The odds of two Montanans landing on Mars during the same mission might be as slim as dividing the planet’s distance from the sun – 141.6 million miles – by the average temperature of minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
While no human has ever landed on Mars, two Montanans have taken refuge in a geodesic dome perched on the slopes of a Hawaiian volcano, where a number of universities are conducting the NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation, or Hi-SEAS mission.
Carmel Johnston of Whitefish and Tristan Bassingthwaighte of Missoula entered the solar-powered dome at 8,000 feet above sea level on Mauna Loa with four other crew members on Aug. 29.
Johnston, the mission commander, and Bassingthwaighte, a doctoral candidate in architecture, are helping scientists understand the human factors that contribute to astronaut function and performance during prolonged space travel.
“The science we are the guinea pigs for will be contributing to the interpersonal relationships of future astronauts and how they deal with stressful situations,” Johnston said Friday. “That also includes us learning about the farthest an astronaut can be pushed before she or he cracks.”
Johnston is also conducting personal research that includes growing plants in Martian soil, extracting water from rocks and stretching precious water resources to their limits.
While Bassingthwaighte doesn’t see himself as a scientist, his own research looks to design habitats suited for human living on other planets.
“I’m a design major doing graduate work on how to keep people safe and sane in the extreme environments of Earth and outer space,” he said. “I’m figuring out how to make bases on Mars, hotels in orbit, keep the people at McMurdo (station on Antarctica) as healthy as I can, but I don’t get to wander around in a lab coat with insane hair.”
On their 365-day mission, crew members are not permitted to interact with other people and communication is limited to email and drop files encumbered by a 20-minute delay to simulate space travel.
Crew members can leave the habitat for short periods of time in simulated space suits, though they can’t be recorded or observed in the process. They aren’t allowed to give real-time interviews, since such interviews are not possible on Mars.
Despite the limitations, the crew has stayed in touch with family members, and those family members can speak with the media in a real-time conversation.
“I’m just preparing a box for him,” Bassingthwaighte’s grandmother, Shirley Smith, said Friday. “He’s an unusually gifted young person who frequently didn’t fit the norm in high school. He often thought outside the box, and he finally found his niche.”
Smith, who lives in Missoula and has maintained contact with her scientific grandson, described him as a spirit-booster who finds the isolation of simulated space travel and the lack of distractions uplifting.
Smith said Bassingthwaighte has spent his free time drawing, though crew members have described the views of the blue Hawaiian sky and the distant Mauna Kea as being limited through the dome’s small windows – and the visors of their helmets.
Smith plans to be there when her 30-year-old grandson – a Sentinel High School graduate – steps from the experiment 273 days from now.
“He’s doing quite well and he’s an inspiration to me,” said Smith. “He finally found his way, but he didn’t go straight there. Maybe he will go to Mars one day.”
In mid-November, the crew woke to restricted water conditions and a “low power” day. On a normal day, according to crew member Sheyna Gifford, each member of the simulation is restricted to 19 liters of water.
Under low-water conditions, like those expected on Mars, the entire crew would be regulated to 19 liters of water. The cost of sending a year’s supply of water into space would be exorbitant, so making it or finding it may be the best option for a human-mission to the red planet.
With water scarcity a reality for any space flight, conservation in the dome is part of daily life. Water collected for brief showers is reused for laundry. That water is used again to mop floors, according to Johnston.
“Any method of water conservation or recycling is always worth testing out,” Johnston said. “We wash dishes but leave the suds on because Americans have a weird preoccupation with washing off the suds. Water that’s used for rehydrating food is then reused as broth in tomorrow’s soup.”
In isolation, everything also takes longer, though Johnston has become accustomed to the slower pace. Room inside the dome is also limited. Johnston compared it to living in “a tiny basement apartment in college” and never getting to leave.
But over the first three months, she has adjusted to the mission’s isolation.
“I think I’ve adjusted quite well and have settled into the normal routine of each week,” Johnston wrote. “I’ve been filling our free time with research, working out, practicing the ukulele and reading books that people have sent from home.”
Bassingthwaighte has also made use of his time.
“The air is insanely clean, we’ve got shelves of assorted foods, I have no bills or rent, I just get to play astronaut all day, every day,” he said. “I’ve got a healthy amount of free time as well, which I can fill with literally anything we’d like.
“There’s still a lot of time to go, so my tune could change, but right now it’s still the best camping vacation ever,” he added.