Why Everyone Should Live in a Dome for a Year

This is just a cool because the A’aaaaahh is wicked sweet. Lava rock is pokey frolicking fun. As long as you don’t fall on it.
This is just cool because the A’aaaaahh is wicked sweet. Lava rock is pokey frolicking fun. As long as you don’t fall on it.

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!

Even cleaning the toilet takes longer on sMars… composting toilets use less water, but they require considerable maintenance every three weeks. Photo by Dr. Christiane Heinicke
Even cleaning the toilet takes longer on sMars… composting toilets use less water, but they require considerable maintenance every three weeks. Photo by Dr. Christiane Heinicke

Time

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.

From sink and shower to laundry and floor
From sink and shower to laundry and floor

Water

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.

If every day could be a beautiful sunny day I would run a lot more
If every day could be a beautiful sunny day I would run a lot more

Energy

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.

The comforts of dome home
The comforts of dome home

Space

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.

Homemade Chicken marsala.There may have been words spoken that someone (cough cough Shey) would have paid real money in a real restaurant for this meal. Not bad for freeze dried ingredients. Photo by Tristan Bassingthwaighte
Homemade Chicken marsala.There may have been words spoken that someone (cough cough Shey) would have paid real money in a real restaurant for this meal. Not bad for freeze dried ingredients. Photo by Tristan Bassingthwaighte

Food

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?

Mauna Kea behind the lav-A’aaaaahhhhh. This landscape is remarkable.
Mauna Kea behind the lav-A’aaaaahhhhh. This landscape is remarkable.

10 steps to surviving on sMars

I write a lot every single day through email to Mission Support, daily reports, research projects, and surveys. None of these are a blog. So, I’ve finally spent three weeks in the dome and I’ve come up with a definitive list of the top ten ways to survive in the dome.

  1. Stay in Compliance

It’s good to keep the researchers happy. Keeping up with the daily surveys and research assignments is the easiest way to stay out of trouble and prevent extra emails from coming to your inbox.

Andrzej and Shey use an Oculus headset to perform one of our mission research tasks
Andrzej and Shey use an Oculus headset to perform one of our mission research tasks
  1. Cook Tasty Foods

The only difference between cooking on Mars and Earth is that we have to rehydrate most of the ingredients before we use them. So far, we have had some pretty Earth-like creations: quesadillas, French toast, soup, PB&J sandwiches, quiche, quinoa salad, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, shepherd’s pie… very normal foods. We also started growing tasty yummy crunchy green things (veggies) that should be ready for harvest in a couple weeks. ‘Bob’ the sourdough starter provides us with a daily loaf of bread, and ‘Phil’ the cheese allows us to have fresh, non-rehydrated cheese. See the Cooking on Mars tab for the recipes that I cook with  in the dome.

My first assigned cooking day resulted in spinach and mushroom quiche with a quinoa salad. The quiche artwork is the dome and SeaCan created by Tristan
My first assigned cooking day resulted in spinach and mushroom quiche with a quinoa salad. The quiche artwork is the dome and SeaCan created by Tristan
  1. Get Exercise

We have all been outfitted with handy dandy Jawbone® fitness trackers, which has made for lots of friendly competition to see who can get the most steps in a day, the lowest resting HR, or most glasses of water drunk in a day. There is no shortage of exercise activities to do either. We have a treadmill, a stationary bike, and the complete series of every P90X and Insanity workout. What happens if you eat too many cookies in a day? The doctor will order you to do ‘punishment’ situps or extra time on the bike. One running joke is that the crew has nothing to fear but Carmel on abs day… which is every day.

Andrzej gets his workout on in the common space of the dome. We don’t have any free weights, so the deep cycle marine batteries for our aquaponics system serve a second purpose.
Andrzej gets his workout on in the common space of the dome. We don’t have any free weights, so the deep cycle marine batteries for our aquaponics system serve a second purpose.
  1. Learn a New Skill (or Several)

When you enter a dome with five other nerds, you are guaranteed to find someone who knows something you don’t know. I am learning the ukulele (though all I know is Happy Birthday so far) and the girls have forced  the boys to partake in salsa dancing. Thank you to the selection committee for having an even spit crew! There will be jitterbug, swing dancing, country line dancing, waltz before the end. We are also learning things like Russian, French, Morse Code, harmonica and drawing.

