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.

 

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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

DSC_0343.JPG
The pre-mission crew with the NY Times journalists and a man with pink pants.

A Hab Full of Surprises

A Hab Full of Surprises

As a group of people doing something that’s undeniably strange to any normal individual, we tend to attract attention. I’ve answered questions for Japanese Game Shows (really), foreign news networks, and students of varying ages around the country.

Children are usually just curious about life in here. The younger they are, the less coherent and more enjoyable their questions are. Those tend to be our favorites.

Media outlets are typically trying to find some sort of new angle. Some are as uncreative as simply asking “What’s something about the mission you haven’t shared with anyone else?” Perhaps one of the strangest questions we’ve received is “how do you deal with romance?”

Well, my answer to that is that I’m only romantic with my EVA suit. It keeps me warm and takes my breath away. We occasionally get all sweaty together, at least twice a week, and I never leave home without it. It’s a lot taller than me, which I very much dislike and requires a lot of attention, but it’s always there for me when I need it.

The question that seems to come up most often, though, is:

“What surprised you the most, or what didn’t you expect?”

Consequently, it’s one I’ve had to think about most often, so here are a few of the most surprising things about the mission so far:

I Don’t Mind Touching Poop.

Our compost toilets require emptying once a week, a chore that not only have I become accustomed to, but is often my favorite since it’s a shorter one. We turn a crank to slowly deposit chucks of poop/pee/pete moss mixture into a drawer that we then dump into a large trash bag. The experience is a nice creative exercise for teammates to come up with great terms such as ‘crap-burgs’ (like ice-burgs), which are eventually hilariously mistaken for crap burgers – something else entirely that’s much worse than powdered chicken.

Sensory Satisfaction

Sometimes we are asked if we are satisfied with our limited variety of sensory experiences. I never hesitated to answer “of course!” until we received an orange tea with a wonderful natural scent. I soon caught myself, on several occasions, walking around with an empty tea bag attached to my face like a clown nose, huffing the orange aroma as if I were a tea leaf addict. I wonder if it was a good thing I didn’t find the sharpies and Elmer’s glue first. I guess I’m a bit less satisfied than I had previously realized.

Lack Of Internet Is Amazing

One of our main challenges is having virtually no internet access and relying on whoever happens to be on mission support to help solve problems. This can be a blessing or a curse.

Rather than drowning in western life’s unrelenting passive media, I have to seek out desired news in limited places. In this way, I’ve gotten all the news I’ve wanted, which is to say nearly none, but still enough keep up with all the terrible events in the world that work to make us afraid of it. It’s a great balance.

Perhaps the most liberating aspect has been freedom from social media. Freedom from pictures of perfect lives, unshakable relationships, and infinite career successes. The self-comparison and doubt-driving notifications are gone. My new goal when I get back to Earth: Figure out a way to keep my Facebook stream for space and job opportunities without needing to see my ex-girlfriend’s new dog or new girlfriend’s old fling.

I May Have Developed A Temporary Fear Of People

The crew is dedicated to staying in simulation. That is, we all want to follow the parameters of the experiment: remain isolated, perform geology tasks with high quality, etc. One day while out on EVA, one of the crewmembers noted seeing what they thought was a stranger (and was actually a rock) in the distance. You would have thought we were in a post-apocalyptic movie, ducking down in our modified hazmat suits under the mist in an attempt to avoid contact with another member of our species lurking in the wasteland.

In another instance, while in a virtual reality environment, I saw people walking in the distance. Although it was fake, it was a reminder of forgetting the need to wonder how to react seeing strangers walking in the distance, going about their day. The general public has been 100% absent from my life in the last 5 months. I have an odd feeling that the first time I walk into a Walmart or McDonald’s after this, I may have a panic attack.

Learn, Baby, Learn

I’ve been cultivating a lot more skills in here than I had expected, at it’s delightful.

Sure, there’s plenty of social skills to learn when living in close proximity with 5 others. Those aside, I’ve learned to confidently pilot drones in difficult terrain and weather, model and 3D print items, film with 360 degree cameras, work with big media organizations, and explore lava tube caves on a sacred Hawaiian volcano. As usual – stepping out of my comfort zone meant growing.

Oh Gosh. Traffic Is A Thing That Exists.

There are a lot of day to day factors absent of life on Mars that I sometimes forget exist at all. Just the other day, crewmembers filled my heart with anxiety via a conversation about one of the thing: traffic.

