“It’s our first radiation event crew. Let’s get it done!”
The Commander called out, springing everyone into action and cycling through their own mental checklist of responsibilities for this emergency. Five minutes to get properly dressed, I remembered, before trading Saturday night pajamas for trekking jeans and a sweatshirt. On the way out, I grabbed my pre-packed backpack, complete with medical supplies, personal items, and food. Downstairs, each team member was fulfilling their own obligations: Packing supplies, gathering flashlights and water, or powering down unessential systems. Within minutes, the entire team was suited up in the airlock with everything necessary to hide in a lava tube for several hours.
This would be the first time in the mission we’ve all been outside at the same time, leaving our home all alone in the volcano’s expanse. My excitement grew as we all threw up our good-to-go thumbs up and stood together, waiting for our decompression time to be over. After the seemingly long wait, we stepped outside, one by one, onto the volcanic cinder cone slopes whose familiar ridges and features were now hidden under the darkness of night.
On Mars, the existence of radiation events is a dangerous factor that needs to be addressed, seeing as it can significantly reduce an explorer’s lifespan. Events such as solar storms, periods when magnetic eruptions in the Sun cause charge particles to be accelerated and ejected at high velocities, can be detrimental to hardware and health. They can permanently damage human DNA.
In fact, NASA astronauts have a career limit on how much they can fly based on radiation exposure and a specific quantity of increased risk for cancer, although radiation exposure is not yet understood sufficiently well. At my time at NASA, we learned that several astronauts report seeing flashes when they close their eyes – an oddity attributed to high energy particles passing through.
Here on Earth, we are partially protected by the Van Allen Belts, magnetic fields that capture and shield us from harmful radiation, but solar storms can penetrate this as well. In 1859, there was a solar storm so large that some telegraph operators were shocked by their machinery while others could still operate the equipment even though the power was removed. A solar storm that large today would have serious consequences if we rely on any sort of electronic equipment for life and security, but I don’t suppose any of us do that, do we?
Astronauts living on Mars will need proper radiation shielding in their living structures, which is not an easy problem to solve, although there are some clever solutions being discussed including techniques such as ‘water walls’ made up of biological water and algae systems. However, events like solar storms with long periods of high radiation exposure, especially while out on EVA, may necessitate astronauts finding temporary protective shelters in the environment.
In our simulation, this means lava tubes. These large cave systems were carved out as a result of molten lava rolling through the geology underneath an already cooled and hardened surface. As we trek over the lava fields, it’s not uncommon to be unknowingly walking over large open cave spaces.
We started our preparation by studying our surrounding lava tube systems in order to identify ones that could sufficiently house an entire crew of handsome HI-SEAS astronauts and useful supplies. Lava tubes are accessible via large skylights. Skylights are areas in the tube where the ceiling has collapsed in, leaving it visible from the surface.
Not all skylights are easily accessible, instead offering an ominous visual of a giant hole in the ground with steep 30 foot drops into rubble. Others politely collapsed with gradual inclines, allowing volunteers in big clunky suits to enter inside the tube.
Exploring lava tubes is an exciting venture. They offer interesting features, from bubble-shaped lava-waterfalls that formed as the molten rock cooled to lava stalactites and large pits that hide their own little twists, tunnels, or side branches from crossing lava flows. These tubes can range from tiny crawlspaces to large open areas large enough to drive a car through.
Once we learned which tubes were accessible and useful, how to navigate to them, and what to bring, we were ready for our spontaneous journey to safety.
We all gathered outside in formation. This would also be the farthest we’ve been from home in the dark.
In one moment, we were gathered around the dinner table unwinding with stories from our past, warmed by pajamas and blankets while brainstorming how to spend our precious few free hours together.
In the next, we’re all standing in the pitch dark, jam jams and slippers replaced by hazmat suits and hiking boots. Instead of thinking about movies, I was now thinking about what supplies I needed to have strapped to my back in case anyone was injured.
As our hike began, our flashlights cast small circular windows of clarity in the jagged environment, bringing attention to large lava mounds or deep drop-offs in the distance.
Occasionally, lights would motion to indicate a difficult step, making sure no one would fumble or step through a layer of weakened, crumbling lava.
The navigator took care to get us to our destination safely, pointing out key areas where the path was essential. At one point, standing between two skylights, I couldn’t help but have my attention drawn to a large crater in the ground that laid prone in the dark, waiting for someone to drop in unknowingly, Wiley-Coyote style.
I took note of how nightfall turned these familiar volcanic features ominous, and transformed well-trekked paths into an area of magnificent desolation.
When we reached the target lava tube entrance, I shut off my loud fans in exchange for a rarity here: near-silence. The moonshine demanded my attention and remind me how much I missed seeing it, and I felt as I were seeing the face of an old love again.
I was also immediately annoyed for not having my glasses with me, noticing that the stars looked particularly bright and blurrier than normal – an unavoidable result of my scratched visor and over-active imagination, I lied to myself.
In a real fake-emergency, we would descend into the skylight and lava tube to seek shelter.
Our trek back home had me pondering the duality of the event. On one hand, we were on what felt like an epic adventure, the team working cohesively to safely traverse harsh and expansive terrain and to navigate home. At some points, either side of our path was garnished with large pits of doom and jagged rock, exposed only through using our equipment and silent communication with one another.
On the other, the night’s beautiful silence was intrusively interrupted by crinkling suits and the occasional joke about our only faulty decision in this adventure being the curry dinner we ate before entering insufficiently ventilated suits.
My view of the mingling Pahoehoe and A’a lava flows were complimented with a reusable bag dangling in front of me with the letters “W-a-l-m-a-r-t” stretched across it. Gosh, I thought, regardless of the growing push towards space, if Walmart’s made it to Mars, the future is bleak. I can already see all of the independent water and oxygen resupply stations closing, boxed out by unrealistically competitive prices fueled by underpaid senior citizen Martian astronauts.
My attention was then drawn to a single thought: What if someone walked up to us right in this moment? I haven’t seen any other human besides my crew members since the start of the mission, and I’m not quite sure how I’ll feel the first time I see another human when it’s over.
But it’s not all about me, of course. What would that stranger think? Imagine taking a walk in a seemingly deserted area and running into 6 figures in large green hazmat suits leaving a giant bubble. What would be your first thought? Government experimentation? Aliens? Quarantine area? Oh, the fun we could have.
I didn’t let my mind wander for long. At each step, each of us took time to check on one another and to point out hazardous obstacles. The experience reminded me that some of what we do here has the potential to be dangerous, but also showed how safe a dangerous environment can be when you are ready, prepared, and able to work together as a team with focus and care.
That’s one of defining factors of spaceflight – working as a team to tackle seemingly impossible challenges to explore, live, and thrive even in relentless and deadly environments. We’re pretty good at it too, considering the International Space Station has been flying and occupied for over 16 years! It’s amazing what we can accomplish with a little curiosity and a lot of hard work.
In the end, the night was one filled with spontaneous adventure, and a showcase effective teamwork. It wasn’t long before we were back in our jam jams, carefully passing around a bowl of popcorn hand-to-hand in the dark.