Welcome to the Second Space Age

Welcome to the Second Space Age

Well, it’s happening.

We are now living in an age of popularized space exploration. We are, little by little, becoming a space culture.

When I first stepped foot in NASA and opened my eyes to the industry, this wasn’t the case. I may have believed that space was swimming in the minds of millions, but that wasn’t necessarily true. I was simply surrounded by the sub-group of people who were already curious about what lays beyond our sky. 8 years later, things have changed. While I witnessed the space community alter their mindset, NASA workers switching from an opinion that commercialized space was a deadly and dead-end proposition to claiming that it’s essential to the future of near-Earth-orbit transportation, I realized that changes in the space community tell little about the big picture.

According to one of my favorite forward thinking professors and Doctor of Future Studies, Jim Dator, culture is everything when it comes to space exploration. Hell, culture is everything when it comes to pretty much everything.

What’s needed, then, in a society where mindsets, opinions, and votes are guided by cultural paradigms, are shifts in those cultures towards space-faring aspirations. I propose to you that we are in the middle of such a shift, where ideas and dreams of discovering space are once again beginning to grow in the mind of the average citizen.

Don’t believe me?

After all, I’m surrounded by people and news that love space. Well then, let’s hop on the magic pop-culture school bus and take a look around.


Every year, the number of space-related projects on Kickstarter seems to grow. Recent years show easily funded projects including space-collector items such as gold versions of the voyager record sent out to tell alien species about our race, high-end watch lines made from flown Soyuz rockets, space exploration film projects, posters, music, and more. Nostalgic Apollo-era items have always been popular, but new space is more marketable now than ever. Examples include merchandising of the cutesey cartoonisation of Europe’s Rosetta probe or NASA’s recently successful attempts at minimalist-style art posters of imagined future missions.

In fact, the first phase of an actual mission to the Moon was even funded on Kickstarter! It’s called Lunar Mission One, and the cost of preliminary market and scientific research studies were funded through crowdsourcing. It sold opportunities to sequence your own genome which would then be placed in a digital vault deep under the surface of the Moon, along with a record of human history and life, leaving its preservation and ultimate fate up to the imagination.

The project aims to enable a real scientific mission to the Moon by marketing an idea.


Meanwhile, passive entertainment media provides us hints to these changes as well. Space movies and television shows are more prominent than ever. The Martian became a hit book and movie series, tv shows are popping up all over including a show about Apollo astronaut wives, drama-documentaries about trips to Mars, and movies taking place in the International Space Station. Video games have seen this increase as well, from Astroneer and Space Engineers to No Man’s Sky and Kerbal Space Program.

This isn’t to say that space hasn’t been a typical setting for entertainment media in the past. Now, however, more and more of it is rooted in real locations, based on actual plans, or include hardware that is used in real life or planned for future space missions. The Martian borrowed heavily from actual roadmaps for a Mars mission and focused on real scientific issues with working and living on another planet. There was no apocalyptic comet hurdling towards the Earth, nor were there Monsters hell-bent on selflessly ending the self-destructive human race. The movie’s premise is based on a dust storm that led to equipment failure.

The difference in many up and coming video games are that they are rooted in exploration itself. Instead of space providing an excuse to fight aliens and monsters in dark and lonely settings, we are beginning to see a wave in interactive media that require you to build and progress, solely for one purpose:

To go discover.

This isn’t limited to space, either. Games such as Subnautica have players surviving and exploring an underwater world on another planet. Increased computer power combined with individualized choice and capability becoming societal virtues has made exploring for its own sake the new name of the game.


Beer. Yes, Beer: The substance that makes your awkward self become more sociable at Friday night parties and think “If anyone took pictures of that, I definitely can’t run for president” on Saturday mornings.

Recently, Budweiser expressed interest in brewing the first beer on Mars. A marketing ploy? Probably, but it shows that companies are recognizing that space enthusiasts are an ever growing, soon to be tapped market. Meanwhile, Dogfish Head created Celest-jewel-ale, a limited beer brewed with dust from Lunar meteorites and served in beer koozies made out of spacesuit materials. Ninkasi Brewing Company created a beer made from yeast that was sent to space on a suborbital flight and created a beer called “Ground Control” using the recovered yeast.

