Isolation

Isolation

Imagine that one day you are in the habitat and get up in the morning in a windowless pie-slice shaped room. You walk downstairs ready to start your Martian morning and say hello to a crewmember walking in the opposite direction. They seem upset with you for a reason you’re not aware of and they look away without a response. It stings, but you compartmentalize it. After all, there’s a day’s work ahead. Perhaps you even convince myself they simply didn’t hear.

You turn the corner towards the kitchen to find two crewmates having a conversation. They smile politely, but walk away immediately in order to continue a private conversation that you inadvertently walked in on.

You pour yourself a cup of coffee as you cycle through the day’s to-do list in your mind.

“Let’s see…there’s some cleaning, some emails to send, and Ah!- my experiment! I need to run that today”, you think to yourself.

Prioritizing your tasks, you head towards the lab. You pass one more crewmember typing furiously away at their computer. “Good morning”, you say. Their focus goes unbroken and they don’t notice the words.

Never mind the miles of dust and rock, or the lack of Social Media.

That is isolation.

Perhaps isolation can be measured by the amount you feel that you’re back in junior high school. Remember junior high? It’s that time period in people’s lives that older folks sometimes say, “That was the best time of my life” and “Life was simpler then”. Only one problem – absolutely none of that should be true for any healthy participant of the human species.

Isolation is related to distance – not to cities and stores, nor to cell towers and wireless reception. It’s related to the perception of distance between ourselves and others. I believe that to be in true whether you’re on a space mission or not. After all, it’s a defining role in relationships. “Were you close to them?” is even a common question after someone passes away. Why? Because social distance coincides with emotional impact.

I’ve said it before that I’m lucky to have a great crew that cares for one another. This mission has even held some of the warmest moments I’ve experienced.

However, being in this scenario does make me ponder on just how important those interpersonal relationships are on a long-duration mission. Balancing a proper social distance with every crew member is vital to the health of your crew which, ultimately, is needed to ensure mission success.

In some ways this isn’t that much different than with any friend / coworker. The largest difference here is that in the few situations where distance is needed, creating its physical form isn’t an option. The tool that’s left, then, and the temptation can be to create emotional distance. In a harsh environment such as space, that can be detrimental.

HI-SEAS is a psychological study, not a technical-based one. This is why we don’t require high-fidelity suits, just ones that keep us sheltered from sensory input.

The value of this study is quite clear once you realize that these social dynamics have just as much to do with mission success as many technical issues do.

And remember: If junior high was the best time of your life, you’re doing something wrong.

Perseid Meteor Shower

It’s about 4:30am as I’m writing this. The habitat has fallen silent as everyone made their way to bed after our late-night EVA.

We began our EVA at 2:00 am. With one crewmember opting out and fast asleep, I felt as if we were kids sneaking out of their house in the middle of the night. We went through the normal procedures before heading to the top of the ridge guided by the moonlight as our habcom communicator whispered updates into the microphone.

We were on our way to witness the Persied meteor shower – one of the best of the year. Given that we live on a top of a volcano with little in the way of light pollution in our middle-of-nowhere existence, very few of us could pass up the chance to try and catch a glimpse of the spectacle, even though plastic visors.

The girls made the smart choice of course, getting some rest and relaxation in beforehand. The guys stayed up playing tournament-style high stakes poker with now and later chips for betting and the ultimate victor getting the top prize – the last twinkie left on Mars. Snacks are high commodities here.

Eventually, we all found ourselves wide awake and suiting up in big clunky suits. A few minutes later, we were trekking together over our cinder cone ridge. There, under the darkness of night, it’s easy imagine being on another planet with red rocks crunching below and nothing but stars above and empty landscape ahead.

Within minutes of laying down and staring up at the night sky, the cliché stream of thoughts and feelings started rushing in. It started, of course, with wondering why this isn’t something I do more often. Then awe struck with the acknowledgement that every single dot in the sky is someone else’s potential Sun. Every dot a glimmer of hope for another form of life looking outwards, perhaps back at us.

