Meet my domemates

[Version française sur le site de La Recherche]

The crew, after two months in the dome (a month and a half ago).


There is a widespread belief that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. Of course things are not that simple but, in this dome, I like to think that there is some truth to it. My 5 crewmates, with whom I basically spend all my time, are:


Christiane Heinicke. Her call sign is ‘Cookies’ because… well… she loves cookies. She is, as Sheyna once called her, a “cookie-powered science machine”. She spends most of her days working in front of her computer, wrapped in a warm blanket like in a cocoon and munching on cookies (in spite of which she’s skinny, which makes her very unpopular among dieting women). But as vulnerable and cold-sensitive as she may look in her cozy nest, I know how tough she is. She has been working on isolated glaciers in Sweden and in temperatures below 40°C in Alaska, served as a mountain guide, and enjoys camping alone in the Finnish winter. I have seen her exhausted on a mountain peak, in the middle of the night, with water freezing in our drinking bottles, struggling to put one feet in front of the other but without a word of complaint. When she’s working, you’d better not approach her without a good reason: she will look at you like you’re some mold growing on her food and go back to her equations. But when she’s done working she will dance around, poke people, be all smiles and get ecstatic in front of a “tiny, tiny plant” or a “super-cool rock”. I’ve known her for over a year, as we spent two weeks together in the Utah desert as part of the selection process for a scientific mission in the Arctic. She’s a highly talented physicist and engineer, who originally didn’t care about Mars but developed an interest for it because of her exposure to enthusiastic Mars scientists. Here, she’s our Chief Scientific Officer and works on how to extract water from Martian soils using solar energy. Oh, and since there is no gym here, I’m using her as a barbell. She’s easy to recognize: very slim, proud, blue-eyed and purple-haired.

Christiane, aka Cookies, eating her pizza-sized birthday cookie.
Christiane, caught red-handed. She thought I would not notice if she ate the tiniest radish after the first harvest of fresh vegetables.
There is no gym here, so I’m using Christiane as a barbell.


Carmel Johnston. Her call sign is “Captain Snowball”, a reference to both her being the Commander and to the sniper-like abilities she demonstrated during our training in Wyoming. She was also part of the Utah mission and, when she learned that Christiane and I were applying for HI-SEAS IV, she had no hesitation. Here she’s working on an aquaponics system: a setup where plants are fed with waste from a fish living beneath them. She might also be the most pragmatic person I know: if something needs to be repaired, an inventory needs to be made, or the bathroom needs to be emptied, she will roll up her sleeves and get it done. She’s a soil scientist who spends her time in the field, from Alaska to Montana. Her presence here, indoors for a year, is unexpected: she loves being outdoors, spending as much time as she can hiking for fun or leading field expeditions. As a consequence, when her research and her duties as a Commander leave her a spare hour, you can generally find her on the stationary bike, the treadmill, or jumping up and down the stairs (which makes the whole dome shake). By the way, she’s dreaming of working in Antarctica; if you’re planning a mission there, contact her! She will be an extremely valuable crewmember. Finally, don’t be fooled by her long hair which evokes a Disney princess: the crew suspects that she could pin a grizzly with her bare hands.

Carmel, our Commander. Photo by Christiane.
Carmel is working on plant production techniques for Mars and hopes that these techniques can then be transferred to resource-poor contries on Earth. Photo by Tristan.


Tristan Bassingthwaighte. His call name is “Marmot” due to his fascination for those animals when they were trying to chew our equipment in Wyoming, and because there is something in his looks and behavior that definitely evokes one. He’s a witty doctoral student in architecture and works on the design of future Mars habitats. Living inside the dome is a great opportunity for him to identify things to add, thing to keep and things to get rid of. The comfort and safety of pioneers on Mars will likely benefit from his stay here. He communicates almost exclusively through jokes and contributes a lot to the crew’s morale. He manages to make the whole crew laugh, in spite of our different cultures, by using a wide spectrum of jokes ranging from “that’s what she said” to very subtle puns. I suspect that he’s the reason why our Commander has not burnt out in spite of her heavy workload: he’s spending most of his time with her, helping her, amusing her and accompanying her (OK, “being dragged around by her and whining like a little girl” would be more accurate) in her workouts. Between this and Sheyna preventing him from drinking the olive oil out of tuna cans, he’s getting fitter and fitter. Girls, he’s single.

Tristan shop
Tristan, our Crew Architect working on the design of Mars habitats, before the mission.
personal space invaders.jpg
During his free time, Tristan is drawing designs for tee-shirts. Here, his “Personal Space Invaders”. His tee-shirts can be bought online, here for instance.
Oh, I almost forgot: Tristan is a big fan of Dr Who. Photo by Carmel.

Sheyna Gifford, aka “Doc Mom”. She has degrees in (among others) neurosciences, medicine, journalism and biotechnologies. She’s been working on space-related projects for almost 20 years and was part of one of NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) missions: a two-week simulation of a trip to an asteroid. Here she’s the Health and Safety Officer, which means that she either prevents us from having stupid accidents or repairs us afterwards. Her main research project is about telemedicine: how to 3D-print medical tools and have those tools used by untrained people who follow instructions from a remote flight surgeon. She’s also developing emergency procedures for Mars, thanks to her medical background and her experience in planning disaster drills on Earth. It is also thanks to her that we are not submerged by media requests, as she’s a filter between us and English-speaking journalists. She scares away unprofessional media crews and makes sure that our copyrights and time are respected. She’s hard-working and uses most of the free time she has to tackle down dome maintenance tasks or to give her crewmates a hand with their work. Any remaining spare moment is usually dedicated to learning Russian. This is quite entertaining because, as the equipment she uses to check her pronunciation is quite insensitive, she has to be loud. Very loud. It often sounds like she shares her individual compartment with an enraged Russian woman.

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Shey on EVA. Photo by Carmel.
Learning how to make crepes the French way.
Shey is working on the design of emergency procedures for Mars. Here we are preparing for a drill to happen during EVA. From left to right: Tristan, Christiane, myself and Shey.


Andrzej Stewart, aka “Ace”. He’s an MIT alumnus and used to work for Lockheed Martin (a company which, among others, builds and operates hardware for NASA) as an interplanetary flight controller. He has worked on the Spitzer Space Telescope, Mars Odyssey, MRO, MAVEN, Juno, and GRAIL missions. He’s also a passionate pilot who speaks of planes as others speak of women. Sheyna and he were crewmates at HERA and developed a strong friendship there. Here, he is our Chief Engineer and watches over the dome as Sheyna watches over us. His research project involves using a drone to inspect the outside of the dome and explore the surroundings while sipping tea indoors. He seems to be flying his drone with the same care as he was piloting spacecraft: before making a simple test flight (for instance, to test the battery time or a landing technique), he sends everyone a report detailing over several pages the exact manoeuver he’s going to perform. Even outside his work, he has the amusing tendency to announce and report everything he’s doing. I cannot help but smile when, working in silence in my individual compartment, I suddenly hear his deep and loud voice announcing: “OK, now I am going to eat some cheese and crackers”. During his free time in the dome he builds robots, which often take the shape of reptiles or arachnids and have a tendency to attack his crewmates. It’s quite fun to see this bearded ice hockey and football player, wide and tall, laugh like a little kid while watching us repel his robots. He’s a very pleasant crewmate: spontaneous, sincere, very smart and always willing to help.

Andrzej teaching us how to fly a drone, with a little practice quadcopter.


Andrzej learning some boxing.
Andrzej’s drone for exploratory missions.




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