When all the experts assure you that something is absolutely, positively going to go a certain way, start making a backup plan.
It’s mission day 5. By now, according to folks in the know, the media should have forgotten about the six simulated astronauts in a 1000 square-foot dome on the barren hillside of a volcano somewhere in the Pacific. While we’re up here getting our science on, the world is moving on. Police are getting shot in Chicago.* Joe Biden is giving speeches.** In the Russian arctic, a group of scientists not so different from us is being besieged by polar bears.
The timing of this is uncanny. For the first few days in the dome, I didn’t feel like we were on Mars. We weren’t on Earth, exactly, either. We were in some sort of strange neither-world. Now, finally, it’s beginning to feel a lot more Martian.
I’ll admit: I was beginning to worry a little. During my last simulated space mission, there was no doubt in ANYONE’s mind: we were in SPACE. This immersive illusion was brought about by a combination of light, sound and rather impressive building-vibration. Back in April, four of us – an ISS vehicle controller, an air force battle commander, a ground controller for the Spitzer Space Telescope and me, Dr. G – walked into a vessel the size of two college dorm rooms and “blasted off” from Johnson Space Center in Houston.
When they sealed HERA‘s outer hatch, we sat down and buckled in. Through our headsets we given clearance to launch. This announcement was followed by the sound of stage one rocket engines and a low-frequency hum. Then, as the sub-woofers below the building went from stage one to stage two engines – these are the big mothers that really get you out of this world – the metal panels beneath our feet started to shake. On the electronic viewscreens, our only portholes to the world, the big blue bowl of the Earth curved into view. A breath or two later, our whole planet fit into inside the space of a single monitor.
We approached the moon at an impossible speed. A few seconds after I caught sight of the heavily-damaged yet hauntingly beautiful dark side, we were off again. Soon, on the screen at least, the Earth and the Moon were roughly the size of my thumb. Within minutes, the two spheres, one white and one sky blue, faded the black. After that, it was nothing but stars with darkness between until we reached our destination: Asteroid Geographos, the most elongated object in the solar system.
How we explored Geographos with our robots and space plane is another story. The point of this part of the story is that, from the beginning of that mission to the end, we were on our way to an asteroid. After that startling launch sequence; after seeing nothing but distant points of light for a week; after eating nothing but astronaut food; speaking to no one save my crew mates and NASA ground control; after doing nothing but preparing to explore a Mars-crossing space rock, every sense we possessed told us that we were IN SPACE. Our eyes saw the ISS fluorescent lighting. Our ears heard the echo of radio chatter snapping off of metal stowage drawers. Even our three meals a day, which we brought back to life with hot water and a syringe, conveyed to that we were hundreds of millions of miles from home.
For sure: but a few feet away, oxygen, heat and air pressure awaited. At will, we could have swept aside a few panels, found a door handle, and walked back into life on Earth. However, not a single one of us would have done it. Not because the illusion was complete, mind you. We knew, intellectually, that we weren’t in space, and not just because we had full-gravity. Sometimes during the day, we could hear ground control laughing at us through the walls instead of the radio (usually during spontaneous dance parties***). During the night, thunder would roil off the tin roof of the aircraft hanger in which our vehicle was housed. Still, climbing up the ladders every day – up, and down, and up, and down – being awoken by music from beyond our little sleeping bunks, being hailed by ground control at 7 AM, and then the delay that caused those calls to be fewer and further between, all started to add up.
On one level, we knew that we were still on Earth. At HERA, on almost no level did it matter one bit. HI-SEAS was a different story–at least, it was until yesterday.
Here, the psychological effect wasn’t nearly as immediate. Maybe that’s because we didn’t “blast off” to Mars the way that we did to Geographos. As I mentioned in my mission blog, we were escorted up the mountain by a small entourage of media and support staff. We walked in over a doormat reading “Welcome to Mars” – a gift from my cousin at SpaceX – and that was that. Game on.
HI-SEAS has a kitchen stocked full of Earth-food. There are no daunting metal ladders. Here we enjoy the ability to stay in touch with the world via email (with a 20 minute delay). So, for the first few days, things didn’t feel especially space-y.
