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.
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.
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.
‘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.
Our little blue betta fish laid flat at the bottom of his makeshift life support chamber – A plastic cup on our kitchen table with warm water and a tube fed in to blow bubbles into the mini incubator. In the morning, my crewmember had discovered the little guy looking sick at the bottom of the tank and yelled, “Oh, Jupiter!” before rushing to his rescue.
Only he didn’t say Jupiter.
Now the two of us stood around watching him repeatedly swim upside down towards the surface before floating back down to the bottom again. Things were not looking good.
At least he was surrounded by family. He would have wanted it this way.
We received this fish during resupply, or ‘Hab Christmas’, as I like to call it. Unlike the other items, this wasn’t something we requested and I was surprised at how excited I was when I saw it. It felt as if we were children receiving their first pet. After all, he was the first other living creature we’d need to care for since the start of the mission.
The commander, of course, reacted as any dad surprised by an unexpected pet would: with a groan and an eye roll. I could nearly feel his thoughts – ‘Another damn mouth to feed. Fine, but YOU’RE taking care of it.’
We set him up in his new fish tank, crafting items for him to hide in, and spent the next few weeks trying to decide on a name for him without coming to a consensus. We basically each started calling him different names as if his identity needed to be protected for research purposes.
Some of my favorite options included:
Master Betta (I lobbied heavily for this one – for recognition of his advanced educational degree)
A Fish Named Sue
“He’s going to die without even having a real name,” One crewmember said defeatedly, concerned for the fish’s dignity.
“No, guys! If he goes down we all go down!,” another crewmember exclaimed.
Humor is important in these situations.
The rescuer crewmember- let’s call him Hasselhoff, and I went on about our morning business as little Master attempted to recover. The rest of the crew slowly filtered in from sleeping in, walking past the bubbling infirmary. Finally, one crewmember noticed something was off.
“What’s wrong, buddy?,” they asked.
It was as if our child had cornered us with a logically-perfect question about the existence of Santa Clause. Hasselhoff and I shot sharps looks at one another like parents silently discussing who was going to break the bad news.
I lost the interaction and replied, “He’s not looking very well this morning.”
“Aww…,” They replied, eyes still on Master. “I Hope you feel better.”
I’m a bit ashamed of it now, but I realized then that I had basically assumed he would be a goner within the first 20 seconds of noticing him at the bottom of the tank. As crewmembers were talking about what could be done, I wondered what we were going to do with the body. After all, once they noticed the 7th crewmember was gone, Mission Support would start asking questions, and I’m not ready to go back to the joint.
Now, it’s not that I’m heartless or even pessimistic. It’s just that growing up in a Portuguese household where our rabbits conveniently ‘ran away’ the night before having rabbit stew, my attachment to pets tends to hit different levels than American kids. Then again, I’m also the person who secretly catches spiders and bugs so that we don’t kill them.
Before you knew it, everyone was awake and standing around the fish tank. It was oddly reminiscent of a family sitting around someone’s hospital bed, discussing the options.
Hidden in this story, however, was the beauty of my crew and their tendency to think both scientifically and with compassion. They’re what astronauts are made of – people who understand the world enough to solve its problems.
The commander reacted as any good dad would – by jumping into the conversation and trying to care for the fish.
The crew began discussing the science –no longer engineers, but medical practitioners. “What could the cause be?,” Dr. Hasselhoff asked. His trauma team responded.
“Check it, stat.”
One crewmember ran to the lab, returning with pH strips and began testing the water. “Looks nominal.”
”What else?,” the doctor continued.
I typed away at the computer, searching for information on the patient’s history. “Sir, the water’s too cold for him,” I noted.
Within minutes, and I kid you not, a rig was set up with a glass container on a thermally regulated plate set to the proper temperature.
“How long will it take to warm up?,” Hasselhoff asked.
“I’m not sure,” the nurse responded.
I objected. “We Don’t Have That Kind of Time!”
Humor is important in these situations.
The crew balanced the salinity of the water, set the proper pH level, and monitored the temperature. At one point, I even found him in a Free-Willy type of sling for reasons I still don’t understand. I didn’t ask questions however, instead listening to the imaginary wife tugging on my arm saying, “Brian, the doctors know what they’re doing…”
The crew took turns throughout the day to come in check on him nervously, hoping we would not be the one to find him at the top of the tank.
At one point, I entered to find several family members and the medical staff gathered around the tank. Their motionless bodies blocked the view of that they were all looking at, and it seemed it was over. I continued towards them as they parted, revealing a fish looking back at me. “He’s doing a lot better,” Hasselhoff noted.
