My Life on (Simulated) Mars

This is the true story of six strangers picked to live together in a geodesic dome, on top of a volcano, in a barren atmosphere chosen to replicate life in outer space.

My Life on (Simulated) Mars

Downstairs, a giant, half-British, half-Texan 32-year-old guy in a Hawaiian shirt is listening to death metal and making breakfast burritos. “Tortilla!” his voice emanates from below me in the dome.

Sunday isn’t my day to cook breakfast, so I get to stay in bed for a few minutes longer. Still, there’s no day off on Mars, or on sMars, as we call the simulated Mars-like environment where I am living for a full year. Strapping a grey pedometer around my wrist, I reach for my iPad, then my electronic badge. One by one, I gather up and put on the other various gadgets and gizmos that track my heart rate, location, and distance to other crewmembers as I go about my life, in this simulated world.

Commander Carmel Johnston (left) and Chief Scientific Officer Christiane Heinicke install a water-collection experiment.

By “simulated” I don’t mean to imply that sMars is some kind of virtual-reality game, theme park, or subterranean research facility. It’s quite real – as real as my home back in St. Louis. Only instead of a brick-and-mortar two-story on a tree-lined street, it’s a 1,200-square-foot dome near the top of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. For the past half year, six simulated astronauts, myself included, have been living, working, eating and conducting experiments on everything from plant growth to virtual reality inside this white geodesic frame as if we were on Mars.

If you have to pick somewhere on Earth to practice for the real thing, this volcano is a pretty good place to start. Outside our small, round windows, the world is a red, rocky wasteland of sorts. Kilometers of old lava, frozen-mid flow, give us a place to practice making measurements and taking samples undisturbed by the sights and sounds of other human life. Apart from the dome, the only easily visible structure is our own solar array. On our side of the portholes, plants grow under glowing lights, giving us the occasional fresh food to eat. The six of us were chosen for our skills, education and availability – Got a year and a lot of degrees? Have we got the job for you! – as well as our willingness to endure 365 days of rehydrated food. Still, we guard these growing green things covetously, as if we are dragons and these tiny tomatoes, sprouts, and blades of grass are our horde. In that way, and many others, sMars is a pretty good analog for the planet next door.

Commander Carmel Johnston and Chief Scientific Officer Christiane Heinicke collect rocks during an EVA, or Extravehicular Activity.
Commander Johnston (left) and Dr. Heinicke collect rocks during an EVA, or Extravehicular Activity.

On our version of Mars, everyone has a call sign. “Ace” is what we call our Chief Engineer, who has the Sunday morning breakfast shift on sMars. My call sign is “Doc Mom.” I didn’t choose it, but it’s a reasonable fit for a 37-year-old doctor from California who tends to bake cookies and stop fights.

The din of electric guitars gyrates the sleep from my eyes. “Morning, Ace!” I call through the door of my second-floor bunk room.

At this point, I’ve got every whirring, beating, blinking sensor strapped on properly. I stand up, stretch, and open the door to the second-floor landing. Walking out, I look down and see that the glowing blue-and-red indoor plant lights are already on. I start heading down the twelve stairs towards the kitchen.

Here on sMars, we have full Earth gravity, not the one-third gravity that we’ll encounter when we finally get to Mars. We’re not really sure what difference that makes on a long-term basis; no one has ever lived in one-third gravity before. But when we’re walking around on the hot, barren lava, taking rock samples or looking for a cave big enough to hide in during a radiation storm, we notice the full gravity. Our suits are heavier than they should be. The sun is hotter than it should be (on Mars, it will be one third as bright). If we fall, we land harder than we would in one-third gravity. It’s happened to all of us – to me, most spectacularly, while I was standing completely still. One second my feet were resting on the lid of a channel that used to hold rushing lava. The next, I was standing up to my waist in the channel. As I pulled myself out of the newly formed hole-in-the-ground I thought, “That would have hurt less on Mars.”