Well, maybe not every dot. Some are planets within our own neighborhood that we could actually reach should we choose to and put the proper resources towards it.

Equally as impressive was the fact that I wasn’t sweaty. During the day, ten minutes in those suits is enough to start feeling like you’re doing geological research in a set-it-and-forget-it. In the chill of night, however, the shelter from the outside was welcomed.

Vote for me! / Health and Safety

Vote for me! /  Health and Safety

I would like to begin this post with some shameless self-promotion. In desperation to get as far out of the Earth’s atmosphere as possible, I have entered a contest for a WorldView flight.

If you’re a friend or have enjoyed reading my posts, please navigate to the following video and hit the hitchhiking button, also known by the youngers as the ‘like’ button.

If you’re a mortal enemy then go ahead and also hit the ‘like’ button. After all, commercial space is new and probably fairly dangerous, so you have a change of finally getting rid of the Joker to your Batman. It’s a win-win really.

Finally, if you’re indifferent -watch it anyway. You’ll get to see me clean my crew member’s poop within the first 30 seconds. Good stuff. Then hit ‘like’.

Basically, if I get selected for the flight I’ll be able to get some great footage for outreach videos, blog posts, and projects to help promote spaceflight. So, yeah – Thanks in advance.

Scroll down for the real blog post!

 

Health and Performance

During training week of the mission, we were called into a group area to receive our mission roles. We had discussed possibilities prior to the mission, but none of us, except for the commander (talk about an early abuse of power!) knew what our titles would be.

Roles included Commander, Chief Engineer, Mission Specialist Biology, Science Officer, IT and Outreach, and The Health and Safety/Health and Performance Officer.

As it turned out, I was selected as the Health and Performance Officer. I imagine this was probably due to my extensive experience in Electrical Engineering.

Actually, it was probably because of my experience in Biomedical Engineering, along with some basic operational emergency training. I was pleasantly surprised at how excited I became for this role in the next few days. In addition to basic medical training, I received a one-on-one training session for handling emergency situations where I was able to start thinking about group scenarios. It was exciting to look forward and consider problems that could occur out in the lava fields and to start preparing for potential events. Crew health would become a top priority of mine.

My regular responsibilities include managing our medical inventory and making sure we have enough regular-use medical equipment. In addition, I upkeep equipment we hope to never need such as our A.E.D. to make sure it’s operational just in case.

I also prepare outside medical kits for EVA’s – for whenever the crew leaves the habitat. With some essential supplies, we know that we’ll be able to treat basic injuries out in the field or be able to return the person to the habitat without breaking simulation.

One fun aspect of the position is creating emergency training drills for the crew. These include setting up scenarios such as someone having an unexpected leg injury in the field, or losing light and communication in a lava tube. Some of these caves are so dark that you can’t differentiate between your eyes being open or closed. Needless to say, if your light goes out – you’re not getting out.

Not without some help, at least.

Drills begin with training inside the habitat, walking through every step of the simulation together down to small details including notifying mission support. It’s important to make sure mission support is absolutely sure that its just a practice injury/problem. They can be overbearing mothers sometimes. I hope one of them is reading this. Maybe they’re one of my two followers.

After some run-throughs comes the real-deal, followed by a debrief. You would be surprised how much you can learn from a practice drill and how much post-mortem conversations help to evaluate what was done correctly, what crew limitations are, and what improvements could be made.

Having safety as a top priority has had some interesting consequences. First, I feel a kinship to Bones whenever I watch Star Trek. Secondly, I’ve realized that safety in an operational setting is extremely vital for mission success. A serious injury could result in mission failure or in a need to brake the simulation, which none of us want.

Recovery time alone would make the level of threat on a real Mars mission immense. Your fastest ambulance to Earth would take the better part of the year. That means a Martian crew needs to have the capability to handle medical emergencies. What level of medical emergencies is the real question. Researchers consider the amount of flights which tells you how many explorers you will have in a given period, general expected health of those astronauts, and time spent on a mission to try and make estimations on expected number of injuries over a time period. It’s kind of like being an insurance adjuster, but way more interesting. The key conclusion is that with enough time and flights, a certain number of accidents are statistically expected.

