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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars

Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth

Kate Greene

St. Martin's Press




There were clouds in the Hawaiian sky on the morning of June 3, 1965, and beyond them, two hundred miles up, astronaut Ed White floated through the hatch of his Gemini IV capsule and became the first American space walker.

His main task was to test a handheld propulsion gun, which would blast him to the end of his tether and back three times before it would run out of fuel. Twenty-three minutes later, over the Gulf of Mexico, White tugged on his umbilical and floated back inside the craft. Space walk as cakewalk, mission accomplished.

A year later, the second American space walk nearly ended in disaster. NASA wanted Gene Cernan to try out a full-fledged jetpack, built by the air force and stowed outside and at the back of his Gemini IX spacecraft. Cernan, unlike White, had no propulsion gun. To reach the pack, he needed to use the hand- and footholds bolted to the exterior. Bad news was that these holds were too few. Worse news was that Cernan’s suit was unexpectedly stiff once pressurized due to extra fabric to protect him from the heat of the jetpack’s thrusters.

And so Cernan clumsily pawed at the exterior of the capsule, spun himself around, and tried to grab at anything while barely able to move his arms and legs. It might have been funny if not for the mortal danger. Cernan’s exertions—a heart rate maxing out at 195 beats per minute and heavy breathing—overwhelmed his suit’s cooling system. Sweat stung his eyes, and his visor fogged. NASA eventually canceled the walk. Still, he wasn’t yet out of danger. Both he and crewmate Tom Stafford knew Cernan would have to make his way back inside on his own since Stafford couldn’t leave his post. If Cernan couldn’t manage it, protocol required that Stafford “throw him overboard,” effectively cutting the tether to close the hatch to return to Earth.

A highly motivated but utterly exhausted Cernan eventually did make it back—using his nose to rub a small window through the mist on his visor—two hours and eight minutes after the space walk began. Cernan lost nearly fourteen pounds.

* * *

Ten days after that troubled space walk, NASA reps attended a prescheduled demonstration of underwater astronaut training—a new kind of zero-g simulation—put on by a small NASA contractor. The founders of the company had been trying for years to get someone at the agency to seriously consider using scuba for mission training, but hadn’t gotten much traction. Now, however, NASA officials were ready to listen. And Cernan—who many suspected had his own panic to blame for the botched space walk—was first to sign up.

At a prep-school pool in Baltimore where the company had developed their training setup, Cernan, in a pressure suit, slipped into the pool and practiced moving around, turning knobs, and tightening screws outside a mock-up Gemini capsule. Impressed by the exercise, Cernan announced that compared to zero g, it was “at least 75 percent accurate”—certainly good enough to develop best practices and improve safety on future flights. Soon, other astronauts followed, and by the end of 1966, neutral-buoyancy training had become a critical part of pre-mission operations.

NASA still uses this kind of underwater training today, but recently the agency has also embraced an enhanced kind of simulation that goes far beyond practice in a pool. These simulations are called analog missions, and they are how the details of future human exploration to asteroids, the moon, and Mars come into focus. Analogs, which are managed by space agencies and independent organizations around the world in places like Antarctica, Morocco, Moscow, and an underwater facility off Key Largo, let engineers test equipment and play out scenarios that might arise on expeditions in deep space. But increasingly, these faux space missions are also used to probe astronaut psychology and sociology—the most unpredictable element in any human expedition—to study coping strategies potentially useful on a long journey far away from Earth.

* * *

In 2013, NASA launched its newest Mars analog mission, called Hawai‘i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. The project emerged from the interests of Kim Binsted, professor of information and computer sciences at the University of Hawai‘i and Jean Hunter, professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell. Both were curious about space-food systems for Mars and about the food’s impact on crew psychology.

In 2012, they put out a call for “almost” astronauts to participate in a four-month “Mars” mission. Binsted and Hunter wanted a crew who could technically qualify for spaceflight, according to NASA, in terms of education and experience. They were also looking for astronaut-like personalities which, according to Binsted, feature “thick skin, a long fuse, and an optimistic outlook.” Nearly seven hundred people applied worldwide.

At the time I was a science journalist and not necessarily an obvious choice for the mission. And yet I found myself on it. Between April and August 2013, I lived with five other not-really astronauts in isolation, all of us making various Martian concessions like mostly bathing with wet wipes, forgoing real-time social media, and zero access to fresh fruits or vegetables.

We lived inside a large, white geodesic dome off an access road at 8,000 feet on the Hawaiian volcano of Mauna Loa. The scene was very red, very rocky. Very Mars. There was limited electricity and water. We could only leave the dome wearing bulky, cumbersome, space suit–like outerwear. While we had an emergency cell phone, our sole regular contact with Earth was through email. And since Mars is extremely far away and photons can fly only so fast, our email transmissions were delayed by twenty minutes each way to mimic the actual communication lag to be experienced by Martian explorers. It wasn’t your typical Hawaiian vacation.

