As the wind whips across the Bering Sea, for an instant it courses over a tiny speck of land called St. Paul Island, far off the coast of Alaska. At the peak of the last ice age some 21,000 years ago, this dot in the middle of the ocean was a volcanic mountain at the southern edge of the Bering Land Bridge, yet as the ice melted and seas rose, its black cliffs became shorelines, trapping ice age fauna on its landscape, the most massive of them the woolly mammoth.
I’ve come to St. Paul with a team of six researchers bent on solving a mystery surrounding the mammoths of St. Paul Island: Mammoths survived here for nearly 2,000 years after the last mainland mammoths disappeared from Siberia 8,700 years ago. Trapped here on the island, the mammoths were somehow protected, and the researchers, led by paleontologist Russ Graham of Pennsylvania State University, want to know why. They want to know exactly when the mammoths disappeared from the island, and whether their ultimate demise can help settle the controversy of why mammoths went extinct elsewhere. Did people, a changing climate, or something else kill the last of the mammoths?
This is the seventh in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
The other day I had to figure out what to make for dinner. On this mission, we have plenty of raw ingredients — pastas, tofu, dehydrated beef, freeze-dried vegetables, and even complete meals — so I puzzled over my options for some time. My turn to “cook” fell on a day that we were required, by the HI-SEAS food study, to use just-add-water-and-heat foods only. In the end, I went with a dehydrated meal of sweet and sour pork with rice. On the side, I added rehydrated green beans, couscous and some pouches of instant paneer makhani in case the sweet and sour pork turned out to be a dud. From concept to sit-down dinner for six, the whole process took about 35 minutes.
Not bad. But to be honest, on that day, I’d rather have spent the time doing something else. It would have been awfully nice to simply turn to a Star Trek-like replicator and pull out plates of perfectly layered lasagna. And I know I’m not alone in thinking this. That’s why recent news that NASA awarded a $125,000 grant to a company developing a 3-D food printer for future space missions got so much attention. After all, it promises to reduce time in the kitchen with a sci-fi flourish. But should printed food be the future of sustenance on remote space outposts? Based on my experiences living and eating on this simulated Mars mission, I’m not so sure.
This is the sixth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
One month down.
On Wednesday we had a party to celebrate. We listened to a retro playlist of The Who, Missy Elliott, Alanis Morissette, and the Monkees. We made spam musubi and chocolate cake. We drank lemonade spiked with dehydrated raspberries, mangos, pineapple and papaya. (Alas, alcohol is not allowed on the mission.) And at sunset, we unveiled a window installed earlier that day, a porthole to lava fields, distant volcanoes and a glorious orange globe. We toasted to the window, to the sun, to our camaraderie and to only three more months left to go.
When I signed up for this project, I wasn’t sure what the biggest challenge would be. And in a 120-day simulated Mars mission—essentially an isolation experiment—there are plenty of challenges to choose from. Would it be missing my wife? Missing phone conversations with my parents? Missing happy hour drinks with friends in San Francisco? Would it be the lack of fresh air and sunlight? The monotonous scenery? The infrequent navy showers? Would it be living amicably with five strangers in just 1400 square feet? Or the tedium of filling out multiple daily surveys and reports so the researchers running this project get good data?
This is the fifth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
There’s no fresh fruit on Mars. We don’t have fresh vegetables, either, and our food is nowhere near “local.” Most of our meals are made of freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients that we either rehydrate or just eat crunchy.
There are a couple of reasons that dehydrated and freeze-dried foods reign on the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. First, weight. If you take out water, food stuff is nearly as light as air. And payload weight is a crucial factor when you consider it costs about $10,000 to blast a pound of anything into space. Second, preservation. A trip to the Red Planet could take anywhere from about 150 to 300 days, depending on the planetary alignment and speed of the ship. The green beans will need to last.