Need I say more? No longer enough to get “high on life”, now people are looking to get buzzed on the Universe.

My World

Now, let’s talk about some observations that do come from my niche space world. Every single month (back when I wasn’t on Mars), my news and Facebook feeds would pull my attention to yet another space business, non-profit, or NGO coming out of the works. The idea of commercial space has taken over. What’s more is that these businesses aren’t (only) being created by people filled with imagination but no experience.

One recent company includes names such as Steve Altemus and Michael Suffredini, talented individuals who I was lucky enough to meet at the Johnson Space Center. There they were known as the head of engineering and the International Space Station program manager. They’re now beginning plans for the first privately-owned space station. Meanwhile, companies such as Bigelow are creating inflatable space station hotel rooms, while Blue Origins and Virgin Galactic are revolutionizing travel and tourism with rocketry capable of sending any individual to a place formerly reserved for daring test pilots for the price of a BMW 7 series.

Countless other companies are competing for space vehicle contracts, or creating hardware to minimize the cost of sending satellites to orbit. Google Lunar X Prize has teams from countries all around the world developing technology to get back to and explore the Moon further.

Commercial space means commercial astronauts, and several non-profits are popping up, providing training to young scientists and engineers in preparation to be the first organization to provide trained privatized astronauts. Spaceflight analogues similar to HI-SEAS are being created all around the world as people become more and more comfortable with the idea of interplanetary travel and settlement.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Is it any wonder that space is becoming popularized? The point in history that my life exists in is one of increased connectivity and globalization due to the rise of internet and instant cellular communication, work, and play.

Our world shrinks down further each day, with more and more international organizations and partnerships resulting in opportunities for young individuals to travel. My parents took a one-way trip from one country to another just to find work. I’m lucky to meet a person my age who hasn’t been to at least 3 for fun. Meanwhile, we went from typing in pagers to being able to message anyone, nearly anywhere in the world within the fraction of a second. This ability to immediately transmit information has increased understanding and curiosity within those who take advantage of it.

This technology increase stretches far beyond the internet. Virtual reality applications begin to grow in popularity, with total immersion into someone else’s real or imagined world becoming more and more realistic and desirable. Capable and well-equipped camera drones are now affordable making the feeling of flying and seeing the Earth from below as you soar around can be yours for the cost of a flat screen tv.

While this world continues to shrink, geek culture continues to rise. A word that used to coincide with images of getting stuffed in a locker is now a badge of honor, exemplified by the cries of desire for acceptance now normal in social interactions, “Oh, I’m totally a geek”. Somewhere down the line, wearing a Mario Brothers t-shirt became sexy and my generation of science and engineering friends started resenting the era we were born in. Again, this is reflective in media, with shows like the Big Bang Theory celebrating geek culture, the rise of hipster fashion, and those overly thick black rimmed glasses everyone in Providence wears.

How did jocks let this happen?

This change isn’t surprising either, in hindsight.

Our social, work, and private lives are now completely dominated by this interconnectivity. Jim Dator always says: we create our tools, and then our tools shape us. There is no better way to state the phenomenon.

I can attest to this each morning, watching my crewmembers stumbling downstairs from their recently ended slumber, getting into computer-position, pushing buttons and moving cursors for about an hour before acknowledging any other human existence. I’m guilty of it too, but we can always be brought back by basic primal instincts: a warm breakfast.

Evolution has always ranked the most capable as those who can gather and protect resources. Some of the richest, most powerful people in the world were ‘nerds’, or as we are starting to learn to call them: experts-turned-businessmen.

A software architect named Bill Gates changed the world and became the wealthiest man on Earth. Mark Zuckerberg simultaneously revolutionized relationships and marketing, making his one of the most recognizable names in America. Meanwhile, amateur app developers began making hand over fist with random social media and video game hits. Others learned to game the system, making money from unloading piles of technical garbage on app stores.

