Pulling Your Hair Out? May be a Sign of Stress.

Pulling Your Hair Out? May be a Sign of Stress.

Our lives are a composed of ever-alternating roles of scientists, engineers, and lab rats.

Throughout our week, we study the volcano, build and model items, capture footage of the area, maintain the hab systems, and more.

In addition, we provide researchers with a lot of data about ourselves.

One specific area of interest is stress and stress management research.

Most people have their own metric for this already, such as the amount of expletives you use in a day, pounds of ice cream eaten in an afternoon, or how often you forget where your keys are.

However, this won’t suffice for researchers who are looking to utilize their PhD.’s, using big words such as ‘neurohormonal regulation’, and ‘facts’.

Instead, these researchers have figured out some clever ways to measure biological responses in stress which may tell the story regardless what you write on a survey.

These techniques involve getting haircuts and spitting into tubes.

Let me explain.

Stress and Cortisol

We’ll start with an example.

Let’s say it’s a lazy Sunday morning. You’ve gotten out of bed, kissed your significant other, and are now holding a warm cup of coffee. Despite the snowfall outside, it’s the weekend so you stare outside the large window of your nicely warmed home as the snowflakes pile up, creating a pristine sea of white.

Life is good.

Then, without regard for your peaceful moment, the phone starts ringing. Your careful stride pulls you towards it, as you think of all the good that could happen. Perhaps It’s an old friend, calling to catch up on life. As you approach, the caller ID becomes clear.

It’s your mother.

A feeling of worry and panic begin to well up inside.

Your incredible brain, capable of seemingly infinite memory and imagination pieces the awkward, uncomfortable drawn-out conversation that’s about to come.

This same brain, the one that was evolved and adapted on the Serengeti, is now devoid of stimuli from ravenous lions sneaking among the grass for a two-legged meal, or venomous vipers diving from treetops. Instead, it’s met with the true fears our modern civilized society.

Fears such as tax season, waiting in line at the grocery store, or needing to go number 2 while stuck in traffic.

Come to think of it, that last one seems pretty on-par with getting chased by a lion.

You take a deep breath before picking up the phone. Without even a hello, a high-pitched voice on the other line continues a conversation that never started, “..And you never call!”

Cortisol, a hormone that activates anti-stress pathways to utilize energy and prevent inflammation through effecting the immune system, is released.

“RUN!”, your internal systems demand. “RUUUUUUN!!!”

We can’t run from this, you try and tell it. These systems are outdated.

More and more begins to build as conversations arise of things you did wrong 10 or 20 years ago and you receive  unsolicited statements such as, “I’m never going to be a grandmother.”

Assuming you survive this encounter, you will have had some increase in cortisol levels.

Scientists, or as they are less commonly known as: people, can measure those cortisol levels through several methods. In fact, they measure ours in two ways.

Here’s how:


Researchers have found that cortisol levels accumulate in your hair over time. This, combined with the fact that hair grows at a known rate, means that it’s possible to look at hair samples and measure accumulated stress over time.

If you have very long hair, then you have a much longer ‘stress history’ that you can look at and see how your stress has changed over that period of growth. This means you could extract this information and see, physically, what your biological response to stress has been each month.

In here, we cut a sample of our hair monthly, usually setting up a fake barbershop in the hab before eventually turning the scissors on the barber himself.

Asnley and Laura.JPG
Prep-time before trusting our hair to person of science.


Once a week, you’ll find a crew of engineers and scientists huddled in the corner of a large plastic bubble spitting into tubes. It’s every bit as charming as you can imagine.

As we collect our samples, a few of us that have practiced sign language try and say things to one another in hopes that they will crack up, while others may resort to funny faces. This potential increase in specimen makes for a more interesting time for the sample-collector. With each sample, our technique improves dramatically.

The secret is for going for the less intuitive ‘I’m still asleep’ drool pattern. (Don’t tell anyone)

Jealous yet?

These saliva samples can be used to extract much different information than the hair. Cortisol levels can be measured in saliva as well, but tend to fluctuate throughout the day, rather than accumulate over time. The idea here is to look at whether our biological rhythms change throughout the mission and how as we adapt to an isolated environment.


Stress research is just one of the many projects being conducted in here. It is, however, an intriguing way to measure and think about stress. Your body’s mechanisms for reacting to stress are active regardless of your thoughts or perceived emotions. Being able to measure that may be able to provide you with an understanding of your well-being and its ties to your performance that self-reflection may be missing.

