Day Dreaming

Day Dreaming

Sitting there with a stranger in the center seat of an otherwise unoccupied van, my leg worked to jack-hammer out my nerves. A reporter from a major news outlet leaned over, mic in hand and oversize headphones around his head and asked, “What will you do in your spare time on the mission?”

I thought for a moment before answering, “I’m hoping to write as much as possible.”

He grinned and stared out the window at nothing, pondering the potential psychological consequences for someone who would be stepping out of society for nearly a year.

He looked back over at me and offered his idea, “Maybe after you’re locked in there for a while you might start seeing things and be able to write about that…”

I debated for a moment if I should explain that although we are a small isolated group with a common interest and bearded leader, we would not be doing LSD, nor would our fruit punch hold any special surprises. Hell, we’re not even allowed beer.

I decided to let his statement hang in the air instead.

We are now four months into the mission and still no hallucinations. Disappointing, I know, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that this is a good sign.

I have, however, dreamt every day.

I love dreams. Dreams are the closest thing to writing that I can think of. Your mind shapes thoughts, feelings, and observations into fabricated worlds and scenarios before throwing you into them. The decisions you make directly influence those elastic worlds, which in turn present you with a new set of questions, all while sleeping.

Dreams entice us to lay in bed a bit longer, not for warmth and comfort, but for the opportunity to be an explorer inside our own mind’s construction. For a short time, you get to swim around your own neurons as an outsider and better understand your day’s thoughts with a level of honesty that your conscious self doesn’t normally allow.

This piece is about a dream I experienced on the night of April 12th that held onto my thoughts through the waking hours of the following day.

Yuri’s Night and Komarov’s Flight

Each year on April 12th, hundreds of events are held around the world to celebrate Yuri’s Night. Some are as small as two people hanging out in a living room while others consist of large parties at major space conferences with hundreds partying throughout the night. These people are dancing and drinking to commemorate the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first of our species to travel into space.

As space professionals stuck in a box with limited recreational options, this celebration was basically obligatory. We observed this day in various ways, including the timeless tradition for honoring heroes of the human race: 3D printing a cookie cutter of the man’s face:

Yuri's Cookie Face.png
There’s no greater honor.

We also watched footage from Yuri’s Vostok-1 flight and a documentary about Yuri himself. It was strange to receive so much information about the man. He had always been presented as the symbol – the patron saint of human spaceflight, but never as a flawed human being.

Yuri became the first person to fly into space at the age of 27, instantly transforming into an invaluable national symbol, so much so that the pilot was not even allowed to fly anymore. As a powerful tool of the government, his death was feared. Ironically, meeting his dream meant that he could no longer do what he loved most.

He was able, however, to fly all around the world as a Russian celebrity. And as you can imagine, a 27-year-old suddenly given unlimited access to anything he wanted would probably trip over some pitfalls.

In America, this is known as the Bieber effect.

Komarov’s Dilemma 

One of the most striking stories in the documentary was not about Yuri or his flight. It was about Soyuz 1, a later flight that was prematurely launched partly due to political pressures. This resulted in the death of its pilot, Vladimir Komarov.

Throughout its development, several technical issues and a severe lack of testing were well known among the engineers and pilots working with the equipment. The consequences of these issues remaining unresolved were well understood by Komarov himself. Ultimately, these problems were ignored.

Komarov still boarded that module on April 23rd, 1967. He stated that he did not refuse to fly so that the life of his backup pilot, Yuri Gagarin, would not be endangered.

It is conceivable then that he knew that he was very likely to die on that spaceflight; one once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in exchange for one’s life.

At the very least, he probably figured it out when systems began failing on board during his flight: a communication line, solar panel deployment failure, and orientation engine pressure drops. After all this, he was somehow still able to get the capsule to reenter the atmosphere, only to have the vehicle’s main chute not open.

“…he knew that he was very likely to die on that spaceflight; One once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in exchange for one’s life.”

Komarov circled the Earth 19 times above clouds and countries before reentering the atmosphere manually and crashing into the ground. He left behind a wife and daughter. I wonder how much of that time was spent focused on troubleshooting the issues in a scramble for survival and how much was spent contemplating his potentially final hours.

Dreams

The night after watching this documentary and discussing it with my crew mates, I drifted to sleep to find my mind processing the night’s information.

I dreamt that I was picked to be one of the crew members of a mission to Mars – no surprises there.

I don’t know why I was selected for the adventure or what the selection process even was. Perhaps I won it by collecting chocolate pudding packs like Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love.

Regardless, I was selected. Should be a great dream, right?

The catch was that this rocket was not being sent by NASA, nor a known spaceflight company. It would be launched, underfunded, by an unknown organization. They had enough money to have made a rocket, but not enough to make sure it was safe. The best estimations were a 50-50 chance of survival, but  everyone assured me the odds were much worse. News outlets and those close to me all thought it meant certain death. The rest of the dream was a series of conversations with friends and family as the organization waited for my answer.

