mars. Or the closest thing to it. At the time I was a science journalist and I wasn’t necessarily a clear choice of assignment. Yet I found myself into it. It was 2012, and Kim Binstead, a professor of information and computer science at the University of Hawaii, along with Jane Hunter, a professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell, had invited “almost” astronauts to participate in the four-month “Mars” mission.
Binsted and Hunter wanted a technically qualified crew for a space flight, according to NASA, in terms of education and experience. They were also looking for astronaut-like personalities, who, according to Binsted, were distinguished by “thick skin, a long wick, and an optimistic outlook.” It offers nearly 700 people worldwide.
Somehow they picked me up and so, between April and August 2013, I lived with five other astronauts in isolation, all of us making different Mars concessions, like showering mostly with wet tissues, avoiding real-time social media and not accessing fresh fruits and vegetables.
We lived inside a large white geodesic dome off an 8,000-foot access road on the Hawaiian volcano at Mauna Loa. The scene was very red and very rocky. Mars too. Electricity and water were limited. We can just leave the dome wearing bulky, cumbersome outerwear that looks like a space suit. While we had an emergency cell phone, our only regular contact with Earth was via email. And since Mars is so distant, our email was delayed by 20 minutes in every way to mimic the actual communication delay experienced by the Mars explorers. It wasn’t your typical Hawaii vacation.
All for science. Binstead and Hunter’s main research question regarding food was: Does it make sense to allow astronauts to cook their meals once they land on Mars? The data showed that the astronauts are on a six-month mission on an international flight Void The plant eats less over time and loses weight, which makes it more vulnerable to disease and injury. Binsted and Hunter wanted to measure the importance of cooking and meals separately in general – how food affects a crew’s physical, mental and social health.
It may be evident on Earth that food is more than just a source of livelihood for the body, that it plays a psychological, social and cultural role, and that it nurtures the soul and our relationships with others. But to ask complex questions about the role of food in the Mars mission and forge an entirely new counterpart to Mars around these questions? It’s pretty drastic, actually. And so, in this food study, we ate a mixture of pre-prepared meals, as well as meals that we’d cooked in our small, well-stocked kitchen on Mars.
We recorded changes in our appetite and weights and took tests to measure our ability to breathe through our noses and identify odors, all of which relate to hunger and food satisfaction. There have been nearly a dozen other trials as well – antimicrobial socks trials, mental acuity tests, behavioral surveys, the list goes on. We lived and breathed the survey questions for four months. Four months of isolation. Four months of the same people, the same seats at the table, the same clothes, the same smells, the same routine, the same view outside the single window looking out on the same rocks. No sunlight on our skin, and no fresh air in our lungs. I don’t want to overestimate the difficulty – we were not in mortal danger. But there were some aspects of the experiment that I found really trying.
I missed face-to-face conversations with my wife. I was eager to change the scenery and improve the interior lighting. Swimming in the ocean or a pool. He said walk into the woods.
We have been warned about the effects of isolation in small and big ways. Small roads: Brief signals during our pre-mission conference calls about tensions arising between crew members, their friends and families, and support for the mission back home. The Big Roads: Hours of long discussions to discover our breaking points. Would we drop the job if we got a surprise job offer? If someone gets sick in the house? If someone dies? If we get sick? How terrible is that? mentally? Physically? If we lose confidence in our colleagues or the entire project? And how did we plan to manage the well-documented challenges of isolation? These challenges included, but are not limited to, something that scientists have called “third quarter” syndrome, where the itch flares up anywhere but inside the dome with your five best friends when the end is in sight but not quite within reach. Diaries from the Arctic and Antarctic expeditions indicate it’s a special time, three-quarters of your mission. You get used to your routine and find a rhythm, but the hard truth of being disconnected from others, the demands of your duties, and your crewmate’s quirks is starting to erode.
Here, I was guilty, somewhat as expected. As a writer, I tend to notice the little things. Minor, finely detailed irritants crept up on me and then keep moving the back of my head. The number of consecutive times I replaced the toilet paper in the first floor bathroom. The rhythm of the sandals with durable soles worn by a crew member as they hang down the stairs, remarkably consistent and always very high. I also wondered why a colleague of mine kept swinging her cross leg under the table at every meal until she gently hit me in the leg with her fuzzy sole, and seemed to reach across an incredible distance to make such a simple connection, even after treading my leg well under a chair. But what she really wondered is, why can’t I tell her to stop?
