A web exclusive story from Discover Magazine

Suppose You Were A Martian

Inside a four-month simulated mission on the Red Planet.

Written by: Kate Greene
Photos by: Sian Proctor
As I read human history, I find a remarkable correlation between epochs of exploration and discovery and epochs of major cultural advances. By exploring the solar system, we find out, and make better, who we are. — Carl Sagan

And so I found myself standing in the middle of a lava field, a rocky, alien landscape stretched out before me. On the horizon, a dormant volcano carved a sharp profile, low and long across the sky. Three of us were on an excursion that June day to explore the area surrounding our base station, but the going was slow.

Per protocol, we each wore a kind of spacesuit, isolating us from the elements. Oversized and made of thick, neon-green vinyl, the suits challenged my every step. The semi-flexible, plastic faceplates didn’t help, either. They gave a warped view of the ground, itself a collection of shifting rocks of unusual and varying shapes. I might as well have been walking over broken dinner plates or thick cords of frozen rope — ankle-breakers lying in wait.

Breathing the humid air inside the suit, I looked up and out and considered my place in the solar system. The lava field on which we stood was terrestrial, but it could just as easily have been on the next planet over. That mountain in the distance was simply a scaled-down version of another ancient, extinguished volcano called Olympus Mons. And that was the point, really. This was our Mars.

We were astronaut stand-ins, a crew of six hired for a 120-day mission. This so-called Mars-surface analog was designed to be a mock-up of a possible expedition on the Red Planet — a place to test specific questions about a potential future Mars mission. In truth, we were in Hawaii, living in a two-story domed habitat called HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), and we were its first residents.

We’d arrived there just weeks before, bringing minimal personal belongings; for me, this meant a large backpack of clothes, my laptop and a box of books. We were to live inside this dome as scientists, as well as research subjects, for four months. Simulating the loneliness of the real Red Planet, we removed the SIM cards from our phones and were issued new email addresses to communicate with mission support, with a 20-minute delay on either end — the time it would take for the data packets to span the gap between Earth and Mars when Mars is at its farthest.

Our task was to collect data so engineers can build a successful manned mission to the real Mars, an undertaking NASA has said it aims to achieve by the 2030s.

Stumbling across craggy rocks, breathing my recycled air, I’d never felt so aware of just how much it was going to take to get us there.

Preparing for mars

Mars’ popularity has soared in recent years. The dramatic landing of the Curiosity rover in 2012 (viewed by at least 3.2 million people on the Internet alone) spurred the funding of another rover to search for microbial life on the planet, scheduled to launch in 2020.

The peopled rush to Mars is also building steam. Aside from NASA’s, there are three other newsworthy initiatives: the one-way trip from the Dutch nonprofit Mars One, multimillionaire Dennis Tito’s proposed flyby Inspiration Mars and entrepreneur Elon Musk’s plan for colonization.

MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Our eyes are watching Mars for a variety of reasons. Earth continues to crowd and heat, forcing us to question whether we will be a single-planet species. It’s also been decades since space travel has meant anything other than uninspiring low Earth orbit. To many, the moon is passé, and President Obama’s plan to visit a near-Earth asteroid seems a sideshow at best. Why not shoot for something grander? With the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, a void in manned space exploration has opened, exactly the size and shape of Mars.

A journey of millions of miles must begin with tests. That’s where analogs, including HI-SEAS, come in. Mars analog missions exist around the world in sandy deserts, icy Arctic and Antarctic locales and, in one case, fully submerged underwater. Not any are perfect replicas of a real Martian experience, but they aim to provide pieces of the puzzle. And in our case, odd as it may sound, that central question was food.

NASA has identified 33 major risks in sending people into space. One such risk for a 2 ½-year trip to Mars is “performance decrement and crew illness due to an inadequate food system.” The inadequacy in question isn’t just the challenge of making meals that keep their flavor, form and nutritional content for at least five years, although this is still a real hurdle. It’s also an issue of menu fatigue. Astronauts on long International Space Station missions tend to lose interest in food and, consequently, eat less of it, which can harm their health, moods and productivity. Bad food or bad feelings toward food could legitimately jeopardize a yearslong mission to Mars.