Excitement quickly turned to nervousness, and I felt a very real pit in my stomach for the remainder of my time asleep. What was interesting is the reason I was nervous.

The obvious initial guess is that I had a potentially life-threatening decision to make: Choose to fly and most likely not survive but risk it for the sliver of a chance of making it to another world and back, or give up the one-time opportunity entirely in exchange for a potentially extended life. After all, it would be perfectly normal to be nervous about any decision that puts your life on the line.

“If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” – Gus Grissom

When I finally awoke, I had something rare after a night of dreaming: clarity.

I was not nervous because of the decision I needed to make, but because I already knew what my answer was.

If there was even the tiniest chance that the mission would be successful, I would go. How could I not?

Spaceflight is inherently dangerous, but our place in it is summed up in the words of Gus Grissom, an astronaut who died during the Apollo program,

“ If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. “

As I laid in bed, the self-preservationist part of my brain was making me physically nervous because of what my subconscious had told it was going to happen.

In all of this- Yuri’s success transforming him from man to symbol, Komarov deciding to fly to an almost certain death, and my dream – were several questions worth asking:

  • Is your dream/job/passion worth the risk of life?
  • At what point does the scale tip in the battle between postponing death and accomplishing what you set out to do?
  • Is being the first to do something, or being remembered in history important to you?
  • Why can’t I just dream I forgot to wear pants to school like normal people?

Let’s discuss these a bit:

Imagine having had a life’s goal drive many life decisions. Perhaps the goal was writing a book, supporting yourself as a performer, or flying around the world. Moving towards that goal has meant sacrificing careers and loves. After years of work, you’re given the opportunity to realize that goal, but reaching it means a potentially shortened life.

Is the risk worth it? What would you do?

Is what you work towards each day worth the investment of your life’s limited hours?

It’s easy to focus so much on an ultimate life goal without asking why. It’s important to ask why achieving that goal even matters to you at all:  Is it because it will bring self-validation? Acceptance from others? A sense of peace? As far as I can tell from listening to those who have achieved their career goals, none of those can come from success. The goal itself needs to stand as its own reason.

“Why can’t I just dream I forgot to wear pants to school like normal people?”

Sometimes, our obsession with goals can adversely affect those closest to us. When I think of Vladimir’s reasoning of wanting to protect Yuri, I can’t help but wonder if this was a way to justify a difficult decision. Perhaps it was a purely selfless move. Perhaps it was simply an excuse to be able to do something that he wanted to do, despite knowing it could cost him his life. The decision to fly would have dire consequences for his family, while giving up the chance may have felt like betraying his own purpose.

Historically, NASA astronaut applications have doubled every time there has been a fatal shuttle disaster. Is this the result of causing people to ponder their work’s worth, or simply an effect of increased media coverage?

*This doubling in applications, by the way, has been true up until the previous selection when numbers jumped significantly to a record high of 18,000 applications, smashing previous numbers for much different more exciting reasons (See: Welcome to the Second Space Age)*

Being Remembered

In movies, it’s cliché for a character to desire to be remembered for greatness of some sort. In the space world, that often means being the first. Every American knows the names Armstrong and Aldrin. Every Russian knows Gagarin. How many in the general public know Komarov or Collins off the top of their head?

I’ve never understood the appeal of being the first and often wonder if it’s yet another thing I’ll begin to understand as I get older. Perhaps it somehow becomes more important as your life’s past begins to outweigh your life’s future. Does being remembered have any real value when compared to having a full life?

Can you consider a life to be fully lived without pursuing a passion or ‘personal legend’? If not, and if your dream is dangerous, then I suppose you’re out of luck.

There’s something strange and undesirable about being remembered, especially for being the first to do something. If it’s for something positive, all your flaws are simply forgotten, steamrolled by the reputation and slick sheen of your accomplishment. In the case of someone like Yuri Gagarin, your achievements may come to define you entirely.

Of course, I understand the desire to leave something behind in the world. Parents have children to pass a piece of themselves on. Painters paint. Writers write. Is any of it different? Artists fabricate worlds and characters, breathing life into their ideas. It makes a part of themselves tangible, bringing it into existence.

Questions

My hope from this rant is to share what I was given in this dream: not answers, but questions worth asking.

At the very least, let’s all ask ourselves these questions until we have good answers for them:

If you are one of the few people lucky enough to have a dream and the opportunities to pursue it: Is your dream or the thing you value most worth the risk of life? Would you hesitate if you had to sacrifice time on this Earth to fulfill the very reason you feel you walk it? Why or why not?

Is your goal as worth dreaming about at night as it is thinking about during the day?

 

Don’t Weather the Storm

Don’t Weather the Storm

Sometimes I write things.

During an ongoing storm inside the habitat, I started writing what vaguely resembled a poem, inspired by the cacophonous sounds of varying-intensity rain reverberating through the hab’s canvas layer. There, I reminisced about nostalgic memories tied to bad weather.

