[Version française sur le site de La Recherche]
Monday was a special day to us: we had been in the dome for one month. By an interesting coincidence it was also the anniversary of my first (virtual) encounter with two of my crewmates, Christiane and Carmel, before another mission. That same day, NASA announced results from an orbiter showing that brine flows seem to occur at the surface of Mars. It was not such a surprise given that other instruments had been suggesting the same thing for over 4 years, but it was pleasant to read.
We celebrated our first month here the following day. We decided not to work after 6 pm (which was not entirely successful), dressed up and had a fancy Italian dinner based on home-made ravioli. Made of rehydrated components, of course, but tasty. We then danced salsa for a while and played the following game. Some of us wrote questions on pieces of paper and threw them in a box. We then sat in a circle, around a bottle. One crewmember spun the bottle and picked a paper from the box. When the bottle stopped, the crewmember in front of it had to answer the question on the paper, then turned the bottle, and so on. We had lots of fun and learned very interesting details about each other (no, I won’t tell anything). Here are a few examples of questions we pulled out:
- “What is your most random skill?”
- “Weirdest thing you have ever seen in subway/train/metro?”
- “What would you consider an honorable death?”
- “What are you the most afraid of?”
- “”What embarrassing book do you secretly enjoy reading?”
- “Of all the people in the dome, who would survive the best in a dystopian world run by muppets, and why?”
- “Most dangerous thing you have ever done?”
- “If you could extend your healthy life by 50 years, but step on a Lego with your bare feet twice a day, would you do it?”
We also decided to each write a blog post about our first month here (see my crewmates’ in the end of mine). I take this opportunity to answer questions I am often asked about our everyday life.
First, how is food here? All we have in stock is shelf-stable: we have dried meat, dried fruits, dried vegetables, dried milk, tuna cans, flour, pasta and so on. With some creativity, we can create tasty meals. When you leave scientists in a kitchen with unusual foodstuffs, they experiment; we sometimes have trouble assigning a name to our creations. Not all of them are delicious, but most are edible and we keep learning. Besides, some of us clearly have talent for cooking with rehydrated meat and vegetables; they can recreate dishes looking almost exactly as what you could have for dinner. We are often asked whether we are missing fresh food. But who said we did not have any? We brought with us various microbes which allow us to turn flour and dehydrated milk into bread, cream cheese, fromage blanc and other fermented products. And soon, a side product of our research on plant growth systems will be fresh vegetables. So yes, I sometimes wish I could get a fresh fruit, but overall I am eating way better than when I was a broke student.
Are we bored? Not at all. Yes, we are always at the same place and always see the same people. And yes, there are lots of repetitive tasks – many surveys (at the very least 6 a day), for instance. But life here is far from boring. Our research projects, and the research projects we are conducting for other scientists (well, and the research projects other scientists are performing on us) take a large part of our days. Quite a lot of time goes to answering media requests. Sport is also part of every day; without our daily hour or so running on a treadmill, doing pullups, lifting batteries or pulling on bike’s air tubes, our mood would likely not be the same. When we are not working, writing or exercising, we are learning new skills; so far mostly Morse code, salsa and Russian for me. Our days here do not have the extra 40 minutes they would have on Mars but we can sleep, work, eat, exercise and see friends within a few square meters, so no time is lost commuting. We are also away from most everyday life distractions, errands, social media and endless meetings. We can dedicate much more energy, time and focus to our activities.
Who are the other crewmembers? A German physicist (Christiane) and four Americans: a medical doctor and journalist (Sheyna), a pilot and interplanetary spaceflight controller (Andrzej), a soil scientist working in the field, for instance in Montana and Alaska (Carmel) and an architect working on Mars habitats (Tristan). All are excellent in more than one field, as a mission to Mars must gather a large panel of skill but a limited number of people. A blog post will be dedicated to them.
How do we get along? Surprisingly well so far. I say “surprisingly” because:
- We are a very heterogeneous tribe: a wide range of ages, backgrounds, personalities and cultures are represented.
- We are six people living all the time in an 11-meter-in-diameter dome, with a big workload and little sound insulation. Every little annoying habit of a crewmember could become a haunting nuisance.
But at the same time, we are all driven by a common goal and have all been selected for, among others, psychological traits which come handy in this situation. I would not say there is never any tension; these are unavoidable consequences of constant human interactions, especially when the humans involved are straightforward and have strong characters. But they are uncommon and nascent conflicts are quickly solved. The Hab is often filled with jokes and laughter.
Will the year seem long? If every month goes as fast as the first one, we are almost there. I assume time will seem longer at some points, notably during the third quarter of the mission. The so-called “third-quarter effect” is a phenomenon where crews demonstrate a high degree of conflict, low spirits, and other dysfunctionalities after the midpoint of the mission. It is frequently observed in isolation missions such as space missions and missions to the poles. It was for instance reported during the Apollo 13 and Salyut missions, and within several crews in Antarctica. Lucie Poulet, who took part in the 4-month HI-SEAS II mission, also told me that the third month was the hardest for her crew; this was clearly visible from their performance and psychological tests. But overall, I expect this year to go fast.
Here are my crewmates’ blogposts about our first month here:
– Christiane’s (in German)