Exit Day

If you’re reading this when its posted, then I’m currently leaving the hab. No really – check the news! I’m leaving, and I don’t even have a suit on.

Yesterday was our last day in the habitat. I laid down by the window after the crew had gone to bed and tried to predict what the next morning would be like – hearing footsteps and chatter from news reporters and mission management setting up for our ‘release’. By the end of the night my emotional currency was well spent and processing everything wasn’t an option.

Instead I thought of a story I read somewhere once. It was about a young child walking out of the grocery store with his mother. Innocently he asked, “Why does the sign say exit”

“Well, because we’re leaving, honey” the mom replied.

” But aren’t we entering the world?”

I’ve thought about that story many times this week. Now our crew is re-entering the world.

Some said we were crazy to step out of that world.

Now I’m waiting to say goodbye to a simpler, focused life here. A part of me isn’t ready to let it go. Another part of me is ready and just watching the clock count down. And instead of going to sleep, I write – sheltered by the habitat canvas blowing softly in the wind and in the silence of miles of empty lava fields around me.

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Cursed Rocks and Lava Bombs

Cursed Rocks and Lava Bombs

Pictures are funny things. Despised in some cultures and adored in others, pictures are an incredible invention that’s taken for granted. We have the ability at any moment, to capture that moment simply by understanding the physical laws of our world.

I’ve gone through several phases with taking images as I’ve grown up. At certain points of my life, I refused to take any, convinced that being in the moment was impossible without it. At others, I viewed the world mostly through a lens, desperately trying to keep a moment forever. I’ve even gone on a completely photo-free trip, wanting it to solely be shared by myself and my companion.

Recently, I gave myself a small writing assignment. I sat in each room in the habitat and wrote freely about everything I saw. Unsurprisingly, stories, memories, and moments began making their way to the surface of my mind. Still, some details caught my eye. Even after a nearly a year spent in a single building, there were details to be discovered.

This exercise caused me to photograph everything I could. This time, I didn’t nicely frame the images or worry about lighting. It didn’t matter if my ‘subjects’ were centered. Instead, I wanted comprehensive coverage – photographing every nook and cranny of the habitat I possibly could.

And what both of these exercises taught me was that when your whole world – work, family, friends, hobbies- is crammed into one location, every item is tied to a network of neurons. Each snapped photo came with a complementary platter of thoughts and memories:

*snap* – a photo of the pantry reveals a bag of whey protein. Attached to it are memories of the crew doing p90x, jumping up and down synchronously while trying to fight the urge to rest and the urge to laugh at a funny exclamation someone made in desperation. A song plays loudly in my head: “This ___ is Bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S”. I remember hearing its bass through the hab canvas and watching the crew dancing around on the other side of our small port window. Their excitement was fueled by the receipt of bananas in a resupply – enough to make protein shake smoothies for the rest of the mission.

*snap* – A photograph of our labeled helmets in the airlock reminds me of army crawling through a tight space in a lava tube cave, eventually leading me to a long undiscovered tunnel system. Its scratches are marks of the tumbles taken in the name of adventuring through untouched spaces.

*snap* – A picture of a router with inconvenient sound effects. One night in the hab a few months in, the crew sat together hanging out after dinner. In a lull of the conversation, a sound pierces through us, seemingly from outside, “YAhooo!!!”. The crew falls silent. Some grab heavy and/or sharp objects. Others froze. We’re a diverse team.

Some silently decide the voice was in their head and effects of isolation are worse than they thought.

Not long after, we begin scanning for signs of people outside. After some more “Yahoo!” and some investigation, we come to find out that one of our routers has an alarm that some genius set to sound like people yelling out loud. We put down the cutlery and continued our isolated hanging out.

*snap* An ipad with UILA, our ‘watcher’ program that monitors the weather, power levels, C02, water levels etc. I remember early on in the mission when we were short on water. We made a crew decision – we would re-use plates and silverware, limit water use, and not do laundry until we received a water resupply. That resupply would come…..well, that was ambiguous. That was, until we received an email that read, “The water truck is coming”.

A bunch of scientists and engineers considered the options immediately – the tank will be filled either way, so let’s save some water to avoid this situation again. Within minutes, the crew raced around storing water and catching up on water heavy tasks.

That continued until we received a second email (40 minutes later with delay, of course),

“Just to be clear, they’re just coming to look around.”

*snap* – A photo of fold out chairs. These are pulled out every time the crew watches a movie together- half of the crew lays on a collapsible couch and the other half in these egg chairs. The first movie we watched together plays in my head– Alien. It’s loud volume sticks with me – we have no neighbors to speak of to complain. This movie would later become inspiration for our drone, Ripley. The warm memory is immortalized by our “domeawayfromhome” crewmember in a beautiful watercolor painting.

