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How many people do you talk to on a regular day?
I am not referring to face-to-face talking only, but to any direct communication: chat on Gmail, WhatsApp or Facebook, phone calls, texts, Skype, or whatever communication platform was invented while I was in here. So, how many?
In my case, it’s simple: 5. Every day, in the past 11 months. I have not called, online chatted with, texted, or otherwise directly communicated with anyone outside.
Why? Yes, crews on the International Space Station have Internet, and communication with Apollo astronauts was (almost) in real time. But Mars is much farther from Earth, and messages take time to get there; roughly, between 3 and 23 minutes. A bit like Skyping when your provider is AOL.
From here, we communicate with the outside world via emails delayed by 20 minutes in both directions. We never get an answer in less than 40 minutes.
Sometimes it can be frustrating. First, because talking exclusively to the same 5 people is highly unusual—at least for someone who grew up in big cities. Second, because issues that could be solved in a few minutes with a phone call can last days—or even weeks or months, when the other person is unresponsive. Third, because we cannot be there for important moments in our relatives’ lives.
There have been quite a few of those moments. An unavoidable consequence of being isolated for a year is that you miss the birthday of every single person you know, as well as every single traditional holiday. But that’s not it. It’s incredible how much can happen in a year. We cannot give a call to our friends to check that they are fine after a terrorist attack, comfort a relative who lost a family member, or warmly congratulate friends that got married.
What about Internet on Mars? The first explorers could have a few websites uploaded from Earth to a local server. That is simulated here: we can only access a handful of websites deemed necessary for the mission, such as NASA’s website and sites where our surveys are hosted. And, yes, this blog. If we absolutely need another website to be unblocked, we have to make a formal request and explain why it is necessary.
Fortunately, we have Mission Support. Mission Support is basically what has been called “Mission Control” in space missions so far. “Support” was chosen over “Control” because a Martian crew will often be more capable of taking the right decisions than a team who has never set foot on Mars. Besides, some problems have to be dealt with in real time. The best Earth can do is provide the team with the information and advice they need.
HI-SEAS Mission Support involves around 40 people from around the world. Some are dedicated volunteers who take 4-hour shifts to maintain communication with us from 8 AM to 8 PM, every day. They approve our requests for extra-vehicular activities (EVAs), make sure we are safe, and help us with whatever we need from outside. If we need someone to be called, a scientific paper, a piece of information, or simply a photo of a natural landscape, we can count on them. Then, there are HI-SEAS principal- and co-investigators, who have more decision-making authority. They can be reached any time, any day, for major issues.
Coming back to our communication constraints: we have no access to social media. That may be the most misunderstood part of all this, as I often share photos and comments on Facebook and Twitter. The thing is: I have them posted via an intermediate, and I do not access those platforms directly. Sometimes I can read messages thanks to email notifications, but most often not. So, if you wrote me a message there and never got an answer, I am not snobbing you.
I will discover your message in three weeks.