The change would impact more than just diet. It could have trickle-down effects on crew interaction and bonding, the way astronauts spend their time, the way space missions are supplied and overall mission success. If it’s to ever happen, there needs to be foundational data on many of these effects.

And that’s where we come in.

It’s unglamorous, but true, that most of our four-month mission was spent inside the puffy white walls of the dome. Nestled 8,000 feet up the northern slope of Mauna Loa on the Big Island, our base consisted of a two-story domed habitat complete with a kitchen, dining room, workspaces, lab, two bathrooms and six bedrooms roughly the size of large closets. The two antechambers on the first floor acted as air locks to the outside. The livable space was about 1,400 square feet, roughly the size of a two- or three-bedroom apartment.

A shipping container connected to the main air lock was used as a robot garage and extra storage. Just outside the dome were tanks for water and waste, a solar-diesel hybrid generator, a lot of lava rocks and a number of distressingly deep holes in the ground.

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On most mornings, I’d wake around 6:30 a.m. to the sound of two of my crew mates doing their P90X workouts. (We were testing antimicrobial shirts for NASA, so we all exercised at least 45 minutes a day, five days a week.) For my own study, on sleep, I’d take a dose of bright blue-white light before getting out of bed, then fill out a sleep questionnaire.

Dozens of other survey questions awaited me throughout the day — how hungry I was, how often I talked to a specific crewmember, how smelly my exercise shirt was, how much I liked spending time with a pet robot. These surveys — along with daily chores, reports to be written and emails to family back home — accounted for much of the crew’s time.

And the center for much of our daily routine was our dining room table. This is where we met for breakfast at 8:45 a.m. every day except Sunday. It’s where we completed meal surveys, rating each food item and our interest in eating each food item. It’s where we sat for our morning meetings, and where many of us worked long into the night under the white-yellow glow of LED track lights.

The six of us were brought together by a grant from NASA’s Human Research Program. From a worldwide applicant pool of 700, a selection committee narrowed it down to 40 finalists who all possessed astronautlike qualities in terms of education, experience and temperament.

The next step was to put together a crew that could get along on a largely autonomous four-month mission. We would be a crew that wouldn’t receive much day-to-day input from “Earth-based” mission-support, a setup very different from that experienced by astronauts on the International Space Station or those who went to the moon. Human spaceflight researchers believe crew autonomy will be critical on a Mars mission, mostly because of the hundreds of millions of miles that will delay communications. Mars analogs are a good place to get ideas for how to make it work.

Meet the Crew

Kate Greene

Crew Writer and Second-in-Command

Science journalist and open-water swimmer.

Oleg Abramov

Crew Geologist

Planetary scientist and aviation instructor.

Angelo Vermeulen

Crew Commander

Visual artist and space systems researcher.

Sian Proctor

Crew Education and Outreach Officer

Geology professor and astronaut finalist.

Yajaira Sierra-Sastre

Crew Science Officer

Materials scientist and science educator.

Simon Engler

Crew Engineer

Roboticist and Afghanistan veteran.

 

NASA generally tends to pick crews composed of similar people, according to Kim Binsted, professor of information and computer sciences at the University of Hawaii and one of the lead researchers on the HI-SEAS project. But she and co-investigator Jean Hunter, professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell, decided to go the opposite route: They suspected that diversity could work just as well, and that it could provide benefits in problem-solving and crew cohesion. Even more importantly, Binsted said, they wanted to make sure that no one type of person was singled out. There would need to be at least two men or two women and at least two non-native English speakers among the group.

So, the inaugural HI-SEAS mission was about more than food. It was about proving the possibility of a brand-new Mars analog, demonstrating the effectiveness of a diverse crew and testing how that crew would fare when left largely to its own devices.