All you need is to be able to drool efficiently….and a team of scientists.

Keep those cortisol levels low, everyone. Woooo-Saaaah…

TLDR: We spit sometimes, for science. We cut our hair sometimes, for science. People look at how stressed we are, for science. Could that cause stress?


What the Hell am I doing here?

What the Hell am I doing here?

That’s a great question! I received it from a friend a while ago and realized I should do a better job of explaining it here on the blog.

Why Analogue Missions Exist

NASA and other organizations fund and/or run analogue missions to study challenges that future astronauts will face on long-duration missions. (Ours is funded by NASA, but run by the University of Hawaii)

Right now, our manned missions are to space stations- large research laboratories orbiting closely to the Earth. For the U.S, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada, this means the International Space Station (ISS), a joint international project.

The ISS is relatively quick to get to in comparison to going to another planet. This means in the case of some emergencies, it may be possible to send someone down in an emergency.

But long duration missions, such as one to Mars, will take months, not days. An entire mission would likely be closer to two years or more, depending on when you launch (where in the orbit) and how long you decide stay. As you can imagine, this type of trip could hold some serious challenges both technically and psychologically.

That’s why despite having visited to the Moon, this challenge is very different in nature.

Analogue missions are typically held in different environments, often isolated and extreme. Some examples are ones held in the Arctic, NEEMO where crews live  under the ocean in the Aquarius laboratory, and of course, HI-SEAS on a large active volcano.

That’s right, Sebastian – Astronauts live “Unda da sea”, too.

These analogues and their missions vary in duration, depending on their intended study. Shorter ones are sometimes used to test equipment or operational procedures. How well does it work having a module that docks directly with a rover? How do you handle communications with several teams on Mars and with Earth at the same time?

Our Mission is more focused on studying us and psychological issues. It’s focus is BHP research (Behavioral Health and Performance). NASA’s BHP research looks at factors such as how well our team performs together, what variables influence that, and how our stress levels change over time. They are attempting understand team dynamics in order to decide how to select the right crews for future missions, to understand what problems may come up, and to develop mitigations and countermeasures for those issues ahead of time.

It attempts to simulate a space-like environment and restrictions. Examples include isolation- we cannot go outside, except in our suits and following all of the safety and communication procedures. All of our communication with friends and family are one 20 minute delays each way, making the following exchange:

(Normal) Person 1: “Hi, How’s it going?”

(Odd) Person 2: “I’m ok. Just living in a bubble on the slopes of a sacred active volcano”

(Normal) Person 1: “Bro, you really need to get a job.”

Takes about sixty minutes, minimum.

The type of food we receive is limited to shelf-stable items, and we receive resupplies once every 2 months or so for things that we need. For 8 months, we won’t see anyone but one another making our entire world be comprised of 6 people.

To my hermit friends, I can’t help but think this would be a treat for you, if you liked space a bit more.

So what do we do here?

Our primary task is to fulfill those BHP studies. This means taking surveys, participating in research games, and fullfilling geological research challenges around the volcano.

In addition to that work, we participate in opportunistic studies and research. Each of us is responsible for at least one personal research project, ranging from working with DNA, 3D printing, plant growth, environmental monitoring systems, and mapping terrain with drones. We also partake in or help with outside studies that want to use our unique situation as a testing ground for devices. The volcano itself is an area of geoligical interest with its long history of activity, and is where some of the original measurements for changes in C02 in the atmosphere were taken.

Our tasks are typically packed throughout the day and are updated via a scheduling program used by NASA on the International Space Station.

In addition to all the science stuff, we also get tasks related to upkeeping the habitat. This can range from dumping out the compost toilets (It’s a glamorous life), to vacuuming or keeping inventory. We also rotate chores and cooking duties each day, which helps with getting one on one time with other crewmates, as well as makes for some delightful variety in meals.

Lastly, we work on outreach projects. Some of this is filming and editing. For example, I film 360 degree videos for the NY Times, fly our droneto gain footage for crew use, and create videos for outside programs. Others have worked on entertaining film tours for children in different schools around the country, and answered some thought-provoking questions. We’ll also be featured on a Japanese television show soon because why not.

Outside of that, we try and fit in our leisure activities. There’s not a ton of time for this, so we are conscious of utilizing our time wisely. This ends up being very important on the weekends, where we hold special events and gatherings to make sure we take time to have fun all together which is important in developing our relationships.

