Halfway

Venus setting with the sun on sMars showing what it might be like to see Earth setting in the Martian sky

Today is an exciting day — it’s the halfway point of our mission!  Time can feel a bit squirrely in the habitat and for me, it often feels like the days drag on slowly while the weeks are flying by.  We have a highly scheduled life, far more than I might have at a typical office job.  Each day we know what our tasks will be and how our day is shaped from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed (formal time allotted for teeth brushing and pajama changing, of course).  This can feel reassuring and well-oiled on a good day or monotonous and constricting on a not-so-good day.  Honestly, I’ve had a mix of both days in the habitat, but generally a much higher number of great days.

I expected the most difficult part of the mission to involve staying inside.  I thought that I would pine for the beauty of the Pacific Northwest forests or the lake coasts in Michigan.  I do miss these things, but more in the way a person misses the vacation they took last summer.  It’s a nice memory, but it’s not your whole world.  Unexpectedly, the sMartian landscape reminds me of my childhood in Northern Nevada.  Growing up in the desert, you learn to appreciate the beauty in rock and sky.  When you have little vegetation, you turn away from greenery and appreciate the tones in the soil as they change from tan to umber to burgundy.  You watch as the orange of the sunset slowly fades to blue, creating colors that don’t have an easy name. You watch the shapes in the clouds as they roll past.  You check the mountaintops for blankets of snow.  There is plenty of beauty in desolation if you know where to look.

Over the past four months we’ve completed numerous research activities, filled out piles of surveys, baked several pies and watched a heap of movies.  I’ve filled vials with my spit and cut off chunks of my hair for science.  I’ve crawled underground in a mock spacesuit several times.  I’ve made crème brulee once.

I expected to learn a lot while I was here, and that has been true.  I’m a better cook and baker than I was before coming here, and I enjoy making dinner and special treats for my crew members.  Having a humongous pantry with a variety of food challenges me to cook in ways I wouldn’t at home.  I read a lot in my free time and have finished 10 books so far.  I write less often than I hoped (sorry).  I exercise for about an hour every day and hike a few times a week on EVA.  I am in the best physical shape of my adult life.  I’ve learned more about engineering optimization and solar power systems.  I’ve learned that cloudy days can be stressful if you obsess over the battery charge levels too much.  I’ve learned the importance of deep breathing to stop obsessing about the battery charge levels.  I’ve learned that it’s okay to turn on the backup generator because that’s what it’s there for and no you don’t have to turn off all the lights if the power is getting a little low it’s going to be okay it’s just a little cloudy your calculations are accurate please stop running them and go get a cup of tea (yes, you have enough power to boil the water).

I joke, but I am learning how to trust myself as much as I am learning to trust my crew members and mission support folks.  It can be hard to let go and trust in a system you didn’t build especially one that requires some suspension of disbelief to live in.  We know that our lives are not really in danger and that the outside air is actually breathable, but we put a lot of effort into living our lives in an honest and genuine way for the analogue.  We don’t want to cheat the mission or our experience of it.  It takes a lot of flexibility and patience to manage what we know with what we “know” about sMars.  I use quotation marks a lot to differentiate parts of the mission that are simulating Mars from those that we experience directly.  After four months, it can be hard to separate the two because in-sim actions carry real life consequences.  Having limited communication can actually affect how effectively you talk with your family and friends.  Real emotions can arise from the silliest mission related things, like an emotional high from getting the good snacks in the resupply.  In all, it’s been an interesting, challenging, hilarious and unique four months, and I can’t wait to see what the next half holds!

 


We’ve not only survived the first four months of our eight month mission, but we had a very exciting week.  I celebrated my birthday and we gained a seventh crew member: our betta fish!

Betta


The University of Hawaii posted a press release for our halfway mark:  http://www.hawaii.edu/news/2017/05/18/hi-seas-v-midway-point/

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4 thoughts on “Halfway”

  1. Hello from Prince Edward Island, Canada. The province with red soil, just like Mars. You mentioned your days are highly scheduled. How much time do you have each day that is not strictly scheduled? Time where you can choose what you want to do? How important do you think it will be for those on extended space missions to have some unscheduled time each day?

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    1. Ah PEI, lovely! Welcome to sMars!
      Our schedules depend quite a bit on the day. During the week, we have 6-8 hours of work tasks (research, surveys, personal projects, planning meetings, etc), 90 min of exercise, about an hour for each meal, plus additional time for cooking and clean up for dinner since we usually eat together as a crew. We’re generally booked from the time we wake up until after dinner, then we have a few free hours in the evening. We have some work on the weekends, but much more free time throughout the day. I personally think unscheduled time (or time purposefully scheduled for recreation) is vitally important. It’s so easy to burn out from a 9-to-5 grind even in normal life, but you’ll likely be working much longer hours on intensive physical and mental tasks on a long duration space mission. You will need that down time to “sharpen the saw” and come back strong for another work week. A mission to Mars is about two to three years in length – much longer than even the longest stint on the ISS. Resilience will be an important trait.

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