Living in a Mars Simulation
Dr Jocelyn Dunn in conversation with Megan Anderson
Photos courtesy of NASA
This story was produced in partnership with Pause Fest for Issue 3.
Dr Jocelyn Dunn launched her career contracting at NASA after spending eight months in a Mars simulation on a Hawaiian volcano. Now, she’s investigating what humans can and can’t withstand in space.
Megan Anderson: Can you tell us a little about your background, and how you ended up working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas?
Jocelyn Dunn: I grew up in Florida during the time of the shuttle program, when they were building the [International] Space Station. There were a lot of launches that were visible in the sky from my house. From a young age, that got me really interested in the space program – just from being able to see these amazing shuttle launches. And then I just loved maths and science, so it was a natural fit for me to go for aerospace engineering.
[During] my first week or two of classes there was a guest speaker, Dr Esther Beltran, who talked to us about aerospace medicine and the physiological changes that happen to the human body while in weightlessness and during space flight. That ignited some passion in me and changed the course of my study.
Your role is human performance engineer – what does that mean?
We use sensors to collect data about how human physiology is performing and then, once we have that baseline, we can work on improving performance in extreme conditions or evaluating various technologies to measure new aspects of health and performance.
Do you think humans have what it takes to go to Mars?
Yes definitely. We are tracking a set of risks to their health and performance, but what I guess you're alluding to is the psychological risk. NASA calls it ‘adverse behavioural condition’, but it basically means depression, anxiety – these mental states that can be problematic or are more likely to develop when you're in isolation and confinement for a really long time.
When we think about going to Mars, it's almost like being on a road trip for eight months just to get there: being stuck in a confined space with the same people, with a lack of sensory stimulation. This is definitely one of the high-priority risks that NASA is characterising and trying to work on.
Does part of that work include experiments like the Mars simulation you were involved with?
Yes, HI-SEAS [Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation] falls under that risk portfolio … NASA has also funded research at other analogues: there's one in Florida called NEEMO [NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations], where people live underwater for a couple of weeks, and then out here at Johnson Space Center in Houston there's another one called HERA [Human Exploration Research Analog] that runs for one to two months, which has a simulation aspect that introduces artificial stressors and measures crew performance. But HI-SEAS is the only one that's of a very long duration, 8 to 12 months, [because] you can't really simulate time, right? That's where HI-SEAS fits in.
Tell us about HI-SEAS. Where does that simulation happen?
It's a remote location on Mauna Loa, which is one of the volcanoes in the centre of the big island of Hawaii. At that elevation there's not much of anything. There's a tiny amount of plants you can see every now and then, and maybe an insect, but no real wildlife or anything – it's just lava. And so it looks a lot like Mars, and because of that it's already a really good place for a dress rehearsal for Mars, so we simulate going out on EVAs [Extravehicular Activities or spacewalks] with mock spacesuits. The habitat itself is similar to what's envisioned for a habitat on Mars, so you have that confinement and isolation from the rest of the world … Obviously you're not really on Mars, so you don't have the altered gravity or atmosphere, but psychologically you can make it as similar as possible. We even had a communication delay, which was 20 minutes each way.
How many people were in the habitat?
Altogether there were six of us.
Did you all get on? Or did you have moments where you'd hate each other?
For the most part we did [get on]. The first five to six months were pretty amazing. But [at about] the six-month mark it got annoying and a little frustrating. There's something about the six-month point – we've noticed in the data that … there are changes in the team cohesion ... After six months, or around that time period, people reach their max and have to express the values that they have, and what they find annoying. All that starts to come out.
That's so interesting. And what kind of stuff starts to come out?
You know, little things like, “Why do I always have to load the dishwasher?” or, “Isn't it your turn to vacuum?” or, “Why don't you ever go out on the EVAs?” … Instead of all getting along and playing board games or watching movies together, we started taking more time apart. We had our own little rooms, which were the size of a closet, but it was still your private space. So around [the six-month mark] we weren't always showing up to eat dinner together – sometimes taking our dinner plates up to our private rooms and watching a movie by ourselves on our laptops, rather than all together in the living area.
Classic sharehouse behaviour.
And the other thing is shifting sleep schedules. Because if you stay up later, or get up earlier before everyone else, you get a little bit of alone time – that kind of staggered schedule started to emerge a little bit too. I've seen that in other group data as well.
Did it feel like the time dragged on, or were you kept quite busy? How did you spend your time?
Every weekday we had afternoon tasks, typically for various research studies, and then in the mornings we would have our geology EVAs, where we would put on the spacesuits and go outside and explore terrain and collect geology data. Then we'd have to write reports and send them back to mission control, as if we were really exploring Mars. We [also] had to create new tools in order to get to depths of various craters and about 30 questionnaires per week to fill out about our moods, sleep habits, team cohesion, and so on … So that took a significant amount of our time. And then we also brought in our own research projects – part of the application [for HI-SEAS] was to propose what you would be studying to occupy your time.