That was a few months back. These days, I can walk almost normally again. Today, as I come around the corner past the white hydroponics system that sounds vaguely like a toilet that won’t stop running, I say “Good morning!” to Tristan, aka Marmot, our space architect who sits at our dining room table, backlit by the glowing two-foot-wide porthole, eyes wide, curved black headphones in. I can’t tell if he’s reading email, watching a movie, or designing a spacesuit. Knowing him, it’s probably all three.

Without pausing to reply, Marmot puts down his electronic stylus, grabs his white ceramic mug, stands up and says, “Gotta go!” He knocks back the remains of his coffee – an excellent roast made in his home state of Montana and brought up the mountain during one of our periodic resupplies – and scampers off for the airlock.

Just like in the movies, Earth ships us supplies. Because it’s a long way up the volcano – not 150 million miles long, but still a haul – we beam lists of the things we need back to mission control. They do their best to pack it all up and shoot it our way via highly-trained humans playing the role of the robots who will do the delivering to real Mars. Not every delivery makes it. When you’re on Mars, micrometeorites, solar events and unpredictable atmospheres all stand between you and the nearest grocery store. On sMars, deliveries sometimes meet an untimely end on their way up the volcano. During the last resupply run, we popped the lid on a plastic bin containing the oozing, yellow-belled remains of several tightly-packed jars of ghee (shelf-stable butter). We deal with it. Back on Earth, you can make a stink when the bagger at the supermarket breaks your eggs. Here, we’re just happy to have something edible to rehydrate.

Commander Johnston and Dr. Heinicke take a break before returning to the habitat.
Commander Johnston (left) and Dr. Heinicke take a break before returning to the habitat.

Something else you learn to live with on sMars: people sometimes get up and run. They usually have a good reason for it. Earlier this week, seconds before we were supposed to start the five-minute “decompression cycle” that allows us to go outside in our spacesuits, one of my crewmates suddenly bolted out of the airlock. One minute he was standing next to all of us, walking stick in his hand, breath condensing slightly on his faceplate. The next moment, he was gone – back through the airlock doors without an explanation. That’s mighty unusual for an astronaut. The three of us still in our suits peered uncertainly into the dome. There was our astrobiologist, Cyprien, ripping his suit off. When it was off, he clicked his radio back on, turned to us and said, almost amused, “I smelt burning plastic. My arm was too hot. I think my fan was melting.”

See: even in the future, stuff breaks. The trick to our continued survival – on Earth and in space – is to build our society so that things can break but, like a dog that’s rushed into a lake after a ball, we can then shake it off and keep on running. When we decide that it matters, it turns out that human beings are actually pretty good at this. For the last fifty years, we’ve constructed satellites and rovers that survive years, sometimes decades beyond what their original designs projected. The Cassini spacecraft orbiting around Saturn and the Opportunity rover on Mars likely owe their twelve years of success to something called fault tolerance; the ability to accept new courses, unexpected changes, even failures. When Mir was still orbiting the Earth, it was said that any system on the station could fail three times over, and the ship would keep on flying. In space, we don’t plan to not fail so much as we plan to survive failing repeatedly.

Fault tolerance is built into every long-duration space mission, but you can’t build it into people. We have to program it into ourselves. Even if we happen to posses the emotional skills before liftoff – patience, open-mindedness to new ideas, foods, sounds, living arrangements – the key to the crew’s survival is to remember to run those emotional programs at the appropriate time. To execute the commands that let us live and let live when we’re vibrated awake by heavy metal, or when one of a crewmate runs away the instant we say “good morning.” We didn’t run after Cyprien, nor would it ever occur to me to go after Marmot now. We’re all here trying to survive. Survival means getting along. If someone runs away without pausing to explain why to the rest of the crew, you don’t waste a minute wondering if that person is being rude. You assume their space suit is on fire, until proven otherwise.

As Marmot vanishes through the white curtain of the airlock, Ace turns and walks to the pantry to retrieve the Martian version of a chicken: a metal canister full of egg crystals.

The crew sometimes EVAs after sunset in order to take pictures or perform maintenance work. After dark, the habitat, which is made from two layers of white nylon, glows from within.
The crew sometimes EVAs after sunset in order to take pictures or perform maintenance work. After dark, the habitat, which is made from two layers of white nylon, glows from within.