Window on the outside world

One month in, we had a party to celebrate our first big milestone. We’d had a busy honeymoon period, so some scheduled downtime felt crucial. We rearranged furniture and made a special menu: sushi, spam musubi, chocolate cake and punch spiked with bits of dehydrated fruit. (NASA rules disallowed alcohol on the mission.) We listened to a playlist of the Monkees and Alanis Morissette, and set up an LED strip that blinked colored lights.

Then, after dinner, we came to the crux of the celebration: the window. For a month we hadn’t had any access to sunlight inside the dome. It had been built with a hole for a round window, but the clear plastic wasn’t installed when we arrived. Earlier that day, the extravehicular activity (EVA) team of Angelo, Yajaira and Oleg had installed the window, slipping it into the porthole already covered with an opaque plastic disk.

Inside, as Angelo pulled off the porthole cover, I saw the setting sun for the first time in weeks, casting long shadows on the jagged red and brown rocks that surrounded us. It was glorious. As the sun sank below the horizon, our celebration lit up the dome in reds, yellows, blues and greens — bright enough, we suspected, to be visible to careful observers all the way back on Earth.

Martian meals

Actually, the food throughout the mission wasn’t too bad. For breakfast we often had scrambled eggs, made from so-called egg crystals, which were surprisingly good. As an outreach project, Sian organized a cooking contest where we tested recipes from all over the world. The beef tagine with couscous was one of my favorites.

The only meals we dreaded were a handful of pre-made meals from a can — the add-water-and-heat kind. Kung-fu chicken came out slimy and overly salty, as did the beef stroganoff. But even the canned meals had some surprises. The lasagna wasn’t bad, and one dessert, a raspberry chocolate crumble, was actually delicious.

Mexican night
Oleg's ice cream
Sian's tostadas with meat and cheese
Zucchini muffins - Get the recipe
Ham and potatoes
Sian’s sticky rice with mango - Get the recipe
Baked rolls
Kate’s broccoli soup
Oleg’s seafood chowder - Get the recipe
Oleg’s french onion soup
Ham and potato soup
Crepes (blini) with Nutella and peanut butter - Get the recipe
Oleg’s pelmini
Tortilla wraps with veggies and Velveeta cheese

We were lucky to have a creative crew who did wonders with freeze-dried/powdered/dehydrated ingredients. Oleg was the master of borscht and cabbage pie. Sian could conjure delicious soups and stir-fries and Yajaira was a magician with curries and breakfast smoothies. Angelo made rice dishes and a delicious bread pudding. Simon, as engineer, focused on efficiency with single-pot pastas with vegetables. As for me, I stuck to the basics, making egg scrambles and latkes from a box — although, in a spate of inspiration one day, I came up with a sort of calzone made with tortillas, powdered tomato sauce, freeze-dried cheese, pepperonis, onions, garlic, herbs and spices. The dish was a hit with our crew, and I briefly had visions of grandeur where the calzone recipe was cooked on the first manned mission to Mars. Only time will tell.

Wearing Thin

It’s well known that on extended missions, especially those in which the crew is isolated, small irritants can grow into larger, ongoing issues. What initially seems to be a speck of sand somehow becomes a boulder that crashes down a cliff when you least expect it. But it was surprising just how prominently food — that very thing that we were here to study — factored in to the irritations we felt.

In one case, I noticed a crew member regularly taking more than I thought was a fair share of chocolate milk powder, a commodity rationed each month and shared by the group. Instead of saying anything, I had silently hoped he would back off on his own. He didn’t. One day, when I went to make chocolate milk and found just a dusting, an emotional dam inside me cracked. With venom in my voice, I accused him of being “a chocolate monster,” whatever that is.

It was surprising just how prominently food — that very thing that we were here to study — factored in to the irritations we felt.

Later, regretting my words, I apologized. He easily accepted, and I noticed his subsequent chocolate-powder consumption was moderate. But it became less important in the remaining weeks of the mission as we began to run low on powdered milk, too.

