[Version française sur le site de La Recherche]
A look at the calendar made me realize that we have been here for two weeks. Two weeks that we are living in this dome, on the slopes of the largest volcano on Earth. Two weeks that we have not seen or talked to anyone outside the crew.
This comes as a surprise because I lost track of time. It could have been expected: we are never exposed to the sun. I can usually see a difference between day and night when sticking my face to one of the two little portholes, but a hurricane that brushed past the island plunged us in a dense fog for a week. But the sky recently cleared up and I can see the landscapes around: reddish rock as far as one can see, with no sign of civilization besides the white outline of an observatory, far away, on top of the volcano Mauna Kea.
The only moments we leave the dome are for “extra-vehicular activities” (EVAs), which each of us performs about once a week for geology studies or other research tasks. But even then, we are not exposed to fresh air as we are wearing heavy space suits. Inside, it gets hot quickly and our movements are impaired; I am even clumsier than usual. But we are always glad to go because we can see something else than the dome’s walls. The site has been chosen for its Martian appearance and for its isolation. It is beautiful, once you get over being dazzled by a first exposure to sunlight in days.
On the research side, things are taking a good direction, albeit moving slowly. My biggest concern was about the microbes needed for my life support-related experiments: samples I sent by mail stayed way too long at the customs (recent news about some infectious bacteria mailed by mistake within the US did not help) and were in a very bad shape when I got them back. But after days of taking care of them like relatives in a hospital bed, they are recovering. Once large enough amounts of cyanobacteria are grown, my main experiments can begin. In the meantime we started plant growth experiments, where our goal is to turn an analogue of Martian soil into a suitable substrate for edible plants. I also started sampling surfaces (including my crewmates) for documenting the evolution of microbial communities. Other ongoing projects will be mentioned later.
But our own studies take only a fraction of the time we dedicate to research. Several hours a day go to opportunistic studies where we are research subjects. Guinea pigs, if you prefer. We have to fill in surveys every day (6 at the very minimum), spend time in a virtual world using virtual reality glasses, take biological samples while performing specific tasks or on a regular basis, wear sensors, take cognition tests, train for various skills and perform geological studies. Among others.
At least half an hour a day is dedicated to physical exercise, which is much needed when you spend your time indoors and mostly sitting on a chair. We have a treadmill (which we usually use only in the late morning and early afternoon, when our solar panels are saturated), a pull-up bar, a jumping rope, resistive bands (and bike air tubes used as such) and P90X videos, which are as entertaining as useful for moving around. Altitude adds a new challenge to physical acivity. Heavy smokers, I understand you.
Finally, we are trying to keep about an hour a day for hobbies. First, we are learning salsa together. I am not a gifted dancer, but I look less and less like a wounded monkey. Second, I am learning Morse code. This was not part of my plan, but a crewmate of mine wanted to learn and was desperately looking for someone to train with. I don’t see much use for it besides exchanging secret messages through the walls of our individual compartments, but learning it is surprisingly entertaining. I am using the program MorseCat 2.0, if anyone wants to try. Then, I am learning Russian. The learning curve may seem demotivating at first, but training is stimulating. And finally, I am about to learn ukulele. I had hesitated between guitar and ukulele, but one of the advantages of a ukulele is that when you pull it out, no one has expectations. A good point for me because when it comes to music, I am frankly not an ace.
I had a few questions about what I thought of the food so far. Well, it is not very refined gastronomy as all our food stocks are shelf stable. Mostly freeze-dried food that we rehydrate. But with a bit of creativity, we can compose tasty meals. Besides, with a biologist in the crew, it would be a shame not to have fresh food! A crewmate brought various microbial starters which allow us to produce bread, cheese, fromage blanc and other fermented products. And a side effect of my research on life support systems will be fresh vegetables. Salads are on their way.
To sum it up, our lifestyle here is very close to that expected for crewmembers of the first manned mission on Mars. One of the big differences, though, is that days on Mars last 24 h and 37 min. This aspect is not reproduced here and that’s unfortunate: given our work load, an extra half-hour a day would be welcome.