I watch Ace reconstitute the egg crystals and add shelf-stable butter to a heavy skillet, and it suddenly occurs to me that on real Mars, they might not have Sundays. That would be a shame. It would be a shame because Sundays on sMars are the days that feel most like a day on Earth. There are no cartoons or newspaper, but there is a bit of a sense on Sundays of being at home with your family.

Saturdays we get up, hop into spacesuits and head out the airlock before ten a.m., or earlier. Weekdays are designated for experiments – NASA’s and our own – cooking shifts, raising crops, habitat maintenance, media relations, more Extra Vehicular Activities (EVAs) and exercise. Monday through Saturday, we get up early, check the weather; grab some food, and get to work growing more food. We fix our equipment, clean our clothes and the dome, make lists of chores that need to get done, and call it a day. If the power is low, we ride our modified electricity-producing bicycle instead of walking on the treadmill. But generally, we do things pretty much the same way that people do back on Earth. In other words, living in simulated space is a lot like what living in space would actually be: a farm where the farmhands all have PhDs and an uncanny ability to repair space suits with duct tape.

When power is low in the evening, the crew often plays games.
When power is low in the evening, the crew often plays games.

I make the British-Texan his tea: milk powder and too much sugar. I’ve never met a doctor from another planet, but I suspect that their lot is a lot like mine. We advise, remind, cajole and even plead sometimes. In the end, the most we can usually do to improve health is continue to suggest viable alternatives. Here is one place where I haven’t even bothered, though. First off, I know better than to mess with a British man’s tea. Secondly, apart from Sunday mornings, we don’t have much around here to remind us of home. Our commander, Carmel, a 27-year-old soil scientist, brought her state flag from Montana and photos of her five-year-old nephew. Ace has a portrait from his wedding day and a miniature model of a Boeing 747 in mid flight. I brought my brown leather doctor bag. Cheesy? Possibly, but also highly functional. It doesn’t just carry all my tools, arranged so that I could find any of them in the dark while half asleep; it also carries my memories. I look at it and can almost see myself walking down a hallway in a hospital on Earth in a white coat. I can see my old self stowing it at the nurses’ station while I visited with patients. Here on sMars, it’s a luxury, even an indulgence, like Ace’s over-sweet tea.

I put his cup on the counter and take five steps to my desk to see what happened at mission control overnight. From my desk, it’s a few short steps to the airlock, and just a few more to the biology lab. In space, space is at a premium. That’s part of the deal: with being in real space, or simulated space. Your fitness as a potential Martian depends very much on your health, your view on confined spaces, and how much you dig a few critical things: rocks, plants, endless home maintenance projects, and humor. Humor is adaptive to deep space in the same way that running after a mastodon while hurling a spear was adaptive to our ice-age ancestors. By staving off boredom, a serious issue after months of rocks and plants, water restriction and things nearly catching on fire, humor keeps us going. You can spend two hours disassembling the composting toilet, literally raking half-processed human waste out of a bin with a yellow plastic shovel into garbage bags. It’ll be fine, so long as when you finally emerge with the bloated, steaming black sacks slung over your shoulder, as I did that day, you turn to your nearest crew mates and say, “I am the WORST Santa Claus EVER. HO HO HO.”

I am a simulated astronaut, and I shovel shit, when the job calls for it. I came to space to be a doctor, but more often I end up being a plumber, an electrician, and a mechanic. That’s the nature of the game. That’s survival. We survive by recycling everything. On Mars, we can’t even waste our waste. So what do we do? We shovel, and we patch, and we laugh about it. Laughter is a pure, concentrated form of fault-tolerance; a much-needed way out when things go wrong.

