We are now one month into our year-long mission, but it’s already easy to see how different this year will be from our normal lives. Everyone always asks what we will miss the most, and that isn’t an easy answer. Whenever you travel, you’ll find you miss things from home, but you become accustomed to your surroundings and find that you enjoy what’s around you rather than pining for what isn’t. What I will miss the most is being with my family and friends…being able to go running in the crisp Montana air…seeing my nephew grow older and smarter every day. I don’t miss eating out in restaurants because most of us are fantastic cooks. I don’t miss driving in traffic (yes, Montana does have traffic sometimes) or having to choose what kind of toothpaste to buy at the store.
Instead I get to think about what kind of bread we want to make for the day, what research tasks we have, and what kind of exercise I want to do. This happens in the backcountry too; you spend so much time just surviving, making food, and completing your research, that you don’t have time to miss any front country privileges. How do you survive on limited resources and why should everyone live in a dome for a year? Because resource conservation is something that needs to happen back on Earth, now!
Time is everything. We all have the same 24 hours each day. Unfortunately we don’t have the extra 37 minutes we would actually have on Mars (I’d be happy with an extra 12 hours in every day). From the moment you wake up until you go to bed, you try to cram as many things into the day as you can, like cooking, cleaning, HI-SEAS research projects, personal research, correspondence, or exercising. The catch is that nearly everything takes longer in isolation than it does at home so you become accustomed to a slower pace. To cook, you have to rehydrate most of your ingredients beforehand. Yes, adding water to dry ingredients doesn’t sound hard, but to do this for everything (milk, eggs, cheese, fruit, vegetables, and meat), you end up with a lot of pots of boiling water and many more dishes than if ingredients came pre-hydrated. To get an answer to any question, you have to wait a minimum of 40 minutes for an answer, and it might not be the information you need so there goes another hour. To go outside, you have to put on a space suit which takes an hour on either end of your intended EVA. If you want clean clothes, you need to plan several days in advance. But hey, this is what real astronauts will have to deal with so it’s all part of the adventure. Everything about our lives takes time, and managing that time is hard… even on Earth.
The other day we were expecting our first water resupply. This is when the kind water robots bring us a tank full of water because we don’t have the fancy $250 million pee-to-drinking water converter that is on the ISS. A real mission to Mars would have the fancy machine which would mean needing to conserve water in every way possible, therefore we also conserver water every way we can. On the eve before our resupply, we needed to burn down the tank so that we could have a full top up in the morning. I filled up all the aquaponics tanks and then we all took showers trying to get as close to our target as possible without overdrawing. As I stood in the shower, I realized that for the first time in three weeks I didn’t need to turn off the water while I soaped up. I realized this after I had already turned off the water, hammering home that water conservation had indeed become a habit. I’m sure that as my mom is reading this she will wish she had sent me off to a dome long before my years of taking long hot showers in high school.
We also collect water from the shower and hand washing to reuse for laundry which is then used for mopping floors. Any method of water conservation or recycling is always worth testing out. We wash dishes but leave the suds on because Americans have a weird occupation with washing off the suds. Water that is used for rehydrating food is then reused as broth in tomorrow’s soup. Water is the most precious of resources… our lives cannot exist without it.
Maintaining enough power to the hab is crucial to our survival. We monitor our energy production and consumption neurotically, ensuring that cooking and exercising is done during peak production hours, and if we stop generating, we start switching off non-essential things like plant lights and waver strips. If we run out of solar, then we have a backup system of hydrogen, but that is really a last resort. If we have a cloudy day and don’t get to full charge (which happens quite a bit being on the side of a volcano), we chose a video workout over the treadmill. Soon we will have a power generating bicycle (the pedal-ator) to help fulfill both our exercise requirements and power generation limitations.
If you start with a limited amount of energy, how do you conserve to get by? Simple, use power when you are generating, discharge when you aren’t (I’ve Got the Power!). I am guilty of having left my phone charger plugged in for the entire duration of owning a phone prior to coming into the dome… vampires fed on the energy from my charger. I can hear my mom asking “Do you need this light on, can we turn this light off also?” So, what do I nag the crew about? Turn the lights off when you aren’t in a room. Turn off the waver strips when you go to bed. If you aren’t using the microwave, unplug it or turn off the strip. Not using your laptop… put it to sleep. Use the ultra-conservative ISS lights instead of less efficient lights. I may not be the Dr. Mom, but I am the energy and water conservation Mom.
We live in a dome that has 878 ft2 of usable space, and with six residents that puts us at roughly twice the population density of Mumbai, India. Granted, with only six of us it doesn’t feel incredibly dense, but there are a limited number of places to go. The kitchen is used for cooking, bucket laundry, and an extra lap when exercising. The dining room doubles as the research table on days we have computer tasks. The common space is an office, gym, garden, and dance floor. It’s like living in a tiny basement apartment in college and never getting to leave, but with windows for both safety and sanity. And if you decide to hide out by yourself in your incredibly small room for some quiet time, that’s okay too.
How much space do you really need? I’d say that we have plenty. We each have the personal space of our bedrooms, and there is always something to do in the lab, workshop, kitchen, or common area. In a couple moments of reflection, did I really need all the stuff that I hauled around for years? Not remotely! Anyone who has traveled for an extended time will agree that one backpack of stuff is more that you need for any amount of time. Sure, you might occasionally wish that you had something new, but most of the time you’ll be kicking yourself for taking too much. I’ve already found that I don’t wear half the clothes I brought and wish I could just send them back to Earth. Either way, stuff is just stuff, and if it has more than one purpose, then it will be more functional than single purpose items.
Just to clarify, we don’t have cheese powder. To whoever said that we live on tuna and cheese powder… we have freeze dried cheese that rehydrates into delicious real cheese. Not to mention our numerous homemade cheese and yogurt cultures (Haans, Phil, Geno) and sourdough starter (Bob). Yes, we have tuna, but it’s wild caught and comes in virgin olive oil. We also have FD chicken (my favorite!), ham, turkey, and many kinds of beef. There is an abundant supply of dehydrated/FD carrots, onions, tomatoes, peas, corn, celery, potato, berries, peaches (mine, mine, mine, mine), bananas, apples, and cherries. We eat the same foods as people who cook their meals and don’t eat takeout… so the same as before I went into the dome. Our food supply comes in every two months for resupply which means we have to carefully plan how we prepare meals and ration. No one wants to be known as the person that used the last of a resource long before a resupply. With the holiday season occurring right after our next resupply, it’s safe to say that I will be donning the Willy Wonka hat and making magical sugary creations in the kitchen. Pro tip on keeping a happy crew… Feed them tasty yummies!
Above all, living in the dome forces you to enjoy a slower pace of life, conserve resources, and find happiness in the simple things. Who wouldn’t want to give that a go?