Human spaceflight is a dangerous endeavor. There will be accidents and losses as there have been in the past. However, if we dedicate the proper resources to it and learn from past mistakes, crew safety can be maximized.

I’m lucky here on HI-SEAS to have crew performance and safety as a part of my job. It’s a low-risk way to get a good perspective on how important that responsibility is, and that being prepared for an emergency is not something that can be postponed.

 

Rambling Reflections

Only one month to go!

It doesn’t matter if you’re home, abroad, or stuck in a bubble. Time runs away from us.

Forgive me for inconsistent blog posts. Writing has been a bit more difficult in the last couple of weeks – not for lack of ideas, but for the questions rushing in as the mission’s end approaches. Did I accomplish everything I wanted to? How can I get the most out of my last few weeks? Where will I call home next?

Even now, the little man at the back of my head is rattling off my day’s to-do list. He has the annoying tendency to remind me what else I haven’t yet finished just loud enough to distract me from completing my current task.

With home stretch in sight, it’s all a bit overwhelming. For the last 6+ months, I haven’t had a single Facebook update. I haven’t seen pictures of barbecues I’m missing or my friend’s child getting older. I haven’t needed to see how well an ex-girlfriend is doing or get tweets about what food a college friend is currently devouring on vacation. There hasn’t been a flood of news about the president to swim through every day. I haven’t attended a single party to witness my friends go through another step in the natural adulthood progression of getting promotions, moving in, marriage, and making little versions of themselves.

Instead, I have been surrounded by information, work, and people who are excited about and dedicated to exploration and science. Isolation has been liberating in many ways.

Having been away from all the input, it’s all a bit intimidating to return to.

I know the re-adjustment will happen quickly, but the question is what parts do I want back? That’s always a question that arises after living a different way. When I left Rwanda, I was happy to have solid internet back, but hoped I had the strength not to re-integrate into the mindset that checking my phone during a conversation was acceptable. It’s about choosing what new parts of yourself to keep, and which old parts to throw away.

The experience has given me some perspective. We’ve essentially created our own world in here, surrounded by things that motivate us to move forward. Things that I thought I needed or spent much time pursuing seem less relevant and important in my life simply because they don’t exist in here. I know what I can realistically live with and without. Without a basis for comparison through social media and friend gatherings, there is only my own self and actions to ponder.

Asking yourself what it is that you want is easy. Getting an honest answer, as it turns out, is much more difficult, especially when you’re surrounded by others and so much outside input.

Having been through temporary but intense experiences before, I’ve been feeling the mission coming to an end for a while now. While some would say “Well, we still have [insert time here] left, my brain translated it into half the time. I don’t even count the last two weeks because I know how quickly those days will fly, even for those anxious to get home. After enough adventures, one month sounds like a week to me.

Of course, there are things I am looking forward to at home – mostly seeing my little brothers and best friends again. But while other crewmembers are ramping up excitement for returning to the comfort of their homes, significant others, and salaries, I continue to search for my own meaning of comfort. I hope for a comfort that comes not just with familiarity, but with doing something worthwhile and with pulling my own weight in the world.

That being said, I’m also looking forward to chicken wings.

Need a Hand? Ask Mission Support

Need a Hand? Ask Mission Support

NASA’s Mission Control Center has a long and prideful history. Speak with people who work on console and you’ll find passionate professionals and mottos that radiate enthusiasm for the responsibility that comes along with supporting human spaceflight. Hundreds of individuals are always working around the clock to support the few elite individuals lucky and skilled enough to be able to venture outside of our world. I highly recommend reading the NASA and personal blogs of Flight Direct Wayne Hale if you want to get a feel for what dedication to the industry truly means, and what it is to acknowledge that the lives of others relies on the quality of your work.

Current Mission Control is essential for flying the International Space Station and is the crew’s main connection to Earth. Astronauts rely on ground for medical advice, operational support, and communication with family. While movies often show the front room of Mission Control complete with the stern but level-headed flight director, the truth is that each system has many more people in back rooms working to monitor telemetry and solve any issues as they arise.

