I Spent a Year in Isolation Pretending to Live on Mars

The thing I missed most? Avocados

by Carmel Johnston, as told to Andrew Fiouzi

Mars is cold, volcanic and dusty as hell. What would it be like for humans to live there? A team of six scientists tried to find out — by holing up for a year in a geodesic dome on the desolate slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, as part of the NASA funded HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) mission. The purpose of the simulation was to determine what would be required to keep a space flight crew happy and healthy if we ever sent one to Mars. Carmel Johnston, the 28-year-old crew commander, opened up to MEL about her year in the dome.

The simulation began once we entered the dome — around 3 p.m. on August 28, 2015. The two story geodesic dome consisted of a large main floor and a lofted second story. The main floor houses the kitchen, living room, biolab, and a bathroom with composting toilets and a shower. The second story is a semicircle divided into seven equal rooms: six bedrooms and one bathroom. The dome is only about 1,200 square feet, but the layout and lofted second floor made it feel much larger. It was designed to have much of the common space be multipurpose, which allowed us to do many activities with a single space.

For me, that first day was fairly anticlimactic. They just closed the door and said, “Bye, see you in a year.”

We started unpacking; someone started cooking. Our food consisted of freeze-dried meats and other food that would remain stable during a long-duration spaceflight. Another member of the crew started growing plants. Our garden was a mix of plants grown for experiments and for fun. We had a variety of vegetables: lettuce, chard, kale, radishes, beans, peas, tomatoes, sprouts, as well as lots of flowers for enjoyment. There were a couple different places around the dome that we grew plants, but the main goal was to grow plants in every available space with every available container.

It took us nearly three days to realize that we’d been so busy getting everything prepared for the long stay that none of us had even thought to go outside.

Obviously, at that point we could have just opened the hatch of the dome and walked outside — after all we were in Hawaii, not on Mars. But part of the exercise required that we suspend disbelief. It helped that in preparation for the mission, we’d never been to the site of the simulation beforehand. Which is why it wasn’t as difficult to pretend that we were on Mars and not on Earth. Putting on a spacesuit to explore the the slopes of the volcano quickly became routine, and we would go outside on EVA (extravehicular activity) two to four times a week depending on what we needed to do — including maintenance, collecting samples or exploring the area.

I remember exiting the dome for the first time on the mission’s 10th day. Because we only had to wear the spacesuit once we were outside the dome and because we’d never walked around in them before, the whole thing felt really weird. The suit added about 50 pounds and since I couldn’t see clearly out the visor — everything was blurry. I couldn’t see my feet, which made it difficult to walk on the big lava rocks beneath me. Away from the dome, some of the surfaces were smooth and some were giant angular pieces of lava. The location itself used to be a lava rock quarry but because of the curve of the mountain that we were on, it basically looked like a field of rocks as far as the eye can see…




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