Living the Martian Life, in Hawaii

A science experiment simulates what it’s like to live on another planet.

people in red polos outside a HI-SEAS habitat
Kate Greene (far left) and crewmates outside their HI-SEAS habitat in Hawaii in August 2013.

For a four-month period in 2013, Kate Greene was part of a six-person crew holed up in a geodesic dome on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. She and the others had been selected by NASA to participate in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), a research project simulating a human outpost on Mars. Greene’s new book, Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars, is a wonderfully honest account of what future travelers to Mars can expect. Greene spoke with Air & Space senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in October.

Air & Space: Why did you decide to write this book?

Greene: I knew I wanted to write a book about the [HI-SEAS] experience, but this book? This book came out of the need to address the ideas, conversations, and feelings that kept coming up around the mission in the years after. Big topics—isolation, boredom, the astronaut body—kept swirling around in my head until I had to get them out.

How well did HI-SEAS simulate a long-term space mission?

Making a perfectly realistic simulation of a long-term space mission is prohibitively expensive—from the construction of a habitat to the spacesuit simulators to the food [for the crew]. Plus, it’s unknown exactly the kinds of facility and equipment that would be required. HI-SEAS had to pick and choose its verisimilitude with the goal of maximizing a sense of isolation, since the project was conceived as a testbed for psychological research on the individual and team effects of isolation. This meant a remote location was important, and so was putting limits on resources available to the crew, including water and electricity.

Crucially, there was a lack of real-time communication—up to 20 minutes one way for an email—and no real-time internet, though we could request downloads from mission support. We also couldn’t go outside unless we wore a kind of spacesuit that was actually a retrofitted hazmat suit. They were cumbersome, like the real-thing, but not pressurized or particularly high-fidelity in any other way. And of course we had to follow various operational protocols and write reports, fill out surveys and conduct experiments, and do chores to keep the place clean and livable—the kinds of activities that happen on any NASA space mission.

Did the isolation affect you in ways you had expected?

Before the mission, we’d discussed the known challenges of isolation: getting irritated by fellow crewmates, generalized boredom, and losing trust in people who weren’t inside the experiment with us—because how could they possibly understand what we were going through? What was so interesting to me is we had talked about how we didn’t think these things would be a problem because we knew about them. Well, they didn’t wreck the mission, but they all still happened!

What was the worst thing about living on Mars? What was the best thing?

The whole experience was actually not terrible, and I look back on it fondly. But if I have to identify a worst thing—and historically this answer has varied depending on my mood and circumstance—I’d say it was the lack of freedom of movement and limited in-person socializing, much like what many people are experiencing now in America during this pandemic. You couldn’t go any further away from the hab than you could walk. And it was just you and your five crewmates in conversation for four months.

The best thing for me was actually multiple. I enjoyed getting to know my crewmates and having the opportunity to live in a completely different way than I had before. I mean, NASA literally gave us permission to, as adults, pretend to live on Mars—like a kid dream come true. I also cherished both the mental break from a real-time internet and from not having to buy anything for four months since all our supplies were provided from the outset.

After you left the dome, was it easy to pick up where you had left off in the real world?

I had a period of adjustment for sure. It was hard to be away from my wife for four months, and in some ways we both had to relearn how to live in the same space with each other again. Out in public, loud noises easily startled me. In social situations, I felt more awkward than before. On the bright side, though, I’d never enjoyed the beauty of the Earth as much as I did when I first came back. I rode my bike to the neighborhood beer garden, swam in the ocean, took hikes through the redwoods. All the things you could never do if you actually lived on Mars.

After the mission was complete, did you get any feedback from NASA?

The HI-SEAS project lasted for five years and collected a lot of data for a lot of different researchers and research projects. I don’t know the specific outcomes of the experiments we took part in, but I do know that before HI-SEAS, most analog missions were a one-off (there was no way to directly compare outcomes from multiple long-term simulated missions), but HI-SEAS was the first to offer a testbed for that. Also, I’ve learned that data around the crew selection process from the missions that followed ours (the process wasn’t as formalized for us) has been extremely useful to NASA in fine-tuning their selection of actual astronauts. And finally, and maybe most exciting for human space research, all the HI-SEAS data will be made available so anyone can analyze it.

Have you seen an accurate sci-fi depiction of human space exploration?

I did enjoy The Martian. Right after the mission, I read the book and was amazed at how right Andy Weir got many of the technical and psychological challenges. Claire Denis’ High Life with Robert Pattinson is an interesting recent take on a deep-space mission. It was about a crew of death-row inmates traveling at some percentage of the speed of light toward a black hole. Like the film’s fictional crew, we also had a sense of obligation to the data-collection process. We were serving the science—it was the reason we were there. High Life is a bleak and beautiful film, and I think Denis captured the feeling of being truly cut off from humanity really, really well.

What was your favorite thing to eat during your HI-SEAS experience?

We usually ate all our meals together, and we had a number of amazing, delicious dishes. I was particularly impressed with the egg powder—OvaEasy—that was supplied to us. On Sunday mornings, when we were on our own for food, I would come down to the kitchen, often by myself, and make a simple omelet with rehydrated cheddar cheese and dried parsley flakes. A cracker with powdered butter and jam and a mug of Earl Grey—a lovely, recurrent memory.

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This story is a selection from the December/January issue of Air & Space magazine

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