Another time, after dinner, a different crew member scooped a spoonful of Nutella out of the jar, a gooey-chocolate glob for dessert. This blatant enjoyment of a shared resource upset another crew member so much that he immediately scolded the scooper. A lengthy, crew-wide discussion ensued. The offended crew member evidently hadn’t heard the scooper’s prior public inquiry about the state of our Nutella stock (there was plenty at that point), hence the confusion. Apologies swiftly followed.

And as the mission wore on, I noticed my conversations with my spouse back on Earth becoming more strained, with more frequent misunderstandings. We consistently emailed each other; she had committed to sending me a poem a day from a variety of poets, which was the true highlight of my day. But it was a difficult type of correspondence to keep up. The longer I was gone, the more I felt like her life, the life that had been ours, was, in some ways, moving further away from me. Toward the end of the mission, as much as I enjoyed the contained tidiness of our life on Mars, I was ready to come home.

Glimpsing Mars

From the perspective of being Earth-bound once again, I’ve had time to reflect on those strange four months. Data from our various experiments are still in the process of being analyzed. Anecdotally, I can say that I sometimes enjoyed cooking and found it to be a morale boost, and other times I found it to be a total drag. There were days when ready-to-eat meals were just what I wanted and other days when I couldn’t even choke down a few bites.

But, in addition to the data, we were also in it for the adventure. By being selected for this mission, we were, in effect, given permission to step out of our day-to-day routines, test ourselves with an unusual challenge and believe — fully sanctioned by NASA and as nondelusional adults — that we were living on another planet.

We were given permission to believe — fully sanctioned by NASA and as nondelusional adults — that we were living on another planet.

Now, for the truth. I’m afraid I only just glimpsed life on Mars. Much of my time was spent inside the dome, partially because so many of my research goals were best done indoors and partially because it seemed like a hassle to take half the work day to suit up and go outside. As such, I could have been cooped up anywhere where there was a view of a red-colored rock field out the window.

Some of my crew members said they had their most realistic experiences of “Mars” after putting on their simulated spacesuits, communicating by radio, hiking to lava tubes and imagining the possibilities. During these EVAs, however, I found I was far too concerned with practical matters such as walking and not falling to drift into a Martian reverie.

For me, my most “Mars” feeling came not in Hawaii, but during our two-week practice mission in Utah at a site called the Mars Desert Research Station. Outside, on a spacesuited hike, I took a moment to sit on a rock and think. Here I was, I told myself, having landed on the next planet over after an eight-month journey. Even though the people of Earth were wishing us the best, hanging on our every correspondence, the planet itself was just a speck of blue in the sky, more than 30 million miles away.

With that thought, a vision, vivid and unexpected, appeared before me: grassy hills and trees with shimmering leaves. I held onto it as long as I could, but the mirage quickly vanished. Later, after the mission was over, I realized that many of my dreams while living in the dome had also featured various kinds of green. In one I was picnicking with family under a weeping willow gently swaying in the breeze. Odd that when I finally convinced myself I was the farthest I had ever been from home, all I could actually imagine was a lush and beautiful Earth.

It would be shameful for me to claim to have experienced the kind of “overview effect” real astronauts talk about when they’ve been to space, the way they begin to see our planet as more precious and fragile and realize that we’re all on it together. Having never seen Earth from the heavens, I simply cannot know this. But I do know that while away, I felt a change in the way I processed news from home. I felt removed from global events. It was like I was looking at it all from the wrong end of a telescope. Those wonderful and troubled people, I thought. Why does it have to be so hard?

And personal events, too, produced surprising effects. A good friend moved away from San Francisco without much warning, and I was devastated to know that I’d be coming home to an emptier city. But then I celebrated my 34th birthday on the inside, and the messages, videos and pictures I received from my friends and family lofted my mood for days. I couldn’t remember a time I had felt so loved.

It made me think of a prompt that physicist Richard Feynman would use to get people to think in creative ways. One of these began, “Suppose you were a Martian … ” He would follow up with another proposition such as, “ … who never slept.” He would go on to explain that you, a sleepless Martian, would visit Earth and see all these sleeping creatures. Naturally, you’d wonder why they slept and how it worked. It’s a question that might not occur to an Earthling in day-to-day life. But Feynman reminds us that with some perspective, brought to us by Mars of all places, our planet and our species become ever more fascinating.

