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Home » Carmel Johnston on One Year on Mars: HI-SEAS Mission IV at TEDxCharlottesville (Transcript)

Carmel Johnston on One Year on Mars: HI-SEAS Mission IV at TEDxCharlottesville (Transcript)

Carmel Johnston

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.

But if we’re going to go to a place where we have to live — where we don’t have food, we have to grow our food, we have to harvest our own water and produce our own atmosphere to breathe, how are we going to live sustainably doing that? We can’t just keep sending shipments from Earth to Mars. We’re going to have to figure out how to do that.

The good news is we live in a place where we already have it all figured out. We can work on running tests and trials of simulations right now in order to figure out what is the best method of going to anywhere beyond Earth and live completely sustainably based on the resources that you have there.

How do we get on the same page about natural resources? This is a topic that’s close to my heart but this is something that’s important to all of us. How do we get on the same page about natural resources? It begins with our relationships to one another. And my lesson two is that relationships are the backbone of moving forward, how we treat each other, who can get along and how we get along, how we move past differences is absolutely essential for us getting along on this planet.

So this is an image of two other crew members working on a construction project together and I think it really brings home the point of, does the person with the nail trust the person with the hammer and if these two people didn’t have the positive effective working relationship and also friendship that they did, I don’t believe that that nail person will be trusting the hammer at all. What we disagree about how we move past that is more important than any reason why we disagree in the first place.

The number one question we get asked as crew members is: did you have any disagreements during the year? Yes, we did. I don’t know if six people that don’t go through an entire year with having a disagreement with anybody, if you know of six people you should tell NASA because they really really want to know. How we move past that, how we are able to work together and speak to each other the next day is so important. And I think that the one thing, more than anything else that got us through this year was the fact that we had one common goal, we had one thing that we are working towards every single day. And that was that we wanted to get all six of us out the door at the end of the year. Anything that happened did not matter because our goal was to get out the door.

But what is our goal on earth? What is the one thing we all have in common that we all do here? We all live on the same planet, we all live here together and it doesn’t matter for 50 states or 196 countries, we are one planet. And if we don’t take care of this one beautiful place that we have, it’s not going to take care of us later on.

How do we work together? How do we take countries that are at odds with one another and start working together? It starts with communication. Communication is the fundamental basis of everything on earth. This sounds extreme but every disagreement, argument, fight that I can think of begins with a miscommunication of some kind, whether that’s not passing on a piece of information to somebody that was actually really important to them, or it is two people coming from the same point on an argument but not even realizing that they actually agree about something.

Now during the year we also had water resupplies that would go along with our food resupplies. And the way this worked was Mission Support would tell a water resupply bot that we needed water by a certain day and they say, cool, you’re going to get water on that day. And we said great, water is the best, we love water.

So the day one of our water resupplies came and went and we checked our telemetry and said there’s no water, what’s going on. So we went outside, first, maybe the telemetry is wrong, OK, we’ll go outside to see. This is what we saw and on the right hand side, there’s a little outlet there, and that’s outlet to our piping system. So we’re out of water. This is a half an inch below the level of our water. We are cut off. So we ran back inside to have contact with mission support, said hey, you know, we don’t have any water. Can you tell us what’s going on?

So on Mars, communication is a little different. It takes 20 minutes for a message to get from Mars to Earth and then a person on the other end has to decide to respond to you and then it takes 20 minutes to get back to you. So while mission support is trying to figure out what’s going on, we think okay, what can we do here? Like we’re cut off from our tanks, but what else can we do? Luckily we had been storing water in random places around the dome during the year and we had a bit of a storage inside the dome. We have been practicing water conservation, water restriction is the entire year, so we knew that we needed one gallon of water per person per day as a minimum amount of water.

We also have been doing things like extracting water out of rocks. In a place that has such low humidity we were able to extract water and be able to drink it and at our very very last case scenario we could distill our own urine. This was the bottom of our line.

