Endings: HI-SEAS 2 is Mission Complete

A sunset seen from the HI-SEAS habitat module July, 2014

A sunset seen from the HI-SEAS habitat module July, 2014

For the last 4 months, I’ve taken part in a long-duration simulation of a mission on the surface of Mars.  The Hawaii’ Space Exploration and Analog Simulation, or HI-SEAS, was a 120-day analog simulation of a human mission on the surface of the planet Mars.  Myself and 4 other researchers occupied a habitat module perched at 8,000 feet on the flank of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, one of the most Mars-like environments found on Earth.

Cut off from the rest of the world save for time delayed internet signal, we worked and lived as astronauts would on a mission to Mars. Everything we did, from the moment we woke up to going to bed at night was done in a way that would reflect the procedures and limitations required by a crew with minimal resources. We ate freeze dried and dehydrated foods, rationed our water, monitored the energy collected by the solar panels that provided our electricity, and only went outside with the aid of spacesuits.

The intent of the mission was to study the psychological effects of the isolation on the crew and our performance as a team.  We wore biometric badges that measured our vitals. Cameras in the habitat recorded our crew meetings and social time.  And everyday, we answered a battery of surveys that recorded our moods, perceptions, and cognitive abilities.

Today the crew and I will open the airlock door and step out onto “Earth”.  Our final day has been a goal unto itself, reaching 120 days of the simulation.  It has been on the horizon for such a length of time that it seems unreal at the moment.

Throughout the mission, I learned things. Being immersed in the simulated mission environment gave me a chance to study many of the space-related topics I desire to know more about. Between duties I took time to read about geology and volcanic processes.  From my crew mates, I gained new insight into engineering, physics, and the world of academia. In particular I sought to absorb all I could about the human factors of spaceflight. Living the experience and noting lessons from the others concerning rationing energy or donning and doffing analog spacesuits is something I couldn’t have achieved from a book.

I also learned lessons in patience, lessons in diplomacy, and lessons in letting go.

Unlike the flight simulators that I’ve trained in during my time in the service, this simulated mission didn’t come with a carefully prepared guide or set of procedures to follow when problems occurred.  The scientists who conceived the program sought to observe and record our responses to events, and to study the methods and procedures we developed ourselves.  So we did that.  The learning curve for me was steep. Not only did I have to implement standards and interpret our tasks, but I had to do so with less education and knowledge in the science than my peers.

I made mistakes along the way.

I wish I could have performed perfectly, without error, all the way through.  But I’m human, and I made human mistakes.  I let things distract me, or frustrate me, and I had lapses of judgment that effected our experiments.  My actions affected the whole team because I was in command. I regret that didn’t always have the foresight to anticipate those mistakes.  I bear responsibility, and I don’t hide from the consequences.

I only hope that what I did here means something. I want to believe that my participation in the experiments that were conducted will have a positive impact on space exploration.  Was my contribution enough? Could I have done more?  I know these questions will fester in my subconscious for a long time after this is all over.

This won’t  be my last post about HI-SEAS.  I’ll always have this experience to relate in further musing about space and science.  I’m glad that I did this. It was very different from my duties in the service. I was surprised to have been selected, and even more so to be appointed to lead the crew. Military responsibilities are inherently rigid, and this mission was less so.  Maybe I can take from this a new perspective in leadership that will help me in my role as an officer. This was first foray into scientific research and the space industry.  I leave this program with a better understanding of what it takes to be a scientist.  I hope that too will help me as I look into pursuing studies in the natural sciences.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this mission- the participating institutions, the support personnel who volunteered without compensation to help the crew, and the PI and her staff who made it possible.  A special thanks is due to my crew mates: you are the stars of the show. Thank you for helping me along the way, and congratulations for accomplishing this amazing achievement.

 

Social Media and Space Exploration – #HISEAS

 

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One of the things I wanted to do during the 2nd HI-SEAS analog mission was increase the social media presence as a way of making more of the public aware of what we were doing and why we were doing it.

I’m a relatively late adopter of social media.  I didn’t learn of Facebook until 2008, I didn’t join Twitter until the summer of 2012, and I’ve only had an Instagram account since this last March.  But since taking part in the social media world, I’ve become much more aware of the power it has. Electronic communications is not a fad- this are just the beginning of a techno-cultural movement.

The ability to reach people everywhere in the world, almost instantaneously, is a powerful thing.  Advertising, propaganda, you name it- the digital message cannot be ignored.  It is now an element of our daily lives, a medium of communication, a realm unto itself.  What will you YOU use it for?

I’ve become an advocate of using social media as a way to talk about science and space exploration.  I didn’t do this on my own, and I certainly wasn’t the first to make it happen. Witnessing for myself the impact of social media made me a believer. I was fortunate enough to be selected by NASA to attend an event at the Glenn Research Center as part of the NASA Social outreach program.  In an effort to utilize the existing space enthusiast fan base, NASA adopted a program where attendees who are prolific social media users are invited to witness live or hands-on events.  Participants are encouraged to use social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to post facts a photos of what they saw.  Not only did it give the public an opportunity to see the space centers, but it also was a demonstration of how these websites and applications can be used to tell the story of the space program.

Anyone who follows space topics knows about Chris Hadfield.  Before his tour as commander of the International Space Station, few people knew who this Canadian astronaut was. Throughout his mission, he actively used social media to share photos of life aboard the station,and of Earth as seen from orbit.  His tweets reached thousands of followers.  This success means something- it means that people pay attention when you tell a story well.  His example is something I’ve striven for during my own mission as commander of HI-SEAS.

I was recently contacted by the people behind Instagram. In an e-mail, they described their interest in learning more about my role in HI-SEAS and about my use of their application.  I agreed to the interview, and today my photos were featured on the Instagram blog. Here is the link: http://blog.instagram.com/post/92347551152/smars

What happened next was nothing short of astounding to me. My Instagram account, somewhat neglected, boasted no more than 47 followers last night. Most of those 47 were close friends and family.  This morning, people began to see my photos. LOTS of people. People in the U.S. People in Canada. People all over the world.  At my last count, I had 8,200 new followers.  Eight thousand and two hundred people chose to receive my photographs in their daily electronic feed.  Not only did my Instagram presence increase, but my personal blog was found by some 60 more people today, and I gained another 340+ followers on my Twitter account. And those numbers are still growing as I type this.

It’s not about the numbers for the sake of numbers. It’s about getting a message to those who might not otherwise see it.  It’s about the people who took that second, a moment in their lives, to see what space exploration is all about.  Learning to use social media as a tool has allowed me to share with thousands what the crew of HI-SEAS set out to accomplish. I’ve encountered so many people who either didn’t realize there was still a vibrant space exploration program or had negative opinions about it.  My goal is to change that.  We’re here to make possible future missions to Mars and beyond. And hope I can share that story with you.

I’m not above a shameless plug. Take a look for yourselves. Find me at @casey_stedman on Twitter and Instagram.