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.