This Woman Spent a Year 'on Mars' as a Psychological Experiment

"It can lead you to do some really naughty things."

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Mar 1 2017, 9:50pm

Images supplied

Environmental scientist Carmel Johnston has returned home to Montana after a year living on Mars. Well, a replica of the red planet, built on the side of a Hawaiian volcano. It's called the Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), and the idea is to operate long-duration "planetary surface missions" to investigate "crew composition" as a sort of psychological experiment for NASA.

Johnston, the team's commander, was in charge of six engineers, physicists, astro-biologists and architects. Living in total isolation with their every move scrutinized, the crew provided data on team dynamics and resilience from the high-stress confines of their tiny habitat: a dome of about 1,200 usable square feet.

An outdoorsy adventurer by nature, how did 27-year-old Johnston stay sane on an enclosed interplanetary outpost? What's it like to spend twelve months in the world's smartest share-house? And what the hell they eat?

BROADLY: First thing's first: why do we even want to colonize Mars?
Carmel Johnston: I think it depends on if you want to "colonize" it, or if you want to go and explore and learn about it. I want us to go and learn about Mars, but I don't want to have a permanent establishment there. I don't want to ruin it before we actually learn about it.

Read more: The Space Archeologist Studying the Junk Humans Leave Throughout the Cosmos

A good distinction to make. So how did it feel to live "on Mars" for a year?
Isolated. We had no real-time communication—we could still email, but being delayed twenty minutes each way is not the same as being able to talk on the phone. There were lots of times when we felt like no one was even on Earth, because no one was responding to us. We didn't know if it was a break in communication, or if something [had] happened and we had no idea. Earth might be gone, and we'd know nothing of it.

Did time feel different there?
Time passed really quickly for all of us, and that's good and bad. It's hard not to feel like time is slipping from your fingers. I started to think of time by just hours and days, and what we had to do each day. We were very busy. I focussed on, what can I do in the next hour? What do I have to get done today? What are we doing tomorrow?


What kind of tasks did you do each day?
We had to do about ten surveys a day: about stress, how our interactions went with somebody, what we ate in the last day, our sleep patterns, how much we exercised... we had all sorts of research tasks to do. We [also] had different group dynamics—team exercises—where we had to work together, or be on opposite teams.

What was the group's dynamic like?
I can't say too much because it's part of the research, but we were just a bunch of nerds in a dome. We agreed on some things, we didn't agree on other things, and that's how life goes in general, even here on Earth. You have people you get along with, or don't get along with. You learn how to deal with that, and you work together toward the common goal.

The dome. Photo courtesy of hi-seas.org.

Did you have strategies for dealing with things like conflict, loneliness, and anxiety?
I didn't have any expectations or presumptions about the year. I hadn't come up with strategies to deal with [any of] that. I certainly should have, but I didn't. I had to learn really quickly how to deal with that stuff. I did a lot of running. I did some knitting. Usually I did a lot of venting to my friends and family. Running was the main way I got through it. Exercise is good for everything; it was essential.

Exercise goes hand-in-hand with diet, and I really want to know what you ate.
We were cooking from scratch with all the ingredients you'd have in a normal kitchen, except it wasn't fresh vegetables and meat. It was all dehydrated. So you'd just hydrate it up before you used it, and then you could make everything you would normally: pies, pasta, sushi. Everything you could imagine, we could make.

We had lettuces, kale, chard, peas, beans, tomatoes—not very many tomatoes but we tried real hard.

You were growing your own vegetables as well, right?
I did grow vegetables! We had lettuces, kale, chard, peas, beans, tomatoes—not very many tomatoes but we tried real hard—radishes, sprouts. Inside, we had a whole room dedicated to it. It was a biology lab, essentially. One of my goals was to make the whole place green. We had plants on the desks, on the stairs, in the back room. Everywhere we could put plants, we did.

And in theory, this could be replicated on Mars?
Some of the experiments we did were specific toward being able to grow plants on Mars. Growing vegetables will absolutely happen.

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What did your time in the dome teach you about human nature?
Peer pressure can be really good and really bad. It can lead you to do some really naughty things. But it can also be extremely motivating. The human condition is really interesting: I keep thinking I've seen it all and I can't be surprised anymore. Then somebody does something and I'm still surprised by it.

Did your experience change your dynamic with friends and family when you got back to Earth (aka Montana)?
I had some really great friends who corresponded a lot during the year, and some that didn't. Everybody has lives. It was interesting—those friends I wasn't expecting to correspond with me a lot stepped up. They were on it. Some friends I thought would correspond a lot, didn't. Out of sight, out of mind.

That "out of sight, out of mind" attitude governs human behaviour, I think. When you can't see the consequences of your actions, you're not likely to change.
Yeah, we're going to have to change human nature if we're going to survive.