It was indeed true that the fish was no longer swimming upside down, but I decided to observe him for a while.
I watched as he didn’t move any of his fins. Instead, his motion was derived only from the movement of the water. He made no effort to change course as his face sailed directly into the glass, forcing him into a new direction before repeating it again.
This time, I traded glances with another like-minded crewmember. “Yeah….he’s looking great…”
The hours passed and eventually I approached his new area to find what was easily the most adorable and depressing thing I’ve ever seen:
The hab-to-fish-hospital transformation had been complete and everyone, including myself, were concerned and hopeful for our Martian pet.
Before everyone went to bed, the medical staff made sure to double check all of the environmental controls. When asked about his tank light, we decided to turn it off.
“After all that, we don’t need him swimming towards the light.”
Admittedly, when I began this story, I didn’t know how it was going to end. Actually, I was pretty damn sure how it was going to end, but who wants to read a depressing story?
Now, the fight is still far from over. However, I am happy to report that little Master is looking quite improved. Carefully calibrated water and temperature changes seem to be doing the trick. He’s up and swimming around, no longer turning upside down or lethargically using his face as a battering ram. In the last two days, he’s seemed to be recovering and acting normal again. For a crew on Mars, even a pet fish can cause quite the emotional roller coaster.
After the first morning, I became much more hopeful. I leaned down and placed my hands on my knees so that I could look him in the eye.
“We will beat this. You WILL be a healthy Master Betta again.”
One of our newer experiments is with virtual reality. Given the hype around the technology, I looked forward to trying it but was a bit skeptical. Friends and commercials always seemed to exaggerate their reactions, jumping back to avoid an oncoming train like people watching their first motion picture.
Then, I tried a tech demo with the VR headset. I was surprised to find my brain having trouble resolving simulated depth as my feet inched towards the edge of a skyscraper’s scaffolding. It commanded my stomach to release butterfly’s and say, “Move back, you idiot!” You’re gonna get us killed. I happily gave into the illusion, leaning over the edge to see cars zooming past underneath me, oblivious to my presence or the birds flying overhead. Was I Batman ready to take flight, I wondered? Or just someone who had one too many water-cooler conversations than they could handle.
“I was surprised to find my brain having trouble resolving simulated depth as my feet inched towards the edge of a skyscraper’s scaffolding.”
The device could throw me into an environment so immersively that I my untrained body reacted to it. I could be placed inside of a scary movie, for example, where wondering if someone was behind me wouldn’t be necessary. Now, it was much worse. I could turn around and look.
More practical applications were less obvious from this first demo, but I was ready to begin our experiment.
Space Applications for VR
Virtual reality is commonly discussed as a tool for future space settlements in which people live out their entire lives, or large portions of them, away from Earth. This may sound like science fiction, but such scenarios have slowly become a common topic of conversation. Preliminary applications of VR are already being investigated and tried for current space missions.
In the context of future settlements, virtual worlds, if done at a high enough fidelity, could suit several applications. Some suggest it could be used to teach people who had never been to Earth about the planet. Another application much closer to becoming reality is its use as a way of reminding people of home, transporting them to familiar locations for comfort and positive mental health. I imagine this would require environments such as quiet childhood parks rather than awkward family dinners when your aunt said something so socially offensive that you didn’t know whether to laugh or leave the table.
A very limited resource in space is, well…space. Real estate on spacecraft is costly and adds engineering challenges. Large open spaces are often out of the question and even windows have traditionally been fought for by astronauts and argued against by engineers due to structural concerns. Virtual reality may provide a way for cramped spaces to feel, for a moment, like large and open spaces.
Here, the six of us share a small habitat without much space to roam. I haven’t seen any family since I’ve gotten here, and I’ve nearly forgotten what it’s like waking up to the sound of birds chirping or a noisy city.
“Virtual reality may provide a way for cramped spaces to feel, for a moment, like large and open spaces.”
It makes sense, then, that some of these ideas be tested on our mission.
Here’s my first experience with in-mission virtual reality.
I slipped on the plastic headset and tried not to think of my crewmates’ head sweat that had probably soaked into the foam lining it. As it turns out, germophobic behavior doesn’t go away in my virtual world.
The videos started but instead of digital worlds, I was met with real life scenes. Initial images placed me in a town with structures resembling Alsatian-style homes, cobblestone roads, and rolling farmland surrounding them. My mind jumped immediately to Ingwiller, a tiny town in Northern France where I lived with a local family for some time.