The other major component of what we are doing here is based on our own personal goals, and the reasons we decided to apply for this adventure. That, however, will have to wait for another day.

No worries.

I’m not going anywhere.

NY Times

Given that we aren’t allowed contact with the outside world, over the last few weeks, I’ve been taking care of filming for the NY Times and sending over clips to them using 360 Degree cameras. These will be released in segments, and the first was put up today. The clips in this segment were all filmed by the NY Times crew during training week when we first came in.  My name and role comes up when the commander is speaking.

I’m the one in the yellow suit.


Clarity of Vision

Clarity of Vision

Our one real view of the outside includes the Mauna Kea Volcano and a landscape that alternates its form between several smaller mountains and a sea of clouds.

For miles, there is little to see but rock of varying shades of browns and reds. Slightly darker or lighter tones tell stories of different lava flows and eruptions.

The window in front of me pulses with the wind, and only a few meters ahead of my view are several stones piled on one another. Their geometry is just neat enough to project that its existence is the result of human presence, serving as a reminder that we are here.

We look over Mauna Kea often, admiring the sky’s warm hues behind it during sunset, or the way the thick clouds hug its base in the early morning. On rare occasion, we may find a rainbow poking through the mist.

The longer I look, the more I notice the playful trickery of the natural environment. It teases with beautiful views cast upon landscapes formed from past powerful, dangerous eruptions.

The fog and vog here roll in quickly.

In one moment, Mauna Kea can be seen clear as day, revealing whatever its summit currently holds, such as a snowfall-covered cap, or lonely observatories.

Within minutes, that clarity can be pilfered.

The rolling force of obscurity sneaks up. Its calm waves crawl deceptively fast over the land, one pebble at a time. Varying elevations of rock become layered, seemingly turning to strokes of a paintbrush before disappearing altogether. The fog’s movements are mesmerizing and deceitful, often managing to blind your view before you notice it’s happening.


And that’s how it happens, isn’t it?

In one moment, you can see the top of the mountain clearly. You are able to visualize its the clear paths and trails leading to the summit.

Your mind dances with options of how to climb,

not whether you’re able.

It’s only moments later that your path suddenly feels unclear. No longer can you see your destination, nor any path that may lead to it.

If you were already moving towards it, you may question your footing and doubt your ability to make it. You might even consider turning back altogether. Question your step long enough, and you may just lose your direction entirely, or forget where you were headed in the first place.


What’s easy to forget is that the fog clears just as fast as it rolls in.

And the top of the mountain always seems to be the first place to clear.

As I write this, I can’t help but have a phrase resonate:

“Have a clarity of vision, and a flexibility of process.”

Perhaps all we need to do, no matter the fog, vog, false insecurities, or temporary discouragements, is to remember that we can always picture the mountain top in minds. We can imagine its peaks, rolling hills and curves. We can visualize its grooves, each of which become increasingly ingrained with every sight. The observatories become bold, looking up to the sky along with us.

From our little bubble, I can’t see a clear road or trail leading to it the summit. I am certain there is no easy path at all. And though it feels unreachable from here, I need only to know it’s there, waiting.

I don’t know the path and will never learn the secrets of its twists and turns from all the way out here. Only when I tread it, step by step, will I understand its intricate subtleties, a necessary leap here, or a sidestep there.

And right now I’ve got my crew, here and now to be a part of. One step in the path.

I feel good as I sip tea by the only window I’ve been dealt, scratching a few words onto a pad.

Watching the fog roll in and hide the mountain top that now,

I am sure,

Is still there.

Hab Tour

Hab Tour

Welcome to the HI-SEAS habitat!

I’d like to show you around. Think of it like a blog version of MTV cribs, but with compost toilets instead of Ferraris modified for Shaq’s height.

The Airlock

We’ll start at our only entrance in, which leads directly inside the airlock. Here is where most of our suits and EVA tools are stored, including radios, flashlights, and helmets. When we need to go outside to do some research, personal project work, or repairs, it’s here that we suit up and ‘decompress’.

Airlock complete with EVA suits
Noggin protection is important when entering lava tubes!

Sea Can – Food Storage, Power Storage, and Workshop

Ahead of that is the sea can. It’s a cold, multipurpose canister of joy. To the left are shelves lined with dehydrated and shelf-stable food stuff. This comprises our entire food stock between resupplies.

To the right is our workshop, complete with tools for building, checking electrical systems, and of course, my wonderful 3D printer. I’m up for naming suggestions, but for now let’s call him Carl.