In the end, it takes thousands to fly a few.

It’s important to note that working relationships between Mission Support and a crew aren’t always perfect.

Disagreements at work? You don’t say.

One commonly used example is that of the Skylab mission in which a crew turned off communications and forced a day off. In space, the boss doesn’t have the luxury of storming into your office, but this is ultimately a loss for everyone involved. These negative outcomes are part of the reason why analog missions like ours exist – to better understand psychological impacts of different factors on crew behavior.

Mission Support at HI-SEAS

At HI-SEAS, we too rely on Mission Support. Our particular simulation considers interactions between ground and crew in a planetary context rather than one in which astronauts are orbiting Earth, such as in the ISS. As technology has improved, ISS astronauts are able to video chat with their families, communicate with medical professionals, and speak directly to ground personnel instantaneously during EVA (Extravehicular activity). Although they are not quite on the planet, but they are still close to home.

Mars would have different restrictions. Due to the large distance between Earth and Mars, communications take about 20 minutes to travel in each direction. That means that the following conversation:

“Good morning, Crew”

“No, good Sir. Good morning to you, Ground”

would take 40 minutes to complete. It should be obvious that ground-crew interactions and the way conversations occur will need to be very different on Mars than it is currently.

Performing work through mission support can at times be wonderful, and a challenge at others.

As a group of engineers and scientists who are used to solving problems on their own, the inability to access information quickly took time to adjust to. If something breaks, there is no Google. If no manual or datasheet is present here, we need to request it from mission support. That means if you need a piece of information to solve your problem, your problem won’t be fixed for at least 40 minutes, likely longer. If Mission Support misunderstands the question and provides the wrong information, or if the crew misstates the request, then this time is doubled. This is all alright if your problem is minor, but if a crucial system fails, this can be a major issue and mean real danger on an actual mission. This is partly why Mars astronauts will need to be self-sufficient, extremely capable, and have a full understanding of their habitat systems.

Luckily our Mission Support Team includes many highly capable and caring individuals. They’re often able to acquire the tools and information necessary to solve technical issues in addition to things like news and entertainment as quickly as we need it.

Requiring asking for everything you need can certainly make you feel more dependent, but there can at times be a fun and useful component to having a supportive team on your side. Having people ready and willing to gather information for you can be extremely helpful and time-efficient. If you plan correctly, the delay is more than made up for by the research time that someone kindly put in for you and that you didn’t have to do. It’s basically like having a bunch of humorous people who are half-assistants and half-parents, helping you along the way while occasionally denying requests.

Pizza delivery is not allowed, Mission Support? What kind of spaceport is this?!

Of course, it’s also important to quell the temptation to make requests such as:

“I need exact dimensions of every type of animal cracker – STAT!”

This is because least one person on the team will find a way to create a comprehensive animal cracker dimensions excel sheet with the headings: Giraffe – Lion – Monkey….

These are professionals here.

The interesting part of working with Mission Support is acknowledging that they’re just as much of a part of the team as your crewmembers, and getting to know each one can be quite fun. Space people are often inherently interesting (and odd) due to an insatiable curiosity and wonder of the world.

Just like with fellow crewmembers, disagreements will arise with your mission support teams. Perspectives will differ, and conversations will need to happen. You’ll learn to grow and work with them more efficiently as personalities are learned and trust is fostered between ground and crew. Ultimately, you’ll get a lot done and hopefully have a laugh or two along the way.

Future Mission Control Centers and the way they interact with crewmembers will be quite different than the way it’s done now. Crew composition and necessary skill sets will likely differ as well due to the restraints of time delays and the inability to quickly return home. However, one thing will still ring true, even on HI-SEAS:

It takes many to support a few.

 

 

Loose Change

Loose Change

Oh, no. I just accidentally broke into a stranger’s home…again. Is the police on their way? Is this how my career dreams end?