Like a strange study retreat?
Yeah. [Laughs] Yeah exactly.
What did you have to eat and drink?
It was freeze-dried dehydrated food. Kind of like camping food – think freeze-dried green beans or … diced vegetables or diced chicken or meat. Then you basically just add hot water and it rehydrates into something like that original food, but it lacks a lot of flavour and consistency … But then we did have a hot plate and a toaster oven. So we could get creative – we had the ability to bake bread and make pizza. We made the best of it. The food I think brought us a lot of comfort and healthy competition. We would have a rotating cooking schedule and there'd be a chef and a sous-chef, and each team would try to do something really cool every night. That was fun.
Oh nice! I was wondering what kind of effect freeze-dried food would have on you over such a long period of time.
Well, at some point we started requesting more vitamins and supplements from mission control, because somehow you feel like you're lacking either from the food or from not being exposed to the sunlight – you're always inside or always in the spacesuit, so you never feel like you get Vitamin D from sun exposure.
Were there any treats? Or was the food very much for survival?
[Mission control] would resupply us periodically. About every two months they would drop off food and supplies in the middle of the night, so we wouldn’t see or hear them, and often it would include treats, especially if it was around a certain holiday – like Halloween candy or Thanksgiving stuff that could help us make pies. And even for Christmas they asked our family and friends if they wanted to send us any gifts so that they could include that in the resupply too, so that was nice.
How did you feel by the end? What was it like reemerging into society?
I guess by the end I was ready to go. I probably didn't anticipate how crazy life would be after, because of media requests and speaking events where I'd get asked to talk at conferences. So it was strange – it was a different life when I got out of there, and it was very overwhelming.
I guess that’s also something people going to Mars would experience – coming back to fame after being in such an isolated environment.
"It was a different life when I got out of there, and it was very overwhelming."
So after going through all of that [in and after the simulation], would you want to go to Mars?
Currently, I don't think so. I guess it's a couple of things: the first would be the radiation exposure … That's a really huge risk that NASA is still actively trying to manage. One of the scariest things when you think about going to Mars is the radiation exposure you will have on the way there, and on the way back, and potentially on the surface as well.
What other major challenges are there still?
Some of the other risks include the immune system not performing as well. Actually, a lot of the viruses we get in childhood get reactivated in space, and so you're kind of in this chronic state of inflammation.
Yikes. What kind of viruses?
Like herpes viruses, chicken pox, those kinds of things that you may be exposed to at some point but then they usually go latent ... [But in space] these viruses are reactivated, probably due to a combination of the stressors psychologically but also the stressors of the spaceflight environment on your physiology.
Another is the vision risk. In weightlessness, your fluids shift more headwards, because you don't have gravity pulling all that blood and fluid down. So that's putting extra pressure on the back of the eye. And so researchers are currently tracking how that changes visual structure and function.
Another risk is actually landing on Mars. When astronauts land back on Earth after being in weightlessness for four to six months, they have a whole team that picks them out of the capsule and takes them into a medical tent where they get care right away, whereas on Mars you'll land after an eight-month journey and there will be no one.
Is Mars something you work on a lot at NASA, or are you spread across multiple programs?
We think about it and work towards planetary operations. But because [NASA] is a government agency, with each president and each congress the mission always is changing slightly based on funding.
For a while [the plan] was to go straight to Mars. Now the plan is to go first back to the moon and build a space station around the moon, and then practice the technologies that we'll need for Mars on the Moon, which I think most people at NASA are very supportive of. When you're on the moon you could get back in a matter of days, whereas if something goes wrong on Mars there could be no chance of returning for months.
What's it like being part of an organisation working towards such lofty goals?
To be honest I think we need to be reminded of it … Every time we do step back and have these [NASA-wide] meetings, I just feel so inspired and so lucky and fortunate to have this amazing job – something that is basically my dream job, which I wanted ever since a pretty young age.
So what do you think about this idea to go to Mars? Do you think we should do it?
With Mars in particular, the reason why people are so fascinated is often because it is one of the possible places where life has existed. We want to study Mars from the point of view of searching for life, but also to understand what happened to a planet that seems so Earth-like, so we can learn about the climate change issues we're having by looking at what happened to Mars.
[There’s an element] of human species protection too … At some point Earth will no longer be habitable, so if we don't develop these technologies people will think – even if it's a million years from now – ‘Why didn't they keep this technology going? Now we're so far behind.' [Laughs] So it's a duty in a way.
There's a lot of benefits for people on Earth too: the technologies that we might develop to live sustainably on Mars, you can use to live more sustainably here on Earth too.