It was hard to put my finger on why. Though our food was from Earth, it’s largely dehydrated. Our power and water are restricted. To check the area for loose debris before the hurricane struck, we got the crew into space suits and went through a 5 minute decompression count-down.
Was it the hurricane that broke the spell? After all, there are no tropical storm systems on Mars. For the last 2 days, the white fabric of our dome has been whipped back and forth by whooshing air. In spite of what you may have read in The Martian – and Andy Weir is the first to admit this – Martian air, even in a storm, doesn’t whoosh so much as sniffle at you. Nor is there rain on Mars. Meanwhile, on Mauna Loa, for hours at a time, torrents of water tap on our curved roof with metallic insistence.
Was that why I was having such a hard time being “On Mars”? The food? The email? The weather?
In the end, it wasn’t any of those things. The effect did finally come, at an unexpected time, in a totally unanticipated way.
As I mentioned, here at the hab, we only have so much power. Weather permitting, our panels charge from 8:30 AM to roughly 5 PM. As you know, thanks to historic storms in the pacific, it has been raining on an off. Yesterday, we had a break in the clouds that lasted long enough to charge our batteries to 100%. This meant that any extra power we made was going to waste.
I quickly changed my clothes and started putting it to good use. As I jogged, I looked out one of our two portholes. It’s the only one with a view. If you stand at the window and look to the left, you face up Mauna Loa to the observatory. If you look to the right, on a clear day, you are looking up at Mauna Kea and the Keck telescope. In that moment, though, no buildings could be seen. As far as the eye could easily make out, from where I was running, it was rough red rock and sky from our doorstep to the horizon.
Every few minutes, I slid off the treadmill and over to the power panel to hit refresh. Yep, still producing. Back on the treadmill for another few minutes. Run. Check panel. Run. Hit Refresh. Run. Ask: Do we still have enough power for this or am I draining the battery and putting my crew at risk?
There is no risk to losing power – not really. If we run out of solar, we have a series of hydrogen fuel cells. If we burn through those -as the previous crew did a few times – we have a gas generator. Unlike the previous crew, we don’t even have to suit up and leave the hab to turn it on. It’s all automated though a series of apps and switches in our sea can – a corrugated metal trailer attached to the dome by an airlock. If we were to somehow use all of that energy…we would be cold for a night until help arrived the next day. So, what was I afraid of?
Jogging in place, staring at the alien landscape, I realized, It’s the illusion we’re living. It’s the feeling that we only have the food that we have on hand. That we only have the power that we make. That we only have the water in the tank. After that dries up, burns through, runs out, that’s it. No more. Call it what you will – Mars, sMars, HI-SEAS, a really big, well-appointed tent on an active volcano in Hawaii – we’re living is as if we’re the only humans on this rugged patch of earth. And so we are, to a very large extent.
I credit my crew with helping to bring about this state of belief – not suspended belief, ACTUAL belief on some level that we’re out here making it work alone. We run around turning out lights. We save water from our showers and hand-wash our laundry. We’re raising cultures and plants for food. We’re being good to ourselves and each other, if for no other reason then, as of five days ago, we have no one else in the world. According to our own minds, on many levels, we’re it for now and for 361 more days. As precious as food, water and power are to us, thoughtfulness and patience are of paramount value until that hatch opens again on 8/28/2016.
Your state of existence, as well as ours, is fueled by what you see, smell, feel and hear. Input from your surroundings creeps in quietly and sinks in quickly, overriding any amount of logic you possess. That’s why magic (tricks) work. It’s how visual illusions function to fool you. That’s how we psyche ourselves into thinking that we’re safe in cars – or at least safer than in airplanes. That’s why expensive food tastes better. With enough sensory input, logic fails, or worse, runs backwards. In our case, helped us arrive at a destination hundreds of millions of miles away when we only left for a few days ago.
To question asked by so many readers – could we leave at any time? – the answer is yes, and no. The door handle turns well enough, but none of us would lay a hand upon it, except under duress. As we go about our day – hanging laundry, checking servers, examining samples – we eye the fluttering edge of our habitat and worry, vaguely, about the poisoned world outside. It isn’t there, of course. But if it isn’t there, why do we only leave this place in space suits?
* and **: Reasons CNN.com hasn’t run the video they asked us to make them.
*** Very few people can fail to dance to Kenny Loggins’ Footloose