I thought of the time a flooding storm rolled in while climbing a volcano, resulting in my now still-battered and weathered passport and destroyed shoes. I remembered the rain forest seemed to have new life breathed into it as the sun came back out when we reached the peak, clearing our view of the surrounding islands and making our success that much sweeter.

IMG_1685
Passports and tropical rain storms don’t mix.

I thought of when we woke to snow falling outside my window in a small French industrial town. It was barely a flurry compared to what we receive back home, so I immediately took it for granted and as I often did, looked at falling snow with contempt. I remembered the way my friend who had spent the night sprung up, her eyes wide and excited to witness the snowfall for the first time, a gift given the fact it’s non-existent where she was from. I felt silly for forgetting what that felt like, and wanting in that moment only to show her a proper New England pine forest’s snowfall and the wonders of laying on a questionably frozen lake.

I thought about the way dangerous Nicaraguan city streets became devoid of anyone when overbearing rain passed through, and how fulfilling it felt to stride through the sidewalks, sporadically sheltered by colorful overhangs, temporarily feeling as if I were a man without worry.

I thought about how lucky I felt to wake to the sound of howler monkeys and rare bird calls, and to be constantly reminded how nature has so much sound but no noise.

And in all of this was an idea: Don’t weather the storm. I thought about putting aside fear and disdain for the rain and snow, and indulging in its surreptitious benefits instead.

The more I thought about it, the more I remembered that some of my best memories are tied to terrible weather.

As I finished a quick draft of the poem about embracing storms, I received an automatic news email from Twitter.

The headline?

“Tornado kills 5 people in East Texas”

This is the life that chose me.

Enjoy.

DSC_0665.JPG
Granada, Nicaragua

Don’t weather the storm
as they tell you to do.

Weathering is all about clinging on and white-knuckle-waiting while something stronger wears away at coarse imperfections, sanding you, over time, into a perfectly smooth, recognizable shape.

Don’t weather the storm.

Let the storm permit you to wake slowly on a lazy Sunday,
arms guiltlessly cradling jet black hair framing a face with large hazel eyes and a foreign tongue.

Doze in and out to the rhythm of raindrop battalions knocking at your bedside.

Let gravity gently roll already struck drops down from one window pane to the next with the same cadence as your lips from one side of her neck to the other.

Submit to your dream-journey partner’s head tilting, wide peaceful smile complimented by still-slumbering eyes.

Don’t hastily wish away the rain,
but afford the same luxury of oversleep to the Sun that it does you.

You can be sure once it’s gone, it will return someday,
but empty pillows are more plentiful than hopeful lovers
and rarely comfort a gaze capable of virtuously stealing away the day.

Don’t weather the storm.

But indulge in its array of self-reflecting ricochet,
organized chaos making city indistinguishable from forest.

Watch as waters cleanse streets of the fearful and
Transform sidewalks to rivers, their scuffs and indents branching canals twisting and turning without regard for traffic laws and stop lights.

Let awnings become waterfalls gateways,
And sewer covers deep caves-turned water wells,
Reminding you that it is not the rain that invades our space,
but our concrete slabs that graciously inhabit theirs.

Don’t weather the storm,
or wish away the snow.

Let inability to leave empower you
to indulge in natural aromas around you
of coffee slowly sipped, reveling in savory subtleties of your daily drink,
tasting it for the first time.

Submit to the present,
Walk the pristine path carved by squirrel prints,
or pen and immortalize an idea you’ve had for a while

Observe each snowflake not though your own eyes, as a burden,
but through the joyful eyes of a girl who’s seeing a snowflake’s journey for the first time,
drifting from the sky to the needle of a pine,
landing once outside the window,
and twice more in the reflection of her
wide hazel eyes.

Let the fog blind you and remind you
that vision is more often just clouded indecision
and your dreams are merely hidden, not gone
Consider the fog’s intention is perhaps not to block your view,
But an artifact of desiring to be seen as we all do

Let the thunder’s blast rattle your confidence and forceful wind oscillate stained-glass windows,
exposing the fragility of your modern shelter,
indomitably supported by crumbling sheet rock and fortified with ticky-tac nails.
Let gales show you that
home
is made of an idea,
not of stone

Don’t weather the storm,
shutting your eyes until the sun rises again.
Don’t take shelter under blankets until thunderous sounds dull

Because bitter coffee tastes sweeter when saline waters fall,
And its warmth embraces more intensely when opposed by winter chill

Don’t weather the storm

Because when the call of the birds beckons the sun’s return and the raindrops dry,
And you’re left with one more typical sunny day, indistinguishable from others,
You may find yourself in the status of wishing for a nimbostratus among those rolling cookie cutter clouds,
Reminiscing about the good old bad days,
Wishing
you had dared to feel the gentle caress of falling rain.

 

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.

Kickstarter

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.

Media

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

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.

Skylight 1 with lava tubes.png
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

Hair

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.

Spit

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.

Conclusion

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?