All for science, though. Binsted and Hunter’s main research question regarding food was this: Might it make sense to allow astronauts to cook their own meals once they’ve landed on Mars? Data has shown that astronauts on six-month missions on the International Space Station eat less over time and lose weight, making them more prone to illness and injury. One reason for this could be that they grow bored with their limited selection of just-add-water-and-heat entrées. The consequences could be dire on a two-and-a-half-year mission to Mars.

But what if, once on Mars, back in touch with gravity, astronauts could cook their own meals? They’d have to use shelf-stable ingredients, of course, but given enough ingredients like freeze-dried beef, dehydrated onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, flour, rice, freeze-dried cheese, cashews, oils, spices, there could be thousands of recipes. Might these novel dishes help astronauts regain their appetites?

In effect, Binsted and Hunter wanted to measure the importance of cooking, and meals in isolation more generally—how food affects a crew’s physical, mental, and social health. Imagine a homemade cake to commemorate a milestone—the successful landing, say, or a birthday, or a halfway point in the mission. Celebratory tacos, a vegetable stir-fry, fresh-baked bread with butter and jam.

On Earth it might be obvious that food is more than just sustenance for a body, that it plays a psychological, social, and cultural role, and that it nourishes the spirit and our relationships with others. But to ask complex questions about the role of food on a Mars mission and base a brand-new Mars analog around these questions? It’s pretty radical, actually.

And so, for this food study, which was just one of many HI-SEAS experiments, we ate a combination of preprepared meals, similar to those currently available on the ISS, as well as meals we cooked in our small yet well-equipped Martian kitchen. We logged the changes in our appetites and weights and took tests to measure our ability to breathe through our noses and to identify odors, all of which relate to hunger and food satisfaction. There were nearly a dozen other experiments too—trying out antimicrobial socks, tests of mental acuity, behavioral surveys, the list goes on.

We lived and breathed survey questions for four months. Four months of isolation. Four months of the same people, same seats at the table, same clothes, same smells, same routines, same view outside the one-and-only window looking out onto the same rocks. No sunshine on our skin, no fresh air in our lungs.

I truly don’t want to overstate the difficulty—we were never in any mortal danger. But there were some aspects of the experience that I did find trying. I missed face-to-face conversations with my wife. I longed for a change of scene and better indoor lighting. A swim in the ocean or a pool. A walk in the woods. A bike ride. And our crew did have a handful of emotional trials and interpersonal dustups. There were frustrated and confusing communications between mission support and some crewmembers, especially in the beginning. And then at one point, there was a real hurricane bearing down on us, though it juked north just before landfall.

Also: brief power outages, annoyance over chores, those multitudes of daily research questions, personal insecurities, relationship issues back home, high-altitude living, only eight minutes of shower time each week, sleep deprivation, a strained plumbing system that put the toilets out of commission and required us to shit in trash bag–lined buckets, frustrations with our simulated space suits, awkward social interactions, and a creeping sense of torpor as the mission wore on.

But in the grand scheme of things, no, it was not in fact hard to pretend to be an astronaut on Mars. There were no life-or-death decisions, not even close. And, besides, I had signed up for it, we all had. It’s kind of amazing what, given the right context cues, can feel normal pretty fast. Though of course there’s really nothing normal about six adults making believe they live on another planet.

* * *

I didn’t know it at the time, but over the years, I have come to realize this: Mars changed me. The science of that mission spilled over and mixed with the personal experience of the project. The survey questions of the quotidian like, how hungry are you? How full? Who did you interact with the most today? The least? What was the best thing about your day? What was the worst? somehow began to feel like larger inquiries relevant not just to an astronaut on a space mission, but to me, personally, or to anyone.

Issues like communal versus individual food stores, how to divvy up chores, whom you trust and how much, how to behave when privacy is at a premium, when resources are scarce, and what kind of problem-solving approaches to take seemed, in the context of a small space with a fixed group of people, mostly domestic. But then you think about it. These are exactly the issues that are relevant to larger communities, to nations, and the entire world. Somehow the research questions on an imagined Mars mission began to sprawl beyond their intended bounds. I could see how they were about everything and all of us.

And, as expected, while I was away on Mars my home changed as well. When an astronaut comes back, Earth isn’t where it was. The whole system has shifted from underneath and all around, which is of course just the imperceptible hurtling of our local galactic arm. “There is no there there,” as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, which as an adult she found unrecognizable from the city of her childhood. It’s like anything, though. You leave and come back, and home isn’t what it was. But sometimes leaving is the only way to know it was ever home in the first place.

* * *

In the days and weeks after returning to Earth, my crew and I ate fresh fruits and vegetables that crunched in our mouths, we swam in the ocean, and we debriefed with Binsted, sharing some of our more personal and poignant observations during the mission, all in service, we believed, of a better imagined future trip to Mars. Those early days back home are something of a blur, though I do recall the intensity of certain sensations. Loud noises easily startled me. It took days for me to not actively notice even the slightest breeze on my skin.