This was a common string of thoughts that ran through my mind as a teenager every time I walked into what seemed to be an identical copy of my mother’s home from the outside, but was indistinguishable from the house I left that morning before school on the inside. I would mindlessly walk the path ingrained in my brain – up the stairs, around the corner, and into the first door to my bedroom. I would lower my backpack to the floor and let my wandering mind return and begin panicking at the realization that I may have walked into a strangers home. The second wave of shock came in realizing that this was indeed my home and that the now teal-colored room and bed with Portuguese rooster bedding on it was also my bedroom. It just happened to be utterly unrecognizable now.

This happened much more often than I would have liked. An entire floor of the house might be swapped with another, couches and tables in different orientations, or floors suddenly changed from carpet to wood or tile. This would beckon obvious questions: Where am I? Why is there a bidet and porcelain dollar-store statue next to my bed? When did I decide to replace my bedroom pillow with a microwave?

I’m joking, of course. It was a microwave-toaster.

The opposite is true in the hab. Here, things don’t physically change all that much.

Occasionally, we move a piece of furniture or workout equipment to accommodate new equipment or to maximize our available space as we change routines. Sometimes we’ll designate a new place for recyclables or where we perform certain experiments, but these are all minor adjustments. I certainly don’t worry about accidentally breaking into someone’s house out on Mars. If anything, I wonder how to react if a stranger wandered in.

Our external sensory input is limited here, and from time to time I get the urge to create something or fix a piece of broken equipment we’ve had laying around for a while. These can range from useful projects such as repairing a treadmill motor for exercise to building an Iron Man reactor replica in my recreation time just so I can wear it on my EVA suit. I have spent an entire weekend day organizing our workshop, making sure every piece of equipment has their place and optimizing the area for my 3D printing. There’s something comforting about putting things in order or making small changes that suit your personality, and I strongly relate with Amélie’s father from the French film as when he removes everything from his toolbox, cleans it, and neatly returns all the tools.

I eventually realized that all of the furniture moving around and structural changes in our house as a kid had nothing to do with aesthetics. In reality, it was a reoccurring, unfulfilling grasp for change. Over time, pointless clutter became more common than useful appliances. It wasn’t long before Chinese vases filled with fake plastic flowers became a main decoration in our Portuguese home. The itch to move things around persisted throughout the years – a new room, a fresh paint job, the couch against the far wall instead of the close one.

Of course, none of it made a difference. In reality, the change necessary was going somewhere new, or trying something different. It wasn’t about changing the house. It was about leaving it – Experiencing a new town, overcoming a fear and getting on an airplane, or even feeding pigeons at a park. It didn’t need to be grand, but it required presence.

You don’t need to be on Mars to live very isolated or never leave home. Lack of change -of stimulation – can create a stale environment. Human curiosity beckons for change. Our crew have a relative lack of change in here for 8 months. Some people experience that for decades.

Inside the habitat, the location of the treadmill matters much less than silly or introspective late night conversations during a power outage. The walls remain plain white and our EVA suits hang on the same hook after every outing.

Instead, the dinners change as we fake freeze-dried food hibachi, tossing spatulas in the air and catching them an embarrassing small percentage of the time. The weekends change from huddling all together like kids watching Aliens to participating in a highly competitive and invented human chair curling Olympic game. The outdoors changes by exploring lava tube caves just because, and the hab changes when 6 highly educated adults build a tent fort inside of whats essentially already a giant tent for a sleepover. We ourselves change as we understand how to better work, live, and play with one another because for this short time – we’re all we have.

The need for change cannot be fulfilled externally, and not all change is created equal.

NY Times Episode 3

NY Times Episode 3

I forgot to note that my big silly face was on the front page of the NY Times Website along with the “flattering” picture you see above.

Here’s the Episode:

I was particularly proud of this one. We were able to really get some of the crew’s personality in there and get some people to open up on camera. Below is a picture of the crew before the mission with the two gentleman we work with from the Times. It’s been a real pleasure to work with them – they’re funny, respectful, and put together some great stuff.

One of the journalists, Nick, is working on some interesting projects. Take a look: nickcapezzera.com

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The pre-mission crew with the NY Times journalists and a man with pink pants.