The selection

[Version française sur le site de La Recherche]

When I opened this email, six months ago, I had no idea where it would lead me.

A pillow mark still on my cheek, I was trying to dissipate with an espresso the limbo left in my mind by too short a night. The day before, I had once more lost track of time and been surprised, at night, by the lab’s alarm. The watchman had come running, recognized me, sighed, started to say something but remembered I didn’t speak Italian (so he thought), sighed again, waved at me and stopped the alarm. I had innocently smiled at him, wiped the bench with ethanol and left. After hours spent sitting, I could not resist the temptation to go running. The night had thus been short. Typical.

After a few sips of this strong Italian coffee, I could already feel my heart pounding in my chest. But more time would be needed before my eyes could fully open. I was thus half asleep when I opened this email.

I had no idea, then, that a few months later I would be writing from a room the size of a closet, in a white dome, on the slopes of a huge volcano. I was in Rome, just back from California, checking my emails before working on an experiment where we tested the resistance of cyanobacteria to radiation reaching Mars.

This email was a call for candidates for the HI-SEAS IV mission. I was familiar with Mars analogue missions since I had been, since November 2013, candidate for Mars Arctic 365 (MA365), a one-year mission in the Artic, on Devon Island, organized by the Mars Society. The selection for MA365 led me to spend two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, in the Utahan desert. MA365 will hopefully start in summer 2017, but that is another story. The thing is that I had already been used to the idea of spending a year in a simulated Mars mission and weighed the pros and cons. I had to apply.

The first step was a written application. Why I wanted to take part in the mission, what relevant skills I had, and so on. I also had to write a research project proposal. I wrote most of the application the following night, after work, sitting in the dark with my computer and a cup of coffee. The next day I was traveling to a conference, in Torino, and I finished the application in the train. This was rather frustrating: my computer was turning off when unplugged (a consequence of its stay in the desert, in Utah) and the train was losing power every 5 to 15 minutes. Just for a second or two – barely noticeable if I had had a well-functioning computer – but enough to turn mine off, forcing me to restart it and take the application back to the last backup. My advisor, who was sitting next to me, probably still wonders why I was periodically exasperated throughout the trip. At night, I tried to copy my answers in the online application form. I tried more than 10 times (every time took taking over 15 minutes) and got familiar with a wide range of error messages. I finally managed to send the application without the research proposal, and sent the latter by email.

The second test was a series of online questionnaires. I assumed it included cognitive tests, so I decided to take it when well-rested and in good conditions. Well, I did not.

My Roman advisor had decided to book the trip back on the last day of the conference, just after my talk. But I did not want to miss any talk of that conference, and certainly not the debate and decision-making in the end of it, so I decided to buy a ticket in a night train. There I lied down on a berth, fully suited. I barely slept: the door of the compartment kept opening because of my compartment-mate who was sharing his time between going to the bathroom and drinking coffee to reload, and because my neighbors kept discussing from one compartment to another (yes, really). When I woke up in Rome in the early morning, still suited up, the journey was not over. I took a metro, a train, and a bus. At least, that was my intention; the bus never came.

After waiting for an hour, I walked to the taxi line. An old man, standing next to the shining, brand new taxi in front of the line, yelled “Taxi?”. I grabbed the door’s handle. “No, not this one”, he said in Italian, hard to understand because barely articulating. “Follow me”. We walked around the train station and reached an old Daewoo. Nothing in the car indicated it was a taxi. I didn’t care. I would have jumped on a pony, if it was the fastest way to get back home.
“How much for a ride to Tor Vergata? I asked.
– Sixty-five euros.
– That’s too much.
– How much do you want to pay?
I thought about it for a few seconds.
– 20 euros, I said, expecting tough negotiations.
– OK”, he said.
During the ride, he kept talking to me. He was talking with his throat only, barely moving his lips and at a very low volume, so I could not understand half of what he was saying. But it did not bother him: he kept talking continuously, frequently taking both hands off the wheel to punctuate his discourse with enthusiastic gestures. I have no idea what we talked about, but he seemed very satisfied with our conversation. I had a good time too, watching Rome waking up. My brain was fogged up by its severe sleep deprivation, and the situation felt surreal.

When I arrived home, I had to take the test – the deadline was that morning, local time – before going to work. Struggling to keep my eyes open, I had a laugh, remembering that I had decided to wait until I was home to be at my best. I made some coffee (I know, the word “coffee” keeps appearing in this text – but remember, I was in Italy) and started my computer. The first test was, indeed, a cognition test. I answered mathematics, logics, general knowledge and linguistic questions. Followed questions designed for figuring out the candidates’ psychological profiles.

I was concerned that my being so tired when taking the test would not put me on top of the candidates’ list, but apparently I did not perform too poorly since I was asked for an interview. It went very well. I met two key people of the mission support team: Kim Binsted, the mission leader, and Jean Hunter, one of the main investigators of the mission. Ah, and Kim’s dog – or, as Kim introduced it, “mission support support”. They were very friendly. I made a few jokes when answering their questions, they did too and we laughed together.

A few days later, I learned that I was selected for the final test: a week of survival and leadership training in Wyoming, in a national park, with the remaining 8 candidates. Most places in the area have supposedly been named by French-speaking trappers, who obviously had a peculiar sense of humor and had not seen a woman in months. The national park we trained in is called “Grand Teton” (French for “Big Nipple”). We were given backpacks, food, tents, maps, compasses, electric bear fences, and chemicals for purifying water. We were dropped in front of the national park and were given 5 days to reach an exit while finding water sources along the way. We were followed by two instructors from NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), who evaluated us and provided leadership and survival training. Every day, two of us were designated leaders. It was a peculiar atmosphere: we were competitors, but we had to cooperate extensively to exit the park in time. We got along pretty well, constantly helped each other and shared unforgettable moments.

But we knew that two of us would not be part of the mission.

Waking up in Grand Teton. Photo by Dr. Christiane Heinicke.
Counter-clockwise, from the bottom: Carmel, Debi-Lee, myself, Oscar, Tristan, Sheyna, Andrzej and two guides from NOLS. Photo by Dr. Christiane Heinicke.
Breakfast. Photo by Dr. Christiane Heinicke.
Cooking local plants. Photo by Dr. Sheyna Gifford.
Oscar, crossing a river.
Carmel, climbing.
In the forest. Photo by Oscar Mathews.
Carmel and I. Photo by Oscar Mathews.
Carmel and I. Photo by Oscar Mathews.
Christiane, trying to remain dry.
Walking in the snow. Photo by Dr. Sheyna Gifford.

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