I looked around the virtual world and thought back to walking down a long hilly road, forever absent of human presence, to a large field with cows in the distance. I’d play soccer and ninja with my host family’s children, sweeping them into gentle tufts of grass or trying to keep up with them as they dipped under electric fences that they ‘forgot’ to tell me were electrified. I remembered the youngest boy of the children, whose grossness far exceeded any other human being I had ever met, convincing me he was not from this world. Once he sneezed so hard at dinner that every ounce of his alien goo ejected from his face into a spider-like web between his forearm and bicep. His response? To lick it up! His parent’s response? ‘It’s good for the immune system.”
I assure you they were otherwise lovely people.
Back to the video. To my side, a stream rolled by and the familiar sound of rushing waters sang to me. The sound transported me to a river on a farm back home where I spent one of the most rejuvenating years of my life. I thought of the walks I took by that stream in mornings before I had to drive into concrete jungles for work, and how natural it felt waking up to the sunrise and a smiling face. I remembered considering becoming a lifetime hippy, learning to live strictly off fresh kale and carefully concocted herbal tea while spending my days hand-painting signs that read ‘Arms are for Hugging’.
These tangents continued with every new scene. Changes in the virtual environment kept forwarding my mind to locations I had once called home. It wasn’t tricking me into being in the place it wanted me to be in, but it made it possible for me to imagine being in locations I had already been very vividly.
Then, something changed.
The VR environment placed me in a forest, begging in the same way – familiar and comforting. Large climbable boulders, surrounding pine trees, and a forest floor covered in hundreds of plant species. At first I thought of geocaching, or walking through dense New Hampshire forests.
It was all so familiar until I looked down and realized I was much higher than the path below me. I had been placed up in the branches of a tree, and my active imagination spared no time kicking in to resolve the discrepancy. Clearly, I was some sort of ninja, waiting for an enemy. Or maybe I was an animal sneaking around, now stealthily perched. What was I waiting for, I wondered?
“..my active imagination spared no time kicking in to resolve the discrepancy. Clearly, I was some sort of ninja..”
I consistently found myself in this cycle – bouncing my mind into different places. At times, it reconnected me with my past, allowing me to more vividly experience places I’ve been deprived of in here, such as sitting and soaking up the unobtrusive tones of New England woods. At other times when I was placed at unfamiliar locations, or in an unlikely perspective, it acted more like a good book. These provided a starting point and direction for my imagination to run in, acting as a unique kind of escapism. Some environments left the door open for both. With a rolling waterfall ahead of me and endless forest behind, I could either focus on memories about trekking around Nicaragua, or fantasize about being Nathan Drake searching for treasure.
Perhaps one of the more striking parts of the experience was my reaction to seeing people. Several locations included average citizens simply going about their business. Looking at these people gave me quite a strange feeling, as I had nearly forgotten what it was like to see a stranger in the distance. I see my crewmates every day, but never strangers. Never a man in a coffee shop with his head in his hand struggling to study, a young girl playing guitar for spare change, or a flirting couple clearly on a first date. I haven’t seen a dog stroll by and needed to wonder where their owner is. It feels like ages since I’ve had to contemplate how to react to such situations. Is it alright to look? Should I wave hello? What’s that person thinking, and what’s their story? What assumptions have I already made about them?
“I had nearly forgotten what it was like to see a stranger in the distance”
I had basically forgotten this very basic part of life in society, but this technology made me cognizant of it.
Of course, VR was not perfect. There were certainly technical limitations that restricted how immersed I could become. There’s also that pesky actual reality – the one that exists again when I walked into a table, or brushed against the canvas wall of our habitat. Still, I was impressed at this first real attempt at the technology and its ability to incite emotions and physical reactions, remind me of homes, and take my mind to new and interesting places.
Questions and Thinking Forward
My first experience with VR was positive, but I do wonder about its use in the context of someone who has lived on another planet for much of their lives. Would images of Earth matter at all to someone on another planet who had never seen it? Would it inspire wonder of what the planet is like? Is it possible that it could give such a person sense of home deep down, driven by the origin of their species as if the cosmic address of our planet is inscribed somewhere in DNA. Perhaps, for the same reason, they would feel more at home among the stars. On the other hand, maybe it would feel the same to them as experiencing a virtual reality Mars may feel to us on Earth right now.
It’s likely that VR will hold some place in the future past its novelty now, both on Earth and off it. Here, I imagine entertainment will dominate first before social interactions take over (There’s a reason Oculus VR was bought by Facebook). Imagine replacing Skype with being able to move around a family member in the same room, sit down, and play a game of checkers. Think about watching a super hero movie and needing to look all around you as Iron Man flies overhead and the Hulk is smashing something behind you. Artists will find ways to place us behind the eyes of someone else to elicits emotion and make you more empathetic to others’ situations.
