"I'm beginning a sweater. It's with ridiculously tiny yarn, so I'm hoping it will take me the whole mission. So far, the project has been an entertaining microcosm of the way we have to work with limited resources. On Mars, it takes a village to knit a sweater." The above extract is not, as it first appears, some opening line of a blockbuster environmental space opera akin to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, but rather a dispatch from the blog of Laura Lark, currently devoting eight months of her life to living, working, and experimenting in a replica Mars habitat on Mauna Loa volcano, Hawaiʻi.
"It's critically important for humans to venture beyond Earth orbit, and I hope that a journey to Mars will be one of many, many steps that humans take beyond our home planet," Lark told Motherboard in an email from inside the habitat—an email that wouldn't have arrived in my inbox until more than 20 minutes after it was sent thanks to a simulated communications delay.
Lark is one of six crew members participating in the fifth HI-SEAS (Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) mission, a research effort by the University of Hawai'i, funded by NASA. The mission is designed to study human behavior and performance, helping NASA determine the individual and team requirements for long-duration space exploration missions—including travel to Mars. Lark is essentially an astronaut. She only steps outside of the HI-SEAS habitat to carry out geological research, and when she does, she must wear a mock space suit.
"The other skills I picked up as a member of teams at Google and before may prove equally useful…"
Lark's background isn't exactly what you might expect for a traditional astronaut, but her skills are exactly what will be needed for future space missions. Lark is a computer scientist and an ex-Google software engineer, a role typically typecast as providing essential space mission support work, but from ground control stuck firmly on Terra Firma. Lark told Motherboard that's shifting, though.
"With the ISS and the prospect of other long duration missions, the skills and traits needed to go to space are definitely changing," said Lark. "My technical background has already been useful in stabilizing our communications systems with Mission Support, but the other skills I picked up as a member of teams at Google and before may prove equally useful: how to troubleshoot, creative problem-solving, how to work with a large team (especially one dispersed geographically) to accomplish something very complex."
Lark's work on the mission will include generating 3D maps of the terrain surrounding the habitat that the crew will use for identifying so-called "targets of opportunity"—sites of scientific interest that they may want to visit—and for planning other trips outside of the habitat.
"We need teams that can thrive for years away from home in stressful and confined situations. The fundamental goal of HI-SEAS is to figure out how to select a crew and how to support them during the mission so that the crew remains cohesive and productive during a long period in a Mars-like environment," Lark said.
Yet other, equally less stereotypically-astronautical skills are needed for long-term space survival. Growing up in a small farm in Whatcom County, Washington, raising animals for eggs, wool, and milk for the family, Lark is also comfortable with getting her hands dirty.
"One aspect of growing up raising plants and animals that's quite relevant to the mission is the idea that you cultivate your own ecosystem. Since the mission began, I've spent spare time starting sprouts, reactivating sourdough starter, and planting flowers and vegetables," said Lark.
And even computer scientists still have to deal with space poop. "On a less appetizing topic, we have composting toilets in the hab to manage human waste and one of our hab tasks is to empty the compost and clean out the toilets. I haven't yet had the pleasure of taking my turn at it, but I'm not concerned; I cleaned up many a pile of crap as a kid," said Lark.
That's probably easy for Lark to say though, just a month or so into the mission. It's not until August when HI-SEAS V will officially be over and Lark, along with the rest of crew, can reunite with families and loved ones. Motherboard asked Lark how she'd like to see the world change over her tenure on Mars.
"I hope to see more cooperation," she replied. "Space exploration is, and will continue to be, a massively collaborative international effort. When humans go to Mars, there's not going to be just one flag on the rocket. We all live on the same planet and we need to start acting like it if we ever want to change that fact."
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