It all came rushing back – the loss of hope in humanity that comes with people racing down the breakdown lane of a backed-up highway, or the hyper-awareness of your life’s time bleeding away as you inch your car forward on 95. My heart raced at this realization as I considered the options. Perhaps I should ditch space and become a traveling gypsy, walking and hitchhiking from place to place while living off wages from random jobs and the $30 I received from selling my dying car. Maybe Europe and its wonderfully integrated public transportation system is my only option, and I could spend my days writing about all the strange people I saw on the trains while nonchalantly sniffing an empty orange tea bag.

Surprise, Surprise

I’m surprised at…well, how much I’ve been surprised with so far. This is nowhere near a comprehensive list, but a good snapshot into the answer of one of our most common questions.

Hab Christmas

Hab Christmas

 

‘Twas the night before Hab Christmas, when all thro’ the dome
Not a creature was stirring, not even a methanogenic microbial life form
The spacesuits were hung by the airlock with care,
In worry that radiation storms soon would be there;

A special day just passed. It is affectionately called Hab Christmas, also known as Resupply. It’s just like regular Christmas: We begin the morning by receiving a variety of presents and end it by having our own feces carted away in large black bins.

Just like Christmas.

Rather than snow-covered rooftops, legend has it that here Saint Nicholas comes under the heat of the Hawaiian Sun. Saint Nicholas, of course, is a pretend robot (although has yet to be seen by anyone) that rides up the slopes of Mauna Loa while the crew is sleeping. Astronauts speculate this is done with a magical reindeer-pulled sleigh.

Others say that a pick-up truck is much more likely.

Hab Christmas comes every two months to deliver its gifts. We don’t often get LEGO or brand new bicycles. Instead, a storage container is filled with much more desirable items: toilet paper, cleaning supplies, spare equipment, and most importantly: food.

Why is resupply so infrequent? If you were on Mars, supplies would need to be sent via a rocket over a long period of time. That means that sending necessary supplies would require planning very much ahead of time. Resupply items would need to be launched while the crew was still in transit to the planet if you wanted it to arrive only two months later. In addition, inventory and spare parts would need to be managed carefully on planet.

In our case, the crew keeps track of our inventory and are required to request the things that we need. We must keep track of what foodstuffs need to be replaced, how often we go use supplies, and make requests for missing items or equipment necessary for scientific tasks. Toiletries are of special importance. Nothing would be worse than being stuck on Mars for two months without enough ‘sanitary paper’.

Our supplies aren’t sent over by rocket, of course, but instead by said magical pretend robot. Instead of cookies and milk, the crew often leaves brownies and a thank you note. Martian robots have a sweet tooth.

The robot unloads the resupply items into a large storage container at a location near the habitat. It then loads up our trash and waste from the compost toilets that we left the day before, but spent several weeks creating.

Food Drop-off and Poop Pick-up. It’s like the circle of life, but with powdered chicken. Once the resupply has been completed, our task begins.

All of us good little astronauts wait for a message letting us know that the resupply bot has indeed completed their mission and left (Remember we’re not allowed to have contact with anyone else). This part, I think, is less terrifying when compared to trying to catch a large bearded man breaking into your house in the middle of the night via the chimney. A simple email would have done just fine, Santa.

We then need to suit up, go through our decompression cycle in the airlock, and head down to the storage container with a cart. There, the crew works to load up the supplies, occasionally speaking over the mic to relay vital mission information back to the habitat such as, “Guys, we’ve got bananas!!”.

The crew pushes these supplies up the hill to the habitat as a remind of the fact that no matter how many p90x videos we finish, trying to push cargo up a hill inside an enclosed plastic suit will make you feel fat. The winning combination of oxygen deprivation and loss of vision from a forever-fogging visor will have you feeling it’s the end until you reach the top of the hill, pack the supplies in the airlock, and catch your breath.

This is repeated several times until the resupply EVA is complete.

Once the supplies are all inside and we have finished de-suiting, the fun part begins.

Step 1: Get excited as you gather personal items sent to you – packages from loved ones and such.

Step 2: Look at the resupply items and find anything you were really looking forward to.

Step 3: Get sad when you realize you need to find a place for all of this stuff.

Step 4: Find a place for all of this stuff. Also, inventory it.

Step 5: Get happy again after realizing you have enough new plastic boxes for all your crew’s poop.

Just like Christmas.