My Journey to a Simulated Mars

1830 Local, Sol 1 Tharsis, Mars (from the log of Mission Commander Stedman)

“After a violent atmospheric entry, the vehicle touched down on the Martian surface at 1830 local. Surface conditions were obscured, but the crew and I easily located the Habitat Module.  We are perched high on the slope of a large shield volcano in the Northern Hemisphere in the Tharsis region at an approximate elevation of 2,500 meters…”

On March 28th, 2014, I entered a small dome structure high on the slope of Mauna Loa volcano and closed the door behind me, sealing myself and 5 others in for a period of 120 days. The crew and I are taking part in a research project funded by NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) to simulate a long-duration mission on the surface of Mars.

The Hawaii’ Space Exploration and Analog Simulation, or “HI-SEAS” is a program designed to operate a simulated environment to test what will be necessary for future astronauts to live on the surface of Mars for an extended period of time.  The challenges future human missions to Mars will face are not easily duplicated on Earth- but through careful planning, analog studies can simulate some the factors in order to better prepare us.

The HI-SEAS mission began March 28th and will continue until July 28th. During this time, the crew- made up of 6 researchers including myself- will live entirely within the habitat structure, venturing outside only conduct EVAs (extra-vehicular activity, or “mars walks”) in mock spacesuits. Scientists from a number of institutions, led by a Principal Investigator from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, will evaluate our psychological performance and crew cohesion throughout the next four months.

How did I come to be a part of this?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the natural sciences.  Exploring the world and nature has always been important to me, even while my professional aspirations led me to the Armed Forces.  In particular, I’ve been fascinated by space exploration and everything associated with it.  At a certain point in my life, I decided that I wanted to be a part of it. from that point forward, I have devoted my professional and academic careers to achieving that goal.

There have been many Mars analog studies (I’ll write about that in another post) and I’ve only casually followed their progress.  I assumed before this that I would need to be scientist myself just to be competitive for such a program. I had seen the call for applications from several programs in the past but never seriously considered applying myself.

My desire to participate overcame my trepidation, and with the recommendation of several friends, I decided “Why not?”. I agonized over my application for several days before finally submitting it.  On paper, I knew that I met certain qualifications.  My annual flight physical in the Air Force gave me confidence that I would meet all the physiological standards- but what about education?  Although I’m a currently a graduate student, was that enough to qualify? Would my degree program be applicable for such a mission?

There is always a certain relief and tension after submitting an application.  “Whatever happens, happens”.  So I was surprised beyond words to receive an e-mail that indicated the PI and her staff wanted to interview me for the program! Via Skype, I answered a series of questions from the HI-SEAS scientists, doing my best to mask my nervousness. I wondered if my bearing, so stiff and formal from time in the service, would put off the scientists from a civilian research project.

On New Year’s eve, as I toasted the start of a new (and hopefully productive) year, I saw the indication that an e-mail had arrived in my inbox, and not patient enough to wait until the morning, opened it immediately.  Shock was obvious as here was the e-mail congratulating me on being accepted into the final 9 candidates for the program!  With an anxious smile, I celebrated this accomplishment and wondered what would happen next.

The process continued with peer-to-peer interviews where the final 9 candidates “met” via Skype and recorded the answers to a number of questions posed by the HI-SEAS selection committee.  Here was the first time I could see the other hopeful applicants and their resume’s.  The incredible talent pooled in that roster of candidates was intimidating. Here were other students who were intimately involved in various parts of the space industry! Could I measure up?

After the interviews, the PI and the HI-SEAS crew selection committee worked to choose the 6 primary crew members and 3 back-up crew for the upcoming mission. I was satisfied with the knowledge that even as a back-up crew member, I’d be capable of contributing to the program. After all, I’d made it this far, right? Surely I could provide some value- even if I could only participate as member of the ground support team.  In fact, I was still unsure my obligations to the Air Force would allow be to take leave of my duties for the duration of the mission. I put that out of my mind and waited.

When the next e-mail came, I experienced a new shock- not only was I accepted as member of the primary crew- I was being appointed the Mission Commander!  Not only am I a participant in this study- But I was to be responsible for the safety, morale, and completion of the science goals.  And perhaps this is fitting, for that is not unlike the role I have performed the last 2 years in the Air Force as a Flight Commander.

So this is how I came to be here, high on the side of a volcano, leading a crew of researchers during a important scientific endeavor that will contribute the future of space exploration.  And I can’t think of a better way to begin my journey to the planets.





2 thoughts on “My Journey to a Simulated Mars

  1. […] On March 28th, 2014, I entered a small dome structure high on the slope of Mauna Loa volcano and closed the door behind me, sealing myself and 5 others in for a period of 120 days. The crew and I are taking part in a research project funded by NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) to simulate a long-duration mission on the surface of Mars….(more) […]

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