Cyprien practices the ukulele
Cyprien practices the ukulele
  1. Get Lots of Sunlight

Getting sunshine is not as difficult as you might think. There are plenty of opportunities…

  • Go out on EVA where you get a face full of sunshine through the face shield of your space suit
  • Sit in front of one of the port hole windows… they may be small, but they give you a glimpse to the outside world
  • Sit in the bright sunny spot of the airlock… it may only be one foot wide, but it yields 50-300 ppfd on a bright sunny day
  • Use one of the handy dandy LightBook lights that give you full spectrum light from a little notebook.
Christiane is very happy to be outside on a beautiful sunny day. Most days have been foggy or cloudy so far, so getting a clear view is fortunate
Christiane is very happy to be outside on a beautiful sunny day. Most days have been foggy or cloudy so far, so getting a clear view is fortunate
  1. Correspond with Family and Friends

They are your connection to the outside world and hopefully they send you lots of photos of all the things you love doing outside, your pets, and your family doing awesome things (hint: Mom, I want more photos of Chester and Cash).

My mom says in a Jacques Cousteau voice “The tiger tabby of the Montana jungle often scratches the water source to remove debris”
My mom says in a Jacques Cousteau voice “The tiger tabby of the Montana jungle often scratches the water source to remove debris”
  1. Enjoy Quiet Time

I have never in my life been considered a morning person. I can get up in the mornings and be a generally pleasant person to be around, but I didn’t consider it my favorite time of day. Now, the early morning (5-7am) is my favorite time of day because usually no one else is awake. It is very rare to have complete silence in such a small space. The walls are thin, the floor is loud, and you can hear nearly everything that goes on in any part of the hab. It reminds me of every year living in a basement in college, no matter how quiet someone tries to be, it sounds like elephants taking dancing lessons.

Shey enjoys the quiet of her bedroom to do some studying before joining the rest of the crew in the morning
Shey enjoys the quiet of her bedroom to do some studying before joining the rest of the crew in the morning
  1. Do Science!

This is why we are here! To be test subjects and to do some of our own science. Stay tuned for a look at our individual experiments/ projects.

With the help of my fellow Montanan, we started seeds for our aquaponics system and for fun tasty vegetables for the crew to eat.
With the help of my fellow Montanan, we started seeds for our aquaponics system and for fun tasty vegetables for the crew to eat.
  1. Plan Your Post Dome Adventures

Being in the dome is rad but the real world is calling when I get out, so adventure time will need to be planned carefully. There aren’t too many things that you can  miss in the dome other than your family, friends, and the outdoors. After spending the entire summer frolicking in Glacier Park and never quite getting a fill of outdoor adventure, one thing I miss is being on top of the highest mountain around. The space suits are not very conducive to long treks, so the miles will only start adding up after August 27th, 2016.

Montana's highest peaks are calling my name when I get out of the dome
Montana’s highest peaks are calling my name when I get out of the dome
  1. Enjoy that you are in the dome!

People think that being in the dome is ‘isolating’, which is totally true, but it can be isolating in a pretty awesome way. We have the ability to shut out all the distractions of modern society… no social media, no news streaming, nothing that doesn’t come through a 20 minute delay. You can shut out the outside world and just focus on your tasks at hand. We have certain research tasks for the project that we have to do at specific times, but the rest of our time is however we want to fill it. We get to cook everything from scratch, wake and go to bed with the sun, and write emails instead of texting or talking on the phone. Life is a bit slower paced, but time goes so quickly. We are six over achieving nerds living in a dome… it is all data!

A sunrise on ‘Mars’ looking at Mauna Kea
A sunrise on ‘Mars’ looking at Mauna Kea