Does all this make Do I seem myself a little unstable? Not suitable for living in a secluded environment with other people? Could. But I knew I wasn’t alone. One crew member complained about the other’s frequent throat cleansing. Another suspicion that his position on the business chart was unfair because it gave him so many heavy-duty successions. Then, when he traded with one of us and found himself in a workout routine that was worse than before, he became even more frustrated.
Our crew has been reasonably good – I would say functional most of the time and even harmoniously at times – but some of the characters clashed. There were a few bouts of screaming and some events of isolation within isolation – that is, going to a room and staying in it for longer than the culturally acceptable period. We developed our own culture of what was socially expected, but for some crew members whose personalities were not well suited to the agreed-upon social interactions, this proved to be a stressor. Most of us are still in great shape, even though the two of us never really talk to others. One of us moved to New Zealand about a year later and hasn’t been in much contact since.
However, while we were together, our mission was based on our belief and understanding of each other, our conversation shortcuts, knowing when we were being serious and when we were kidding, and the implicit text and motivations behind it all.
How uneasy I felt for the first few days before answering interview questions from the media and from people in general. It might sound strange, but I wondered who I could trust. I spent more than four months building a special kind of camaraderie with my crew mates. But how to be with others? Outside that dome, I suddenly wasn’t sure.
We have all known the annoyance, turmoil, sadness, loneliness, or frustration with feeling isolated in one way or another. Here on Earth, there are many isolations, some tormented and immoral, some helpful, some natural, some limited, and some indeterminate. And of course, the thing that affected our world for most of 2020 and beyond – the pandemic – is holding us back in fear, shrinking our geographic regions in order to stop the spread. We know more than ever that isolation can change life in all its forms.
I didn’t know it at the time, but over the years, I’ve come to realize this: Mars has changed me. Knowledge of that assignment spanned and mixed with the personal experience of the project. Daily survey questions like, How hungry are you? How full? Who did you interact with the most today? the least? What is the best thing in your day? What’s the worst? Somehow it’s starting to feel like bigger inquiries related not just to an astronaut on a space mission, but to me personally or anyone else.
Problems like group food stores versus individual food stores, who you trust, and how to act when privacy is high and resources are scarce. These are precisely the issues relevant to larger societies, nations, and the world at large. In a way, the research questions about an imaginary mission to Mars extended beyond intended limits. I could see how they were about everything and all of us.
In the days and weeks following our return, my crew and I ate fresh fruit and vegetables ground in our mouths, swam into the ocean, questioned information with Binsted, and shared some of our personal and touching observations during the mission on duty, as we had thought, of a better-imagined future trip to Mars. Those early days back home are a bit of a blur, although I remember the intensity of some of the feelings. The loud sounds easily astonished me.
It took days to not even notice the slightest breeze on my skin. For a long time also, I struggled to find the best way to convey my experience. She avoided the instant media outburst, phone and TV interviews. I simply couldn’t find the audio clips. I got into the experience as a journalist and as a kind of citizen and scientist. Most news reports aim at some kind of objectivity and tell a story with authority. But for me, I felt that the story of Mars was deceptive, and my version of it changed. I didn’t feel comfortable saying I knew what any of it really meant. And it wasn’t just about what happened on the mission or inside the dome. It reverberated, touching everything in my life. The HI-SEAS mission has really changed what I think about space exploration. But it also helped me pay more attention in general. I’m talking about my relationships here, with people and my home planet, and I have to admit, I’ve never seen so clearly as I did in the first few weeks right after the mission finished.
In the years that followed, In many ways, I became a stranger to the person who first entered that Mars dome at Mauna Loa. I write less journalism, more articles and poetry – more interested, I think, in subjectivity and collectivism, in ambiguity and in looking at something from the side rather than directly. I changed my job, went back to school and moved across the country. I made friends and lost. My older brother is dead. My long relationship with my wife ended, and I, for the first time in 14 years, were living on my own, thinking a lot about the meaning of home, the meaning of exploration and isolation, cooperation and partnership, from different ways of telling stories, beginnings and ends.
When an astronaut returns, Earth is not out of place. The whole system has shifted from below and everywhere, which of course is just an imperceptible dash of our local galactic arm. “There isn’t there,” Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, who found that as an adult she was unrecognizable from her childhood city. It is like anything. She leaves and comes back, and the house is not what it was. But sometimes leaving is the only way to know he was home in the first place.
Adapted from the book Once Upon a Time on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Green, published by Icon Books on January 7, at £ 14.99, available from guardianbookshop.com At £ 13.04