On the last day of the HI-SEAS mission, the crew lined up in the air lock to prepare to greet reporters and photographers, to have sunshine on our faces and fresh air in our lungs. I wish I could say I was thinking grand thoughts about what it all meant for the future of space exploration, but I was more concerned with making sure I didn’t trip on my way out the door. Once outside, though, I was actually startled by the breeze on my arms. It was something I evidently hadn’t expected. Every time it danced across my skin, I paid attention.

Kate Greene covers science and technology for publications including Wired, Discover, The Economist, and Pacific Standard. She lives in San Francisco and tweets at @kgreene.

Fake Mars Zucchini Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 1 ¾ cups flour
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon egg crystals mixed with 3 tablespoons water (or 1 egg)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup dehydrated zucchini (rehydrated in 1 cup water)
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • ¼ cup dehydrated onion (rehydrated in ½ cup water)
  • ¾ cup freeze-dried cheddar cheese (rehydrated in 1 cup water)
  • ¼ cup Parmesan cheese
  • 4 slices cooked bacon, crumbled

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Coat the bottom of a 12-muffin pan with butter.
  2. Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl.
  3. In another bowl, stir together the butter, egg, milk, zucchini, garlic and onion until well blended.
  4. Mix the flour mixture into the milk mixture — about ½ cup at a time, stirring between additions — until the flour mixture is incorporated. Fold in the cheddar cheese, Parmesan cheese and bacon. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin cups.
  5. Bake in the oven until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.

Fake Mars Mango Sticky Rice

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup medium-grain white rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 18 dehydrated mango slices (rehydrated in 2 cups water)
  • 6 tablespoons coconut milk powder in 1½ cups water (or 1½ cups coconut milk)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup evaporated milk
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • Sesame seeds

Directions:

  1. Pour the rice and water into a rice cooker. Rehydrate the mango slices.
  2. While the rice cooks, mix together the coconut milk, sugar, evaporated milk and salt in a saucepan over medium heat; bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir the cooked rice into the coconut milk mixture. Cover and let stand for 1 hour.
  3. Combine the mango (along with its rehydration juice) and brown sugar in a pan. Simmer until the juice evaporates and the mangos become caramelized.
  4. Place the sticky rice on a serving dish. Arrange the mangos on top of the rice. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Fake Mars Seafood Chowder

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons Odell's Anhydrous butterfat (or 3 tablespoons butter)
  • 1½ cups water
  • ¾ cup freeze-dried onion
  • ½ cup chopped celery
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 6 tablespoons chicken bouillon mixed in 6 cups water (or 6 cups chicken broth)
  • 10 cups water
  • 1½ cups dehydrated diced potatoes
  • ½ cup dehydrated carrots
  • 1 cup dehydrated sweet corn
  • 1 cup freeze-dried shrimp
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried dill weed
  • 2 6-ounce cans pink salmon
  • 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
  • 1 cup freeze-dried cheddar cheese

Directions:

  1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add water and sauté the onion, celery and garlic powder until the vegetables are tender.
  2. Stir in chicken broth, water, potatoes, carrots, sweet corn, shrimp, salt, pepper and dill weed; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. Stir in the salmon, evaporated milk and cheese. Simmer another 10 minutes.

Fake Mars Russian Blini (Crepes)

Ingredients:

  • 2½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 4½ tablespoons sugar
  • ½ cup egg crystals mixed with ¾ cup water (or 4 eggs)
  • 1 quart milk
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Directions:

  1. Place flour into a large bowl. Make a deep well in the center. Place salt, sugar, vegetable oil and eggs into the well.
  2. Slowly whisk in milk.
  3. Pour batter onto a large skillet over medium heat, about ¼ cup at a time. Tilt pan to spread the batter evenly. Cook about 1 minute per side.

  • Fillings/toppings include butter, Nutella, powdered sugar and various jams. Makes about 20 crepes.
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