The Sea Can

Astronauts on future planetary missions (and future settlers) will need to be self-sufficient. With no fast track back to Earth, or even immediate communication with support on Earth , they will need to be autonomous during times of medical emergencies, technical repairs, and other contingencies. In some cased, they may need to manufacture their own parts. Carl here can take a model that I create or mission support acquires for me, and make it in real life.

Good work, Carl!


Behind the workshop bench are three very large batteries and power monitoring systems. These keep our power running throughout our day. If we are lucky and have a clear day with good sunlight, our solar panels charge these to full power during the day when our usage is highest. They will provide us the energy to cook and run our electronics for the afternoon and night.

If it’s been a cloudy day and we don’t get enough charge, we run a risk of losing power. When this happens or if we can forecast it happening, we restrict our power usage to just the essentials, like video games and Dr. Who-themed lights (kidding).

In reality, we unplug all unessential items and change our dinner plans require little to no appliance usage. In some cases, we need to use our outside backup systems. One is the generator whose power can be routed to charge the batteries some. The other emergency system is a Hydrogen fuel cell system that will kick in when the batteries reach a certain critical percentage.

Main Work Area

To your right is the work area in the Hab. This is where us nerds spend most of our day on laptops, doing work for the mission. This includes fulfilling mission objectives and projects, working on personal research, exercising our rock hard abs, or hosting special events.

Main area where the “biniss” get handled.

Around the corner, “UILA”, the watcher, can be found. She shows us all kinds of information about our habitat, including water, power, and temperature levels.

UILA knows all.

Dining Room and Kitchen

Connected to this area is our Dining Room and Kitchen Area. The dining room is where we sit down for a meal at the end of the day and shut off our work brains, where we have team meetings, and where rare movie nights are screened.

Dining area messy from a weekend day’s work

Naturally, our dining room also includes a treadmill, stationary bike, and workout equipment storage.

It also holds one of our only two windows in the whole habitat. On a clear day, you can see Mauna Kea in the distance. This is the only place I’ve lived where if I wanted to see clouds, I look forward.

View from the dining port window

The kitchen looks pretty standard, complete with a pantry and cooking utensils. The biggest difference is in the food ingredients. Chicken and eggs, for example, look a bit more like this:

Which came first? Dehydrated chicken, for freeze-dried eggs?
Kitchen area

You’d be surprised what you could cook in here!

The Outback

Behind the dining area is a skinny space. At one end is a laundry machine which doesn’t get much use due to their high water needs. At the other is a system of integrated sensors which monitor the habitat. Our crew has re-purposed the center section to be our “Garden”, complete with fresh growing veggies and spices.

Outback area, complete with garden


On the other side of the main area is our bathroom and lab, and yes, I did include a picture of the toilet.

You’re welcome.

Bathroom complete with compost toilet. Emptying this one out is a blast!

No hab bathroom is complete without a compost toilet. This lovely machine, I can only imagine, is state of the art, complete with a poop-removal drawer that I must empty out in about an hour with a fellow crew member.

Jealous yet?

General use is standard, except for needing to throw in a mixture of peat moss and sawdust after every use.

This bathroom also has a shower. We’ve decided as a crew we can take 8 minutes of showering. (Per week!) It’s plenty, believe it or not.

The Lab

Right next to the bathroom is the other potentially -but-not-yet-stinky room: the lab. This room serves as both the lab for research as well as the area that I’m responsible for – all the medical supplies!

Lab to the left, Med bay to the right

Almost Done…

Now we head upstairs to the crew quarters to find two things:

Another bathroom and of course, our bedrooms.

Here’s mine:

Where the Health and Performance Officer rests for good health and performance
The rooms are shaped in a way that only two bed configurations are possible (I tested this theory). You’ll see the slanted ceiling over my bed. Though not confirmed, I imagine this is an ingenious test space researchers are working on. It makes it so that when you wake up, you smack your head or elbows directly into the ceiling, jolting you into a state of alertness, and thus, preparing you for the day.

Clothes are stored in drawers and multi-purpose furniture. It’s also a good idea to use wall space here.


AAAAnd that’s it for the hab tour! You’ll need to leave quietly (We’re supposed to be isolated, remember?!)

This is our home.

I’ll walk you guys out now. You’ll just need to head out that door.

Oh, Wait!

First you’ll need to seal yourself in a suit, check your radio is working properly, and wait for decompression time and permission to exit the airlock.

Welcome to Mars!

