I stayed on Mars once upon a time. Or the thing nearest to it.
I was a science journalist at the time and not exactly an apparent option for the mission.
And somehow, in it, I found myself. It was 2012 and, along with Jean Hunter, a professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, Kim Binsted, a professor of information and computer science at the University of Hawaii, called for “almost” astronauts to participate in a four-month “Mars” mission. Binsted and Hunter wanted a crew that Nasa said might theoretically qualify for spaceflight in terms of o According to Binsted, they also tried astronaut-like personalities that had “thick skin, a long fuse and an optimistic attitude,” They chose me somehow, and so I lived in isolation with five other non-astronauts between April and August 2013, all of us making different compromises to Mars, such as bathing mostly with wet wipes, abandoning real-time social media, and having little access to fresh fruit or vegetables. The surroundings were very red and very rocky. Mars, indeed. Electricity and water were reduced. In bulky, cumbersome, spacesuit-like outerwear, we could only exit the bubble. We had a mobile phone emergency, but our only regular contact with the Earth was via email.
And our email transmissions were delayed 20 minutes each way to replicate the actual contact delay that Mars explorers will face, since Mars is extremely distant.
It wasn’t a traditional Hawaiian holiday, but for science, it was everything.
The key research question about food from Binsted and Hunter was: would it make sense to allow astronauts to cook their own meals once they land on Mars? Data has shown that astronauts eat less and lose weight over time on six-month flights to the International Space Station, making them more vulnerable to sickness and injury.
The significance of cooking and isolated meals in general was calculated by Binsted and Hunter – how food affects the crew’s physical, mental and social health. On Earth, it may be apparent that food is more than just food for the body, that it plays a psychological, social and cultural role, and that it nourishes the mind and our relationships with others.
But to ask complicated questions about the role of food on a Mars mission and to create a brand new analog of Mars around those issues? To be honest, that’s pretty radical.
And so, we ate a mixture of pre-made meals as well as meals we cooked in our small but well-equipped Martian kitchen for this nutrition review. We documented improvements in our appetite and weight and conducted tests to assess our ability to breathe and detect odors through our nose, all of which were connected to hunger and satisfaction with food. Nearly a dozen other studies were also performed – evaluating antimicrobial socks, mental acuity checks, behavioral surveys, the list goes on. For four months, we lived and breathed out survey questions. Isolation for four months. Four months with the same people, the same places at the table, the same clothing, the same smells, the same habits, the same views from the same rock window. There’s no sun on the skin, no fresh air in the lungs.
I don’t want to overstate the difficulty – we’ve never been in mortal danger.
But there were some things that I found exhausting: I missed my wife’s face-to-face talks.
I was looking for a change of scenery and better lighting indoors.
A dive or pool in the ocean.
We were warned about the consequences of isolation in small and large ways. The small way: brief mentions of conflicts that occur between crew members and their mates, families, and mission support back home during our pre-deployment conference calls. The big type: the multi-hour conversations to find out what might be our breaking points. Will we quit the mission if we got a job offer all of a sudden? When anyone at home is sick? If someone just died? Did we get sick? Sick in what manner? Psychically? Huh? Physically? If we lost faith in our peers or the project altogether? And how did we plan to deal with the well-documented challenges of isolation? These challenges included what scientists call “third-quarter” syndrome, in which the desire to be anywhere but in the dome with the f