Carmel Johnston, Commander of HI-SEAS IV, speaks about their experience of One Year on Mars: HI-SEAS Mission IV at TEDxCharlottesville Conference (Transcript)
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: One Year on Mars – HI-SEAS Mission IV by Carmel Johnston at TEDxCharlottesville
Carmel Johnston, Commander of HI-SEAS IV
I lived for a year on Mars. I was the commander of the longest NASA-funded space simulation. The Hawaii space exploration, analog and simulation, also known as HI-SEAS, is a series of space simulation studying the effects of isolation and confinement on human beings. This is so we can better prepare ourselves for future missions into deep space.
The first two missions were four months each, the third was eight months and my mission was 366 days thanks to a leap year. The dome we lived in was very small. My bedroom was half the size of this circle. The rest of the dome began here. We had a bathroom, a BioLab, a kitchen, a telemetry room, a common space and then a wall. Nothing was ever further than five steps away from wall, all the time. We joked that our bedrooms were five steps away from the kitchen.
I shared this space with five other people for an entire year. Yes, we all volunteered to do this, and to spoil the ending, we all came out alive.
So this is what the dome looks like. In the front we have a solar panel array. This is able to generate all the power that we’re going to need for the entire day. Some of that power is stored in batteries which we use during the night time to get us through the evening and to the next day when hopefully we have sunshine again.
On the side of the dome, we also have a shipping container. This is what houses all of our food. The way a food resupply worked for us was that mission support would send us food once every four months. This required us to plan months in advance what we would need for Thanksgiving and Christmas. And then once we got that food, we would have to allocate it appropriately so that it would last us that entire time until we got another resupply. On many occasions, our favorite tasty goodies disappeared rather quickly because we were so excited to eat them.
Also, in the background we have Mauna Kea volcano. Now this was a really important part for me, a feeling like we were in isolation. In order to study the social and psychological aspects of it, you have to be both in total and complete isolation from human beings of any kind, no contact at all for the entire year. And you have to live in a place that looks like Mars. This landscape looks like Mars, and in the background looking at Mauna Kea volcano every morning out of tiny little window, it felt like I was looking at Olympus Mons, the largest volcano on Mars. This was just everyday you are on Mars and that was exciting. It was so cool.
There are a lot of restrictions to living on Mars. For one, you can’t go outside and breathe the atmosphere, out there it doesn’t have the right pressure and there’s other aspects to that for why you can’t breathe it. So in order to go outside you get to wear a spacesuit. Now walking on this terrain is difficult enough as it is but walking with a 50-pound spacesuit adds a whole new level of challenge.
What did we do while we were here? We weren’t just reading books and playing video games as much as a lot of people thought we were doing. We were doing research, active research on us and we’re doing our own research projects as well. One of the things that the researchers wanted to find out is how do we interact with each other. This is an image of the crew wearing a badge and essentially we wore these badges everyday and they’re proximity sensors. They are telling the researchers and the mission support team who’s interacting with who at any given time, what our heart rate is doing and what are the environmental conditions around us, what is the temperature and the light and the sound doing? And the goal of this is that when we send humans to deep space, mission support can look at data and they can say oh, these two people aren’t interacting any longer; why is that? Is that because they had a fight and they’re not talking to each other anymore? Or is it because it’s four o’clock and they’re all exercising? Or is it because it’s really really cold outside and everybody is underneath the blanket trying to stay warm. These are things that happen in real life. So everything that happened to us during the year is data and that’s really exciting.
The amount of data is incredible. We each did over 3,000 surveys in the year. We spent a lot of time — we also spent a lot of time doing research tasks similar to the tasks that will be done for future Mars astronauts. We got to go outside on that beautiful landscape and discover what it was like. We got to map the geology, take rock samples and explore skylights and lava tubes that future astronauts will have to explore in order to determine if it’s a safe place to live.
All this is so exciting but we have a lot of lessons that we learned from it. We can’t reveal the BHP research lessons but I have a lot of lessons to share with you. And most of them revolve around natural resources, communication and relationships.
So the first lesson is that resource conservation is absolutely essential towards living sustainably both here on earth and on Mars. This is key to our survival. We know that on earth we have highs and lows. We have terrible, terrible droughts and epic flooding occurring at the same time. We have wonderful snowpacks one year and then terrible snows the next. What Mother Nature throws at us we don’t really get to choose but how we react to that is really important,
A fellow Montana named Scott Buker says that nature creates dry periods but man creates water shortages. And I really believe that how we react to what Mother Nature throws at us determines whether we’re in a dry period or we’re in a complete water shortage. Our actions have ramifications both downstream and later in time.
Now, during the year we were in a bit of an unofficial competition to see who could take the shortest shower. This is what the shower looks like. I’m certain it was designed specifically to not encourage us to spend time in there. You want to get in and get out as quick as you can. And that’s the easiest way to conserve water and to reduce your water bills to take a short shower. So most of us were living with a shower of about 20 seconds to a minute once a week. You get any louder if you get out, that’s fine. And we held this for the entire year. But on one occasion, somebody took a 20 minute shower. Now we’ve all enjoyed that on earth, it isn’t quite the luxury and if you really love that especially after a hard day of work, nice hot shower there’s nothing better. But in a resource-limited environment, that is not possible. And what had happened was this person had taken five weeks worth of shower water for everybody and let it go down the drain. This was unrecoverable water. How does that relate to earth? We live in this beautiful place where we have all the food, water, shelter and atmosphere that we need. We’re here because we have the resources to sustain us.