On the way back into the kitchen, I stop by the power display and check on our state of charge. That’s something else that sets Martians apart: living off the grid 24-seven. To live in space, you have to be down with consulting the power supply before so much as switching on the coffee maker. If you happen to be on a planet with clouds or dust storms, you have to check the weather, too. Power right now doesn’t mean power five minutes from now. When you live off the grid on one solar array, as we do, heating, cooling, refrigeration, and, of course, toilet fans, take precedence over treadmills, video games, lights, and, yes, even coffee. We’ve spent nights shivering in our bunks, sometimes, so that we can keep the fans and sample freezers running. At the same time, just try to run a major scientific enterprise without coffee and see how far you get. Fortunately, if it ever came to it, we could grind beans by hand and use the pedicycle to heat water. It’s never come to that, but it could, any day now.

During a pre-dawn EVA, the HI-SEAS IV crew observed the five-planet alignment of Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and, of course, Mars.
During a pre-dawn EVA, the HI-SEAS IV crew observed the five-planet alignment of Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and, of course, Mars.

Standing on Ace’s left, watching him add rehydrated bell peppers and cayenne to the eggs, I’m very grateful that this particular resupply made it safely. On some very primal level, not knowing what’s going to die in the next Earth resupply makes you feel the opposite of what most people think about when they think about futuristic space explorers. You can tolerate fault in your Internet provider, your car, boat, blimp, spaceship, life partner or power system. Wherever you are in the universe, not knowing where your next meal is coming from makes you feel very small, very desperate, and very human.

Leaving the planet doesn’t change the basic facts of our human existence. Rather, it highlights the strict limits to our survival. Anywhere in the Universe humanity decides to go, we will be packing along a set of near-inviolable biological and psychological requirements. We can leave the planet on which we were born, travel a hundred million miles, and we’ll still need what we have always needed: food, water, air, warmth, shelter and company. That last one – company – is as basic a human need as the rest, which is why the cadences of heavy metal crashing up the stairs accompanied by the scent of frying eggs is comforting beyond description.

It’s a pretty typical Sunday on sMars. After breakfast, I will set up a virtual-reality experiment, so that the crew can remember what it’s like to lie on a beach, or sit in the woods, or stand on a windswept cliff overlooking the sea. It’s pretty wild, actually. Your brain knows that you are sitting in a blue beach chair wearing a set of 3-D goggles. Your eyes are telling you that you’re gazing over the edge of a 300-foot drop. We’re not exactly sure how this is supposed to be relaxing. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s more about a serious change of scene than anything else. As I wander into the music-filled kitchen, I wonder in passing if anyone will ever sprawl on a beach chair under a pink-tinged heat lamp and watch scenes of Mars, real or simulated: the expanses of red, black and grey lava, some craggy, most worn smooth with time, the magnetic dust clinging to and caking the viewport as the scene goes on.

“Tortilla!?” says the chief engineer. It’s half interrogative, half piratical command.

“Yes, please.” I reply, looking over our selection of cheeses for the day. Andrzej, the egg-slinging engineer, makes two kinds of cheese that he calls “Phil” and “Geno.” They are similar to cream-cheesy brie. The commander Carmel’s cheese culture is a white lumpy mixed called “Chewbacca.” In the end, I reach for my goat cheese culture, a crème fresh called “Gerard.” The music morphs into some medley involving guitars with a lot of reverb and someone angrily screaming, “Up from the bowels of hell he sailed, wielding a tankard of freshly brewed ale. Arrrgh!” On Earth, I would beg the chief engineer to turn that noise off. In simulated space, we do a lot of strange things. We name our cheeses, our bread, and a lot of our plants. We compete for who can take the shortest showers. We debate the best way to build habitats and test theories over dinner. And we learn to listen to a lot of different things.

“What’s this one called?” I shout over the din as a new ballad begins.

“The Trooper,” he answers, grinning.

Sounded more like fifty ways to bludgeon an amplifier. But the theme certainly fits. “Cool,” I say, trying to think of anything else I could possibly say. You’d have to be in trouble to listen to this mess for more than five seconds. “Who’s it by?”

“Iron Maiden! Sweet, huh?”

“Yeah man,” I say, dumping eggs onto my tortilla, smearing it with Gerard, and bopping my head to the almost-existent beat. “I dig it.” I pick up my plate and look toward the living room to see if the other Martians care to put down their table saws, virtual-reality goggles, and bacteria long enough to have breakfast.