This is the fourth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
It’s been a little over three weeks since we first stepped into our simulated Mars habitat on the slopes of Mauna Loa. The initial flurry of activity—unpacking equipment, setting up a kitchen and lab, and inventorying four months of food—has subsided. The six of us on this crew are now in the groove of daily living.
Our Mars days resemble, in many ways, a day on Earth. We cook. We do dishes. Take out the trash. We fix leaky pipes. We work. But we’re also participants in a study to help NASA explore new ways to feed astronauts on a lunar or Martian outpost. As such, we fill out a lot of surveys and are subject to a number of tests. This week, we started inspection of our noses.
This is the third in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
I haven’t been sleeping well. Or at least not as well as I slept before the mission. I know because I keep track of my sleep with a device that straps to my forehead and sends data about my brain activity, eye movements and facial muscle twitches to a souped-up alarm clock near my bed. The system is called Zeo Personal Sleep Manager, and I’ve convinced my fellow crew mates to use it too. The sleep monitoring is for a research project I’m conducting while here on simulated Mars. The crew has also been filling out sleep surveys and will soon endure a dose of bright, blue-white light on various mornings throughout the mission. And they will take a computer-based cognitive assessment test once a month. To my relief, they’ve been real sports about the whole thing.
All of us came to HI-SEAS with our own projects. Research keeps us busy during the four months, and it mimics the activity of astronauts on an actual Mars mission, who’d likely be studying Martian geology, collecting psychological and physiological data, and keeping up with various engineering tasks. This week, as the main HI-SEAS food study ramped up, the crew also rolled out some of our own projects.
This is the second in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
In the week before HI-SEAS began, the crew participated in a number of orientation activities that included cultural awareness sessions, visits with local elders, and planting native Hawaiian trees on Mauna Kea, the volcano to the north of Mauna Loa which will be our home for the next four months. Also on Mauna Kea, we toured the Gemini observatory, neighbor to Keck, both of which sit above the clouds at roughly 14,000 feet. Our timing for the tour was just right to catch one of the most spectacular Earth sunsets I’ve seen: cinder cones silhouetted against blues, yellows, and oranges smeared across the sky as our star slipped into a gauzy layer of cumulus.
On Mars the sky is red, but sunsets are blue thanks to optical properties of dust in the air, which scatters light differently when it comes in at evening angles. We’ve been on simulated Mars for three days* (as of the time of this writing) and in this time, I’ve yet to see the sky, let alone a sunset. Our habitat is windowless. Because of the the semi-opaque vinyl that covers the dome, we have outside illumination, but it’s indirect and muted. This means, on simulated Mars, the color of most of our sunsets is grey.
Within the next week or so, we’ll be going outside for extravehicular activities, or EVAs. Wearing simulated spacesuits (fashioned from large hazmat suits), we’ll walk the crunchy basalt rock near the habitat. We’ll see the sun—albeit through plastic, tinted visors—while we perform general maintenance, explore the geology of the region, and get a little exercise.**
This is the first in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.
I’m on the Big Island of Hawaii right now, but I’m not on vacation. I’m not honeymooning, nor am I attending a conference or visiting relatives.
I’m on the Big Island to find Mars.
Starting next week, I will begin a simulated Mars mission. For 120 days, my five crewmates and I will live on the red, rocky slopes of the Hawaiian volcano called Mauna Loa.
We will eat, sleep, work, exercise and relax inside a two-story dome that offers a little less than 1000 square feet of floor space. When we go outside, we will wear mock spacesuits. There will be very little sunshine, no fresh fruit, and no ocean breeze.
But there will be science.
Welcome to Field Notes, DISCOVER’s new blog for dispatches from the front lines of science. Here our reporters share insider views of research as it happens – whether on an archaeological expedition, behind the scenes in a laboratory, or exploring a remote ecosystem. Check back often to hear their stories, get a sneak peek at articles DISCOVER is working on, and enjoy armchair travels to some of the most interesting research sites on Earth.