In outer space and other planets, the technology could act as a tool for expanding living spaces and instruction. There are already potential applications for space missions that currently exist. Astronauts on the ISS, for example, could use it to feel closer ties to home, and to elicit memories of familiar areas. Perhaps it will someday be used for more intimate calls with their families, being able to feel more present in the room and making long-duration missions less strenuous on children and spouses.
VR was more impressive than I had expected it to be. The new medium had, at the very least, the ability to transport my mind to places that define me as well as to new places that I may not have otherwise imagined.
It’s can be a fuel for imagination and a catalyst for nostalgia.
During my time at the International Space University, I had the pleasure of meeting intriguing individuals who often held unique and unexpected roles in the space industry. One of those people were Jacques-Arnould, the lead ethicist for the European Space Agency (ESA).
Why would a space agency need an ethicist? Well, ethical considerations are essential in space exploration missions, even robotic ones. Ethics covers topics such as planetary protection and being careful not to send bacteria that could threaten potential life on other planets. Such considerations become more complex in the context of human spaceflight when discussing who to send, what age is acceptable, and living permanently on another planet. As a theologist, Jacques-Arnould considers these questions carefully for the space agency.
I was lucky to have this philosopher as an advisor while working on a project about multigenerational worldships. The project itself was thought-exercise into a future spaceship for traveling to another star system. Citizens would live and die on this ship over multiple generations until it reached its destination, so that the people who left Earth would not be the ones who arrived at their destination.
As you can imagine, there are many considerations to make in such a scenario, both technical and societal. We considered economies, religion, culture, and ethics in addition to technical and funding aspects of making such a mission possible.
Here, however, I’d like to focus on one challenge that this ethicist made me realize went far beyond the technical concerns we were addressing: communication.
We expressed to him that in our scenario, it’s likely a direct communication link would not be established back to Earth. The further this ship traveled, the longer data transmissions would take due to physical limitations, and at some point, contact at all would be infeasible with our current understanding.
His response focused not on technology, but what such a scenario would mean for exploration. Exploration, he noted, has traditionally been about going out to somewhere new or dangerous, learning about that environment, and bringing that information back to the people at home. Without the relaying of information for the improvement of life or enlightenment, then it’s no longer exploration. You may be adventuring, or doing something worthy, but you are no longer considered an explorer, simply because exploration itself suggests that link.
We’re all on journeys of some sort. Perhaps you’re traveling to a new place, or having your first child. Maybe you’re learning what it’s like to be in grad school, or trying to learn an instrument as an adult. If you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, then you’re going into uncharted territory and will have something to learn and share with groups of people who haven’t yet taken that leap.
Whatever your journey, that bridge between simply doing something and being explorative is in communication. It’s in passing on that information. So, if you are willing and able, share your story. Tell us your lessons learned, of the moments that struck you or made you laugh, the struggles that seemed too great, and the growth that ultimately came from them. Show us what it’s like because sharing your observations allows the rest of us to transport ourselves to places that you have trekked, but we have yet to experience.
My flashlight’s footprint sailed over rock and rubble searching for any way forward. I turned to look at the path behind me, peering up the sharp incline I had climbed down. My crewmate’s bright yellow pant leg of his suit stuck out just enough at the mouth of the lava cave to show he was still there to act as my line of communication back to home base.
To my left was another dead end, but my light is reflected by wet rock, drawing attention to the soil smell piercing my suit- an aroma I hadn’t encountered in these tubes before. Interesting, but still no path. I turned to my right instead.
Ah -there it is!
Ahead was a larger chamber hiding behind two small openings. I kneeled to examine the lower one.
It’s possible I could get through, but certainly not in this clunky suit. I examined the one above it instead. A tight squeeze, but large enough. There’s just one problem: there’s no easy way to get back, and I’d rather not spend the next four months trapped inside of a cave.
My crewmember suggested going back, but I’m not ready to give up yet.
I climbed back towards the opening until a small crawlspace presented itself. It’s tight, but there are solid footholds on the other side. This is it.
Often, these entrances are deceptively hidden behind warped perspectives and uncomfortable entryways, as if the cave has decided we need to work in order to learn its secrets.
The chamber I see may end in four feet or four hundred. Either way, I need to find out which.
I slow my breath before army-crawling through the narrow opening and into the closed-off chamber. My suit visor fogs over and steals my sight. My external suit fan is no longer working, and I work to fix it quickly as heat builds up breathing becomes more difficult. Once it’s back up and running, its whirring crunch sounds catch me by surprise before it fires small rocks and minerals at my visor, having collected them from the ceiling. After it finishes its battery, my visor clears and suit cools down. All is well.