One software programmer from South Africa created a payment system called Paypal, allowing money to be digitally transferred from pocket to pocket, meanwhile transferring enough into his to put forth into motion something he only imagined as a child: owning his own rocket company. What was his name again?

People and The cross-over

Elon Musk. Elon Musk is a name that many people now know. His popularity, however, isn’t a result of his creation of X.com. Some may have known him just from his creation of Paypal. Most, however, know him as the man who has begun to revolutionize the space industry by developing private, reusable rockets that self-land on drone carriers in the ocean (and maybe those sweet Tesla cars).

Whether you believe in his ability to push humans further into the solar system, he has undeniably become a necessary symbol, giving a face of success to the space industry in the same way Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did to the computer industry. Perception matters most, and his legend is summed up in the fact that he is often described in the media as the Tony Stark of reality. This is true so much so that he was given a cameo in Iron Man 2.

Meanwhile, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a name that has also become popularized. He was recently on Twitter giving baby name suggestions to Beyoncé, can be seen sitting alongside of Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and was eventually given his own tv show. Who is he? A billionaire extraordinaire? A foreign movie star with a unique accent? An unstoppable prize fighter? No.

He’s an astrophysicist who works at a planetarium.

And he has more followers than you. Think about that. I mean, the man received title of “World’s sexiest astrophysicist alive”, a category that I can only imagine must have been created solely for him.

Ultimately, it’s a beautiful progression. Someone is recognized in pop culture for their ability to understand and communicate our Universe, it’s wonders, and our place within it.

That’s pretty damn cool.

Why does it Matter?

Well, frankly: I’m jealous. I’m also very excited.

I’m jealous every time I look at my nephews and little brothers. They are growing up in the age of the push towards space exploration becoming private and publicly accessible. They’re growing up in a time where it’s cool to be intelligent and capable, where living on another planet is something real professionals are working towards, and where the focal point of much of their entertainment is creating and exploring on your own terms.

Should any of them be lucky enough to have the heart of an adventurer, they stand a damn good chance of having the Karman line, 62 miles above sea level with Earth steadied below them, as a viable travel destination.

We are growing up in a very special, still somewhat hidden era. It’s not quite at the forefront of scene yet, but it’s growing and getting there. We’re inherently part of this era, but it’s up to each one of us to decide if we will be active participants and supporters, or bystanders watching the defining change in our species pass us by. We all have a choice in small or large ways to be adventurers and passengers, allowing our work and minds to float beyond the limits of our blue marble, or to stay grounded, eyes focused on our feet below while they carry us through already-trekked soil.

Regardless of our choice, it’s happening. We’re finally getting what was lacking for non-militaristic focused space to take off: not solid rocket fuel, intelligent inventors, or willing participants. Instead, we’re beginning to create the visuals, music, imagination, and mindset that will ultimately enable our ability to light rockets.

Welcome to the second space age.

Don’t be a redshirt.


Spelunking for Safety

Spelunking for Safety

“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.

Radiation Events

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.

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Lava tubes can be seen through their collapsed ceilings, known as skylights.

The Set-Up

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.

Skylight pic.png
Not all skylights are created equal.

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.

walking in a tube.png
Few things are more fun than turning a corner in a lava tube, not knowing what the next twist will bring.

The Job

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.

Round light cool.png
Total darkness and tight spaces means bring a light and leave your claustrophobia at the habitat.

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.

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This mysterious gent happens to walk up to you at night. What’s your first thought?

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.

Wireless Connections, Part I

Wireless Connections, Part I

I can picture his face vividly, the expression that so clearly read “Oh well” with his shoulders tucked into his neck and hands up as if there was nothing else he could do.

I have best friends whose birthdays I don’t remember without a calendar notification despite celebrating them every year, but I can still imagine in detail that complete stranger’s smirk as he cut me off, bullying me into swerving towards a highway barrier so that he could get to his destination a little faster.

The complete interaction with this individual was made up of a whole 6 seconds, yet he’ll hold the tiniest of places in my brain for much longer than I’d like.

