Life on ‘Mars’ by Way of Hawaii: Q. and A.
On a rocky, sloping terrain near the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, Christiane Heinicke, a 30-year-old German physicist and engineer, is one of six researchers conducting a yearlong simulation of life on Mars.
The group, part of the NASA-funded HI-SEAS project, began living at the habitat in August. They are the fourth group to take up residence there, and will be staying longer than any before them. The work requires Ms. Heinicke to live in a 1,000-square-foot domed structure with five other people. Escaping cabin fever is possible, but it requires wearing a mock spacesuit outside.
Life in the habitat can be isolating: During the attacks in Paris in November, Ms. Heinicke said she and her colleagues tried to keep up with the news on a delayed Internet connection.
But the group hopes that its work will be helpful for any real missions to the red planet, and can be found actively documenting daily life on Twitter.
Ms. Heinicke shared more about her life on “Mars”:
What about this experience has surprised you?
The first thing to surprise me was how spacious the habitat appears on the inside. It has a bit more than 1,000 square feet distributed over two floors, which is pretty small for six people.
Now, being a bit further into the mission, I am mostly surprised as to how much being confined affects me. I expected to miss the feeling of the sun on my skin and the wind, but the lack of those turned out to be not the most difficult part about being inside. It is the not being able to walk in a straight line for more than 10 seconds.
What sorts of foods do you eat on “Mars”?
Almost anything that you would find in a household on Earth. All our supplies are shelf-stable: Powdered eggs and milk, freeze-dried chicken, freeze-dried vegetables, clarified butter, dried fruits and tons of spices. We also have chocolate and some other snacks. Really, I am probably eating more healthily than during my life as a single before the start of the mission.
What creature comforts are missing in your habitat?
None, actually. We are surprisingly well equipped: We have a common area with work spaces, a dining table, a treadmill and other sports equipment, some board games and a projector, among other things. It probably helps that we did not expect much to begin with, because a mission to Mars would only be able to bring the most essential items.
What’s the Internet situation like?
Since we are on “Mars,” all our messages travel through interplanetary space for 20 minutes one way before they reach Earth. That is true for emails, web browsing and Skyping, for example. Since nobody wants to wait 40 minutes for an answer during a conversation, we don’t use Skype, or any other form of real-time conversation. We communicate with our families only by email, or video recordings that are attached to an email.
Have you developed any new hobbies?
I do have a new hobby, but certainly not because I have more time here. It is true that we save a lot of time by not having to go shopping, not commuting and not having to answer phone calls. However, we are still full-time researchers working on our projects and, in addition, do have to spend more time on household tasks than on Earth.
For example, before we can cook any of our food, we need to re-hydrate it; and if we have a power outage, we cannot simply call the electrical supply company, but we have to troubleshoot it ourselves, maybe with help over our time-delayed Internet. Your work days get longer, if you have to do everything yourself.
So, what is my new hobby? I teach myself how to play the harmonica, because it is small enough to have a good chance of being allowed on a trip to Mars, unlike the piano that I played before.
Do you want to actually make the first journey to Mars — currently slated for 2025?
Yes and no. If there is a return trip guaranteed, I would love to set foot on a different planet and prove it is possible to survive there. However, realistically, I will probably be too old by the time the first mission is sent to Mars. So instead, my goal in life is to conduct interesting research, hopefully to the benefit of mankind — and to be happy.