I start my trek, climbing over natural debris and snaking around boulders. In these tubes, I continually meet what seems to be the end of the tube before a new space presents itself. In this one, each chamber appears after a small drop, slowly easing you deeper and deeper into the Earth.
Undiscovered branching paths exist all around me, and I call out to my partner with an update, but receive no answer. I’ve lost communications, meaning I’ll need to return soon. My stomach drops – not out of nervousness, but more like a disappointed child whose parent just told them they can’t go on a carnival ride.
To my right, I notice a path curling around a large boulder. To my left – a large tunnel ahead. I take a moment to crouch down and see what I’m missing. The expansive tunnel far exceeds my flashlight’s reach.
It takes all my reason and respect for flight rules to turn away from the darkness. I take a moment to stare into those pathways and fully feel something in my gut that needs to know what’s around that corner, over that boulder, and under that crawlspace. The feeling is nostalgic, reminding me of how I felt as a child when my imagination met reality, back when everything seemed larger and promising.
I’ll be back to learn your secrets soon enough, I think to myself, before turning back.
As a bit of background, these tubes are underground caves formed from previous lava flows which are no longer active. Entryways into these are found in skylights, which are simply parts of that lava tube that have collapsed in on itself. We seek these in satellite imagery, or by scouting with our drone. Then, the crew will trek out to these areas and attempt to find a safe path down into the collapse (some can be 20-30 feet high), and then search for entrances into the non-collapsed parts of the tube with fingers crossed for a large underground system.
Exploring these can often be fruitless, as many skylights have no entryways at all. However, if you’re patient and willing to trek further than is comfortable, it’s likely you’ll be rewarded. Perhaps you’ll discover a cave with many lavacicles once formed from dripping molten lava, or encounter large lava shelves and branching side tunnels to climb around. You may find waterfall-like lava structures and wonder how they could form. If you’re lucky, you’ll run into an area underneath the desolate volcanic landscape where a small patch of collapsed ceiling has granted the sunlight permission to enter.
There, you may find life where you hadn’t expected it.
I’ve Got a Feeling
I’m always surprised when friends and colleagues who have dedicated their careers, studies, and personal time to space exploration are disinterested in such adventures.
The fact is, there is little difference in the joy I draw from exploring these lava tube caves and my affinity for human spaceflight, at least in terms of an emotional response.
It may sound corny and poetic, but this emotion -the desire to explore is an unrelenting, unignorable, and indescribable feeling. It’s a bit akin to love – the head-over-heels type that seems to exist somewhere inside your body- The type most of us adults don’t acknowledge exists, or brush off as temporary infatuation. This feeling is recognizable because passing up an opportunity to adventure isn’t just difficult – it feels wrong.
While logic has you checking your lifelines, this feeling draws your mind toward simply hoping you can continue moving forward. It reminds me of the story of Apollo 10, where the Lunar Lander was under-fueled to prevent the crew from landing on the Moon without permission.
NASA well understood the type of people who choose to explore.
The benefits of exploring are immediate. Curiosity and wonder for a unique world push us out of our comfort zone and past whatever fears we have. It has us forcing our minds to be comfortable enough to make it through that tight squeeze, or take one more step towards the unknown.
In the end, an explorer walks away with more knowledgeable about the world around them, ready to bring that information back to those who stayed at home. Those large, expansive areas and challenging entryways are now no longer unfamiliar, and therefore, no longer frightening.
This is the spirit – to want to go without needing justification past awe and wonder. To have the need to see a little bit further, and to not ask if they can get somewhere, but how? And to be able to let fear of the unknown be overridden by curiosity. An explorer may fear the dark, but will still take time to shut off their light and embrace it, just to experience a level of darkness never encountered in average life.
There are many philosophical and logical reasons to explore space. Entire books exist justifying spending money and effort on it, and thousands of poems and stories exist about the cosmos. But the desire to be the traveler- to want to enter that unrelenting and unforgiving space for the sake of being present in it is the mark of that feeling. It’s the physical manifestation of a wandering spirit, and it’s no less of a driver in a cave than in a spaceship.
When we begin to explore space, we will find answers to bring back home. We’ll begin to understand our neighborhood and place in it. Perhaps, we’ll find life somewhere among the magnificent desolation. There will be hidden places to stumble upon and slowly, the void will become more familiar and less frightening.
Space has a much higher entry cost than any adventure here on Earth, and its secrets are hidden much deeper than any cave.
Still, I can’t help but look up sometimes and wonder what’s hiding just around the corner, just a little bit further in the darkness.
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:
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.
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.
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)*
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.
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?