POLSON – Carmel Johnston didn’t realize other people might consider her a “neat freak” until she spent a year on Mars.
OK, in reality, Johnston never got closer than about 47 million miles to the Red Planet.
But the year the Whitefish High School graduate recently spent living in a small geodesic dome, with five other people, on the largest volcano on this planet – well, it’s about the closest thing to Mars that an Earth-bound human can experience.
They even had to put on space suits every time they ventured outside the dome into the barren landscape.
Johnston and Tristan Bassingthwaighte, a Missoula Sentinel grad, were part of the latest NASA-funded, University of Hawaii-run HI-SEAS mission to study how an extended stay on Mars might affect a space flight crew.
“The geodesic dome is not an actual life support system,” says Johnston, a soil scientist who served as crew commander. “But the study was on the social and psychological aspects of isolation, not the technology of living on Mars.”
On Aug. 28, 2015, she and the other five crew members moved into the 1,300-square-foot dome located 8,000 feet above sea level on the desolate northern slope of Mauna Loa, on the Big Island of Hawaii.
They didn’t leave for 366 days.
This was the fourth, and by far the longest, HI-SEAS mission to replicate the physical and psychological environment of life on Mars for space explorers. HI-SEAS stands for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation.
Johnston will share the experience at the Mission Valley Audubon Society’s monthly program Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Polson Library meeting room. It’s free, and the public is welcome.
Unless they grew it themselves in the dome, everything the crew ate for a year was either freeze-dried, dehydrated or powdered. The six lived in confined quarters that included a kitchen, dining room, exercise area, laboratory, six very tiny bedrooms – Johnston’s was dominated by a Montana state flag she took with her – and two bathrooms.
Their communication with the outside world was both limited to email and delayed the 20 minutes it would take an email from Mars to reach Earth, and the 20 minutes it would take a response to travel the opposite direction.
“We could load [archived] web pages,” Johnston says. In space, it would be a 40-minute wait before the page would appear. Refresh the page, or click on another link, and it would be a 40-minute wait.
There was a bright side. The crew was largely in the dark through 12 months of what may have been the oddest, most divisive U.S. presidential election cycle ever, “and we were all very happy not to know much,” Johnston says.
Water was gold in a place where there would be none except what you brought with you. Crew members could only shower once a week, and run the water for less than a minute when they did.
“We had enough water for less than four gallons per person, per day,” Johnston says.
The average person uses 20 to 25 times as much every day of their lives.
“Every 10 days we went into deep water restrictions for a day, where we only got one gallon per person,” Johnston goes on. “It takes a bit of time to get used to it, and now that I’m out, I feel bad leaving the water on while I’m shampooing my hair.”
While the crew carried out various research projects, just as visitors to Mars would, they were being studied.
Back in Honolulu, University of Hawaii researchers monitored them with cameras, body movement trackers, electronic surveys and other methods, gathering data on a wide range of cognitive, social and emotional factors that may impact team performance.
How did they behave? React in different scenarios? Deal with each other in close quarters? How was performance affected by being so far removed from the rest of the world?
Both Johnston and Bassingthwaighte were surprised to find a second Montanan on a crew chosen from applicants from around the world.
“We did find everyone ended up in pairs,” Johnston says of the six people involved, which included an astrobiologist from France and a German physicist and engineer. The other four were Americans.
Without setting out to, she and Bassingthewaighte became one of the pairs, based on their Montana roots, their early-rising habits and the fact that both enjoyed donning spacesuits and spending time outside in the barren landscape.
Not everyone did.
“Tristan and I did awesome,” Johnston says. “We were cooking partners, we both got up early while others slept in a little longer, and we developed an easy friendship where we could be completely honest with each other.”
That meant Bassingthewaighte could tell her she was “uptight,” and Johnston could tell him to “pick up” after himself.
“I’ve never been considered a neat freak before,” Johnston says, “but everybody has a different level of cleanliness, and apparently my level was far above everybody else’s. They all told me I was compulsive about cleaning. I’d say, ‘No, I’m not a compulsive cleaner, it’s just dirty.’”
When there were disagreements, the crew had to seek solutions.
“You couldn’t leave and go home,” Johnston says. “These people are all you have. They are your co-workers and your social life. If you find you don’t get along, you may spend less time around them, but still have to work with them.”
Johnston had also applied for a different research project that had nothing to do with Mars, and would have taken her to the North Pole. When funding for that one fell through she jumped at the Hawaii project.
The study begins before the crew ever sets foot on the volcano. Researchers want to home in on the best methods for selecting a crew that can work well together. The final step in the HI-SEAS Mission 4 selection process was a weeklong camping trip in a remote section of Idaho through the National Outdoor Leadership School.
“If you can’t survive a week of isolation, you won’t survive a year,” Johnston explains.
The camping trip narrowed eight finalists down to the six chosen to simulate a year on Mars.
The first two HI-SEAS missions lasted four months, and the third one put people in the Mauna Loa Dome for eight months. Mission 4 was the first to last a year.
“The longer each mission becomes, the better we can understand the risks of space travel,” says Kim Binstead, a University of Hawaii professor and principal investigator with the HI-SEAS project. The goal, she goes on, is understanding the social and psychological factors involved in long-duration space exploration, and providing NASA solid data on how best to select and support a flight crew so it can work cohesively as a team while in space.
It was interesting to see how they all reacted to different situations as the year went on, Johnston says.
When there was a broken pipe, some people's first inclination was to turn off the water, she says, “but others, theirs was to put towels around where it was leaking.”
“It’s completely barren and desolate,” Johnston says of the location. “It even looks like Mars. There are no plants, no wildlife, just lava flows. Nobody wanders up there for any reason.”
A thousand gallons of water was delivered every six weeks, and food was resupplied once every four months.
They strove to create Earth-like meals using ingredients that first had to be rehydrated, making quesadillas, French toast, quiche, spaghetti and shepherd’s pie. They even had sushi nights.
Exercise was important, and the dome’s treadmill and stationary bike got lots of use. Some of the crew worked up to marathon-length runs on the treadmill, and others made do when equipment was lacking. In the absence of free weights, crew member Andrzej Stewart deadlifted two deep-cycle marine batteries used in the dome’s aquaponics system.
In their spare time, crew members tackled new skills.
“When you enter a dome with five other nerds,” Johnston wrote during the year, “you are guaranteed to find someone who knows something you don’t know.”
She took up the ukulele early on, and others studied Russian, French, Morse code, or learned to play the harmonica.
One of the most interesting things, Johnston feels, was their reaction when they left the dome on Aug. 28.
“We’d been living by ourselves on a mountain for a year,” she says, “and we walk out and there are 70 members of the media there with microphones and cameras in our faces. They were aggressive and persistent, and it was obvious our personal space level had been rapidly growing throughout the year.”
Still, Johnston says, she’d probably spend a year on simulated Mars again, “because being with different people, it would be a whole new experience.”
There might even be someone, on another Mars mission, who would steal that “neat freak” title Johnston never dreamed she would hold in the first place, and that would be fine by her.