For a long time too, I struggled to find the best way to convey my HI-SEAS experience. I avoided the immediate media flurry, the phone and television interviews. I simply couldn’t find the sound bites. I had come into the experiment as a journalist and as a kind of citizen-scientist. But the data was far from analyzed and requests for more formal, journalistic accounts of the experience didn’t sit well with me. Most news reporting aims for a kind of objectivity and to tell a story with singular authority. But to me, the story of my Mars felt shifty, my telling of it variable. I could answer some of the questions, sometimes, and often awkwardly, but I didn’t feel comfortable saying I knew what any of it really meant. And it wasn’t just about what happened on the mission or inside the dome. It’s reverberated out, touching everything in my life. HI-SEAS did indeed change what I think about space exploration. But it also helped me to pay more attention, generally. I’m talking about my relationships here, to people and to my home planet that, I must admit, I never saw with as much clarity as I did in those first few weeks immediately after the mission ended.

In the years since, I’ve become a stranger in many ways to the person who first entered that Mars dome on Mauna Loa. I write less journalism, more essays and poetry—more interested, I suppose, in the subjective and associative, in mystery and in looking at a thing from the side rather than straight on. I’ve changed jobs, gone back to school, and moved across the country. I’ve made and lost friends. My oldest brother has died. My long relationship with my wife has ended, and I am, for the first time in fourteen years, living on my own, thinking a lot about the meaning of home, the meaning of exploration and isolation, of collaboration and partnership, of the various ways stories are told, and of beginnings and ends.

Meanwhile, the world now is very different from the one of my Mars 2013 mission, politically, socially, environmentally. People have access to ever more information, an immense flow. It’s an important time to be paying attention. But it’s perhaps even more important to think about how we pay attention and to what, exactly. The essayist John D’Agata has said, about information and its ready availability: “We can just pile up data after data after data and arm ourselves with facts and yet still not be able to answer the questions that we have.”

Because of analogs like HI-SEAS, scientists and engineers are amassing plenty of data to design a safer, better mission beyond low-earth orbit. But the push to go farther into space has left me wondering what assumptions get built into space systems and mission designs. I’m also wondering more about the assumptions that drive us to want to go in the first place.

What is it exactly, that propels us up and out? Is it competition? With whom? Species propagation? Is it commerce? Curiosity? Boredom? Fear of death? Love of life? Loneliness? Ambition? Ego?

Historically, much of Earth exploration has been rooted in colonialism and subjugation. What kind of remnant legacies and unexamined assumptions thread through today’s discussions to colonize Mars? And if there is ever a human mission to Mars, who gets to go? Who decides?

I wonder too, hopefully not too naïvely, if there might be ways that traveling to another planet could help shape our perspectives here for the better. What if human explorers on Mars could inspire new ways to sustain our lives and ecosystems back on Earth? What kind of wisdom might launch inside those spaceships? What kind of wisdom might we grow here at home?

* * *

Maybe it’s not surprising that over the past few years, I’ve come up with more questions than answers. And I’ve seen that it matters a great deal how those questions are framed. How long is the tether? Where are the foot- and handholds? It takes practice, various approaches, thoughtfulness. Now, perhaps more than ever, conversations about space exploration are opening up to new ideas and complexities. The Earth is heating and crowding, resources are increasingly unevenly distributed, and there’s a sense that, at least among some people, there should be a plan-B planet. At the same time, NASA’s announced a roadmap back to the moon as a stepping-stone to Mars. And though behind schedule, there’s a spacecraft and a heavy-launch rocket system gearing up for both journeys, to span the gap, and then some, created in 2011 when the space shuttle was retired.

Meanwhile, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are making steady progress on relatively cheap, reusable rockets as well as offering tantalizing concepts and economics for transport systems to the moon and Mars. Major space agencies from all over the world have either sent or will be sending robotic missions to the Red Planet soon. The summer of 2020 is a big one: NASA, China, and the European Space Agency, in partnership with the Russian program Roscosmos, and the United Arab Emirates all plan to send rovers, orbiters, or static landers.

What does this emerging competition and collaboration—commercial and international—mean for space exploration in general? For Mars expeditions, specifically? What does it mean for those of us watching from Earth?

A journey of hundreds of millions of miles begins with tests, attempts, and approximations. It’s built on data and observation, propelled by the grace of exemplary engineering, huge sums of money, and uncommon political and social will. These essays were born of an experience on a project that aims to help NASA get astronauts to Mars. They are an attempt to explore aspirations of becoming an interplanetary species—an examination of science, culture, and self—and to contend with complicated questions of who we, in our complexity, might be right now as creatures on this Earth and in space, poised on the edge, readying for launch.

Copyright © 2020 by Kate Greene.