I am part of a team simulating life on Mars. Our home for an entire year is a 36-foot-diameter habitat at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation site on the Marslike slopes of Mauna Loa. We will be here until next August. The only people we see during that time is our crew of six.
How well will we work together during that year? Will we become more cooperative or less? We have very different personalities, which is bound to cause conflicts. Therefore, we spend part of our day conducting experiments and answering questions for the principal investigators of the simulation about our group dynamics. We might say that we are cooperative, but are we as cooperative as last week?
Some of these experiments encompass outside fieldwork, which we conduct in space suits. Have you ever bundled up in winter? Then you have just a small idea of what it is like to work in a space suit. It hinders you in every imaginable way: You lose most of your dexterity. Your field of vision is very limited. On top of that, we carry heavy backpacks that contain our life support systems. Tasks as simple as kneeling down and taking a look at a rock take much, much longer than they ordinarily would. It takes an act of arduous balancing to bring your faceplate close to a rock. To get back up, we often need the help of a teammate.
Still, being outside is a greatly welcome change from being inside the habitat all day, every day. Inside, we have to turn around after walking just a few steps. Outside, we can walk in almost any direction for as long as the batteries of our life support systems permit. Even though we only walk over fields of rocks, it is still a much different scenery than the one looking out the only window of the habitat.
Life inside the dome, as we call it, has its benefits, though. We don't have to go shopping, since all our food is stored inside a large container. Our work is not interrupted by “urgent” telephone calls. Our daily “commute” from bed to work desk literally takes less than one minute—two, if we stop by the bathroom. You might think we live like prisoners, but we also get to work on our own projects, as much as we want and whenever we want. Not being able to talk to someone directly can be tough and time-consuming, but we have learned to value every message from home.
Does it feel like living in a real Mars station would? Yes and no. Unlike the Martian sky, which is red and cloudfree, our sky is blue and we see clouds almost every day. If our space suits break, we will not die, and in the case of a medical emergency we could be evacuated within hours. It's hard to mistake our home for the planet Mars, especially on days when the wind is rattling at the walls of our home or the sound of rain is lulling us to sleep.
On most days, however, the weather is easy to ignore and we are affected more by our imposed living conditions: There are times when the 40 minute communication delay for an email reply between us and Mission Support reply seems longer than others, but that's how long it would take if we were really on Mars due to the large interplanetary distance. You need information on how to repair something? Better be patient, there is no such thing as “a quick check online” on Mars. We have an extensive electronic library, but any information request not covered by it has to be sent to Mission Support.
They usually answer quickly, but with difficult requests it may take a couple of iterations until you have explained your problem in such a way that you will receive a helpful answer. Back on Earth, you would pick up a phone, and probably solve your problem within less than an hour. Here on “Mars”, seemingly simple problems can end up taking more than a whole day.
Then there are Christmas, birthdays or simply events in the lives of our loved ones that we miss. I am not a person to get homesick easily, and I have been living far away from them before, so this is not particularly new to me. Yet, the level is different: I do not even have the choice to fly home to Germany for Christmas or call my mother for her birthday.
We have an extraordinary life here, being able to leave our habitat only inside a space suit, but our loved ones continue theirs without us. Of course, we exchange photos with family, make video recordings for them. However, I personally feel awkward speaking to a camera. It's just not the same.
Even though I do not mistake my surroundings for Mars, I do feel far away and detached from my previous life, my family, and my home country. I am living in a place far away from home, where the December sun is as bright and hot as the summer sun. Having grown up in a very green region of the world, the dry, vegetation-less lava around me still looks foreign.
The farthest I felt from “Earth” so far I felt on November 13th, the day of the attacks on Paris. We read about them via our time-delayed internet, and the events on that night felt far not only because of their geographical distance. Life on “Earth” does not directly affect in any way, until we return. We follow the news and political headlines, but we have no way to know what people think in the streets. It is a strange feeling to observe the events in Europe from far away, passively. In that respect, it indeed feels like living on another planet.