I could go on for a long time. There is barely a single object in the hab that wouldn’t bring up a memory at this point.

Those haphazard pictures, I’ll keep for myself. Instead, here I’ll show you a few photos of some more interesting oddities of the mission:

Lava Bombs

Around the lava fields are areas with cooled lava rocks referred to as ‘lava bombs’. These are chunks of lava that were once ejected from a vent and cooled in the air before hitting the ground. On a long EVA one day, the crew found a different kind of lava bomb.

According to Wikipedia, in 1935, the military here attempted to bomb a lava flow that was heading towards a city to try and divert it. This type of operation would be attempted again in a future eruption that threatened resources.

This isn’t the only time lava has presented an issue. During World War II, another eruption caused issues for the military that feared that the illumination from flowing lava would give Japanese bombers a target.

While I cannot confirm this shell is from those 1930-1940’s bombings, it seems reasonable:

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Cursed Rocks?

Taking rocks from the volcano is a forbidden practice. This volcano is heavily tied to Hawaiian culture and the Goddess Pele. Some even believe that doing so will bring a ‘curse’ of bad luck.

How do I know this?

Well, we received a nice package in the mail one afternoon. Excited to see what it was, we sat around the kitchen table and opened it together. I shook the envelope for a moment before pouring out the contents: two rocks and a letter.

“Please return these to the volcano,” it pled.

For at least one person, the curse was real enough.

In respect for both the Volcano and the poor soul whose life was presumably falling apart enough that they felt the need to mail rocks, we obliged:

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Exiting a Hab, or Entering a World?

7 Days left.

Filming for the Times has resulted in a ton of footage to look back on, including the first day of the mission. I recently re-watched the clip of our initial entry, immediately after the doors were shut. Our actions portrayed excitement, but our faces are clearly more aligned with the realization of “oh, I’m really doing this…” That day was hectic – running around getting computers set-up, bouncing back and forth between moving in and talking to reporters. It was a rat race all the way up until the closing of that door.

Looking back, that was an incredible leap of faith we took. We had known one another for about a week and were complete strangers otherwise. It was only over the course of the next several months that we began discovering who each other were. I would walk into the seacan to learn that our Google IT specialist was also a violinist, or that another crewmember was also a video game enthusiast. I would also come to learn who has the lightest step, sings most often, cleans their dishes right away, or goes to bed early.

For the past 8 months, I’ve only seen these same 5 people. In a few days, I’ll be leaving the habitat to be greeted with a sea of cameras and curious reporters. We’ll be leaving confinement and jumping straight into a crowd, followed by welcoming at a Comic-con type of event. Talk about being thrown in the deep end.

For the last couple of weeks, my mind is always parallel processing checklist items to complete before the mission and processing the emotions coming up now as it nears its end.

It’s easy to understand the source of that uneasy look on everyone’s face that first day we were locked in. After all, we had little idea of what life inside the habitat would be like. We had no experience to go on.

But now, we’re heading out into a world we’ve spent our entire lives in. It’s the world that has raised and challenged us throughout child and adulthood.

So why does that feel more intimidating than getting locked in?

Perhaps a part of it is simply the fact that life is simpler in here – no crazy daily doomsday news stories or social media distractions. The people who stay in contact with us are the ones that truly care about us. There’s no traffic or unnecessary distractions. We’re not so much leaving a habitat as we are entering a much larger world.

Before the mission, I thought that by now I would be looking forward to things missed in here- feeling the sun beating directly on my skin, perhaps a particular food. Instead, I’m focused on wondering how it will be like to walk into a Walmart – the general public, social pressures, and all. It’s a different kind of culture shock I have yet to experience.

These last few weeks have been some of the most difficult. Group tasks and personal goals require morning to night work schedules. The mind and heart are constantly trying to balance these tasks against taking it all in – spending time with the crew, or sitting by the window and looking out at our beautiful view.

On some days, the sun seemed to shine the entire day. Even when it left, it left behind a sunset so beautiful and unique to that day. Other time when it rained and the clouds took over, we were reminded of our limitations and confinement. I’ll miss watching the volcanoe’s fog slowly roll in, slowly stealing away my view of the lava layers.

So, when I can during late nights and busy mornings, I write. Because in less than 7 days, we’ll be back into a busy, crowded world causing mission memories to grow fainter each day as the fog slowly rolls in, obscuring this life.

Reddit AMA

Hey! We’ll be hosting a reddit Q & A Session tomorrow. We can only answer questions after 40 minutes have passed due to the delay, but go ahead and ask what you want!

Featured will be every crewmember including Alfred, our Betta. Be warned – his answers may be a bit…..fishy.

Here’s the teaser post:

Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

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.