Try and think back to your version of that story. Everyone has at least one or two memories with a random stranger being unkind in such a trivial or inconsequential way that somehow still manages to stick with you forever because of the emotion it elicited.

Alternatively, you may have similar memories of someone showing unwarranted kindness in a similar vein. One day in my travels, I was sitting on the side of the road in Costa Rica, wondering if the bus that was supposed to take us back to Nicaragua was ever going to show up, given that it was already 5 hours late.

I remember the way the local man looked at me after I offered him some of the food we had just purchased, the look of surprise at the uninvited foreign hospitality. His face is ingrained in a few neurons as well.

In our busy world, it’s easy to forget how even the tiniest actions can impact those around us significantly.

It’s not hard to remember that in here.

In fact, my first realization of this came long before the mission even started. Having known one of the crewmembers previously, I felt comfortable in speaking openly with them. During one phone conversation, I brought up potential hesitations I had about the mission, given some of the information that we still hadn’t been told at the time. I expressed this sentiment in hopes of getting their opinion on the matter, but it had a much different effect.

A few days later, I received a message from that crewmember urging me to only accept the mission if I was 100 percent sure and committed. The nervousness I had caused them could be felt through their words, and I realized that my innocent expression of thoughts set aside a chain reaction in another crewmember’s mind and worries.

The mission training was weeks away, yet I learned in that moment that any words spoken could have drastic consequences for my crewmembers and their confidence and comfort.

As each mission day passes and our lack of new stimulus continues to grow, actions become ever-important. Each one has the potential to impact the crew with physically or mental/social consequences.

For example, if someone decides not to respect the boundaries of power usage, we could end up needing to utilize backup systems. This not only requires additional resources, but necessitates several crewmembers suiting up, going through an airlock cycle, and going on EVA to power those systems on and off outside of the habitat. This loss of free time can feel very intrusive, given that free time is our most natural resource here. This type of thing can extend to something as trivial as not cleaning your dishes and leaving a pile for someone later.

Words can be equally, or I would argue, more harmful or helpful. Negativity invites negativity, and it’s an easy experiment to run: Start audibly complaining about something in the middle of the room, and I guarantee within 2 minutes you’ll have most of the room joining in, completely focused on the things that bother them.

It works the other way, as well. When someone takes the initiative to create a fun night, or surprising environment, you can feel the moods change in the room, as if the emotions themselves have no choice. Bring the conversation back to focus on solutions rather than problems, and you’ll get some smart, targeted ideas. Even showing up to exercise time with energy and attempting to be a good workout partner make workouts  more difficult and rewarding, which in turn improve crew health both physically and mentally.

In here, even your presence itself can matter. If you decide to retract from crew interactions, you’ll begin to define an unsustainable missing link in the chain.

If all this didn’t convince you of the interconnectivity of action and reaction amongst team members, let me extend an olive branch. Imagine for a moment that someone farts in the common area. Think about it, we essentially live in one giant Dutch oven.

I mean, really, I’m grateful that no one in our crew ever farts.

Brian Farted 2
Gas changes in the atmosphere are more obvious here.

Who Cares, Brah?

The fact of the matter is this:

None of this is any less valid out there than it is in here.  We’re all interconnected wirelessly.

Our words and actions greatly affect those around us from friends and family to people we pass on the street. We have the power to encourage and empower, or to degrade and distract. Small actions can have large consequences.

As any reader will know, I enjoy corny quotes. This one encompasses the thought well:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear
is that we are powerful beyond measure. ” – Marianne Williamson

Every one of our tiny interactions having the potential to impact on an individual, potentially for years to come. That’s not an easy thought to accept, like the inevitability of death, or the existence of Spiderman 3.

In the right light, however, it’s an empowering thought that you have more influence than you’ll ever be told. To know that simply being present in someone’s life can be enough.

How good of a motivator is that to be conscious of being the best person you can be?

Oh, and don’t cut people off. That’s a jerk move.

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.

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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.

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.

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.