Habby Birthday

Habby Birthday

Wow, thank you all for the  birthday wishes! (Mission Support included!)

It’s hard to feel ‘isolated’ when there’s so much love being shown.

I share a room with my crew for basically 90% of the day. Still, they somehow managed to pull off a birthday surprise, even planning a cake a week in advance. Given shelf-stable and freeze dried ingredients, tell me this isn’t an impressive space cake:


In the afternoon, the commander asked if I’d like to help make a video for our friend.

I should have been suspicious then.

Knowing the goofball our buddy is, I was excited to jump on board. We  started making our hab tour, making sure to point out vital parts of our shelter. This quickly turned odd as we began to spend a bit too much time things such as the contents of our compost toilets and the individual packets of dehydrated food. Meanwhile, in other areas, several crew members were ninja-running downstairs, hunched over with balloons packed against their stomachs.

Towards the end of our fake tour, I was led over to the kitchen to be surprised by my crew mates, kazoos and all, and a properly decorated dining area. At the same time, one rushed over and bombard me with a lei and hat which I was not allowed to remove.

While we ate, they all explained how they managed to bake and hide a cake inside a habitat. They secretly took care of baking while I was out on EVA in the suit, doing a task and they stored it in an unexpected place.

We ended the night with (research of course), but also a bit of clue and a lot of laughter.

What a thoughtful crew.

It’s early on in the mission, so the challenges haven’t truly begun, but I can’t help but think back to a friend’s presentation. She studies psychology of spaceflight and gave a great presentation on isolation once. Isolation doesn’t have to be in space, she pointed out, nor in a habitat locked on a volcano, in Antarctica, or under the sea.

Feelings of isolation happen every day- right on Earth. Maybe from friends, family, society.

Although we are on an analogue Mars mission, miles away from other people with no phone, google, or the ability to hug friends and family,

my birthday wasn’t very isolated.

Seacan Slipjig

Seacan Slipjig

There was someone new in the habitat last night.

Through my travels, I’ve met some incredible people that have opened my heart to parts of life I didn’t know existed.

It’s a fact that traveling is a no-brainer way to discovery and clarity.

Traveling in the habitat,however, means walking from one end of the room to the other. A solo trip means going to the bathroom, and those are limited in length if you’re lucky. International travel might be akin to walking to the second floor, complete with hostel-sized rooms.

So far, our time in the habitat has been busy, productive, and limiting in mobility. It’s been a joyous experience but certainly holds its challenges.

With a lack of diversity in our environment, and the absence of some of my favorite pondering spots such as coffee shops, driving, or taking long hot showers, it’s been more difficult than usual to have that feeling of discovery or creative sparks.

Fortunately, that changed last night.

Walking over to what we call the ‘seacan’, a part of the habitat which holds our batteries for running all our systems, stores dehydrated foods, and holds the workshop all-in-one, I stumbled onto another crewmember’s musical practice session. I apologized for the interruption, but they insisted that they did not mind, so I asked to stay and listen instead.

Before long, I found myself having lost track of time, sitting on a workshop bench, eyes closed, listening to the gorgeous Celtic tunes being cast out by the hands of a violin player.

Here, our physical exploration capability is limited, at least within the habitat. We have times to go out on ‘EVA’, leaving the hab suits, but it’s still in an enclosed environment. We are limited within a range by things like mobility and communication.

Instead, what I realized is that a lot of discovery here is internal. It will come from learning about our crewmembers, and from ourselves. Last night, I spent most of my day with the crewmembers I’ve been working with the last two weeks.

But I also met and spent time with a musician that I did not know lived with us.

The ballads transformed with each sequential song, some playful, others more serious, while I closed my eyes.

And for a few moments, I was not in a dusty old seacan surrounded by freeze dried vegetables, canned spam, and tang.

Instead, I was in Ireland.

Or I was in a good memory from my past.

Or I was having a creative clarity I haven’t felt strongly in a while.

I raced to write down thoughts as they poured out of my mind, a state of mind that felt natural and foreign at the same time, having come so often before but suppressed by a crammed schedule. I was overjoyed to have it back.

I imagine this is just the first discovery of many, and I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of my crewmates hidden under their layers.

There was a possibility of my being in Ireland, ‘back on Earth’, this year. I’m happy that I decided to be part of Mission V, and I couldn’t help but thank the Universe for deciding to bring the Irish culture to me instead.

Bonus: I’ve included one of the recordings, complete with 3D printing and fan sounds. I recommend a listen.