Woman on Mars

Many of you are familiar with Camilla Corona, NASA STEM Ambassador, but we’d like to introduce you to another Space Chicken: Lucie Poulet, @Space_Chicken_. Lucie is currently a member of the HI-SEAS Mission 2 Crew, her second experience as an analog astronaut in a simulated Mars environment. She is also a PhD candidate and research associate at the Institute of Space Systems in Germany. GGNO is pleased to be able to share her unique perspective as an analog astronaut and a woman through this blog post she has shared with us from simulated Mars in Hawaiʻi. We encourage you to follow more of Lucie’s adventures on Mars on her blog.

 

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The greenhouse and the observatory of the MDRS. Photo Credit: Filip Koubek, Proficam

When I heard the news that our team was accepted for the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) 2013-2014 rotation, I was so excited; I immediately wanted to share it with the entire world. I sent an email to my colleagues, setting up a short meeting to make one announcement instead of repeating the news many times. The first question I got from some of my co-workers after they saw the email was “So what is the news? Are you pregnant?”… Yes. I am a young woman approaching her thirties and if I have good news to share, it is obviously that I’m going to be a mother. I was a bit saddened that these co-workers did not even think I could have good news related to my professional life. If I had been a man approaching his thirties, nobody would have considered asking me if I had a child on the way.

Anyway, after this bumpy start my whole team at work was very supportive for this mission and this is more or less how this big adventure of 2014 started. That was at the beginning of October 2013. We had been putting together our proposal with the RAR (Redundancy and Reliability of Extreme Environment) team since July of that same year (you can find more info on the mission here). I had only met our commander Ondrej Doule in person; I did not know the rest of the crew. Ondrej is a space architect and we met during the Space Studies Program 2012 organized by the International Space University and hosted by the Florida Institute of Technology and NASA Kennedy Space Center. I met the rest of the crew in Grand Junction, Colorado, on the mission’s eve, which also happened to be my birthday 😉 I love meeting new people so I was not nervous at all to be about to spend two weeks with complete strangers. And the overall mission went really well… or almost. Halfway through, one crew member decided to leave, without giving any warning signs. This was a very tough experience for all of us, a lot of stress involved. We had to break sim for about two days to sort out this emergency situation. But in the end this experience really bonded us and the crew became even closer.

We had a wonderful second week with a lot of research completed. And this is advice I want to give to all of you thinking of putting together a team for an analog mission, or any other research mission involving working closely with people and living in close quarters for a certain amount of time. It is not because you are very good friend with someone that the mission will go well and that you will be able to work together effectively. People react in different ways to isolation and close quarters. Add stress of getting all the experiments done in a short period of time and you have a winning combination for a psychological breakdown. The good news for space missions is that astronauts are very carefully screened psychologically. Currently we have limited data on how people react in isolation over long periods of time; and this needs to be tested over and over again before we can send people to Mars. We don’t want to ruin a multi-billion dollar mission (and the future of human space exploration in general) because one crew member has a burnout on Mars.

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HI-SEAS EVA with the habitat in the background. Photo Credit: Ross Lockwood

This is why missions like Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) exist: you select six astronaut-like candidates; you close them in a habitat for many months and you observe the crew’s performance and interaction. I’m among the lucky six who were selected for the first of three psychological missions and so far, we are doing pretty well 🙂 We currently are at the end of week 6, with 10 weeks to go until the mission’s completion at the end of July. In the meantime we have a lot of work to perform, for our own research projects but, also for all the different tasks which are assigned to us. No time to be bored on Mars!

Spending 4 months in a row with only 5 people, unable to have any direct communication with the outside world, with a maximum of 8 minutes of shower time allowed per week, going outside only wearing a spacesuit (which means you need a minimum of 30 minutes of preparation to go out and mission support needs to have approved your extra-vehicular activity (EVA) teaches you a lot about yourself and your limits. And my biggest surprise is that after six weeks, I’m not homesick, I don’t feel different, and I enjoy so much the company of my crewmates that I don’t even want to go home. If they had picked me for the one-year mission I would have signed without a doubt and I still would. Each morning we wake up here in the hab, we are happy to be contributing actively to the advancement of human space exploration and I think this is great motivation. I am convinced that humankind will set a foot on Mars within two decades. But I also know this won’t happen alone, by just looking at the sky and hoping to be there one day. This will take considerable amount of work, effort, and money. It is our role, to constantly remind the old generation that human space exploration did not stop in 1969 and to educate the new generation about the many discoveries to come along with human space exploration. Space travels in general are the future of humanity and will contribute to answer many unresolved questions.

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