So luckily we had hoarded away enough water in the dome in order to be able to get by and Mission Support contacted that — the water boss and they said oh my gosh, we forgot to tell you that the truck broke down. Like what? So they had forgotten to pass the message on to mission support, pass it to us so we could have several days earlier started conserving water at some point. And we just didn’t get the message and they didn’t realize how important that message was to us. That was literally life or death for us.

So communication is very very important. Sometimes when you live on Mars, sending an email is just too difficult. We had lots of family and friends who said we love getting your emails and they were so lengthy, and we felt like we were with you. But writing an email is just too hard. And like okay that’s how we do everyday.

But there are other options. So one of the things we can do is invest in technology that is different than email, we can work towards virtual reality or who knows what else is out there right now that somebody has some great idea about. The technology is advancing so quickly. I have no idea what it’s going to look like in 50 years, and I’m excited to see what happens.

So how do we bring this all together? How do we take the lessons we learned on Mars and work towards building a better earth? It starts with one person having an experience, taking that experience to form an idea and they take that idea to their home community. Now maybe that is you guys having an idea about changing all the light bulbs at home or turning all your toilets to low flow toilets, the simple thing is really they don’t even have to be big, they can be tiny but they make a big difference when they’re all compounded.

Now we work on this, everybody here, we’re all going to different places when we get out of here. We’re not going to be all going to Charlottesville. I’m going back to Montana .Who knows where everybody else is going back to? We all have a different community, we can take an idea that we learn to. We spread it across our communities and really what we’re doing is we’re building one earth, we’re building one community on the entire planet. And it doesn’t matter that we’re 196 countries, we are one earth, and we’re building a place where we all invested and we want to work together. Everybody feels like they belong because we do belong, we need every person here. each one of us is a piece of the puzzle. We may not know what the image at the end is, we don’t have the box that tells us what this image is that we’re reconstructing, we just have all the pieces. So we’re going to work together towards this fuzzy image and as we get closer it’s going to start to take shape and we’re going to see what it actually looks like.

Once we build a better earth, we’re building a better humanity and once we have the better humanity we can go to Mars, we can go anywhere beyond Mars. The opportunities are endless. We can go anywhere we want to because we’ll have it all figured out here first. We’ll have found a way to be completely sustainable on earth, we will be working together in positive effective working relationships. We will be communicating effectively and once we do that, man, this is going to be such an amazing place.

So what are the things that we can do? This is a great idea, what are the things that we each can individually take home with us? The first thing I want to propose is that we start with kindness and respect in the home. If you can’t treat your family members and your friends with love and respect, you’re going to have a very difficult time being able to do that to someone you have any kind of difference with. It starts with us treating each other kindly and respecting each other with the people we love.

Next is giving back to our community. Human beings don’t like to be outdone by other human beings. We like to be competitive, so if we start volunteering, donating our clothes, doing any of the other options we have to make our community a better place, others will follow and we’ll all be working together. It starts with choosing to make your choices, choose to conserve resources and whether that’s conserving water or any of the other number of resources you have, there are tons of programs out there and we can help you find programs that if you don’t know of them to help you make good choices out there and then be annoying, tell your friends and family about it and then teach them why you’re doing what you’re doing, because once you teach them, then they will understand better. It’s not just telling them, it’s teaching them.

Invest in the future, invest in the technology and I’m so excited to see what this technology goes towards. But invest in the kids, you kids in the audience, you guys are our future, you guys are the ones that are going to decide what retirement home we go to, but also you guys are making all the decisions for us after we’re gone and your kids and your grandkids, everybody out there is the future. And our job as adults is to give you all the skills and the training you need to make the world a better place. So allow us to help you to give you the skills you need because we want to do that.

Once we start doing these things we are building a better earth, we’re building a better community on earth. It’s so exciting and I mean I can’t wait to see what we do. This is so much potential. So I have to thank our entire mission support team because without them I would not be here. This is researchers, PIs, Mission Support, people that volunteered all around the world and my crew, because without them we wouldn’t have made it through.

And so with this team working together I’m putting it on you guys, let’s go home and make this world a better place.

Thank you.


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