Interview 1: HI-SEAS Andrzej Stewart

image by Cassandra Klos for TIME

Interview with Andrzej Stewart from the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI SEAS)

One of the biggest obstacles of living on another planet is the mental health of the inhabitants. How can we prepare for something that is so unknown?

A big inspiration for our work are studies that are happening all over the world, in which humans are getting ready to go to Mars.  This is the first in a series of interviews that we are doing to help us understand what it could be like to live in isolation on Mars.

Andrzej Stewart was part of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI SEAS) Mission IV in 2016.  The purpose of the research that happens at HI SEAS is to determine what is required to keep a space flight crew happy and healthy during an extended mission to Mars and while living on Mars. Andrzej spent a year with a team of 6 people simulating life on Mars. He was based in a facility on the side of a volcano in Hawaii. Outside the landscape looked like the red rocks of Mars, and Andrzej and the team were kept under strict conditions to recreate the isolation of living on Mars.

We emailed Andrzej back in 2016 whilst the study was happening and he sent us a video tour of the habitat. We’ve kept in contact, now Andrzej works for NASA at the Johnson Space Centre in Mission Control.

We did an interview with him about what it was like to live on Mars and how can that help us think about designing our Martian house.

ROUTINE/ DAY TO DAY

Ella and Nicki: Please describe your daily routine. What was your favourite part of your daily routine? Describe your sleeping habits – did these change over time?

Andrzej: So, what I’ll say about daily routine, it’s very similar to what we do on Earth. You wake up and have breakfast, you do some work, you probably stop somewhere for lunch and probably stop for dinnertime and then have personal time in the evening….. Works pretty well on Earth, turns out it works pretty well on Mars too, so we stuck with it. The tasks might be somewhat different – on Earth you probably aren’t getting into spacesuits and going out on extravehicular activity but the basic structure is the same – in that it was breakfast, lunch, dinner and working during the day. I’m not sure that I had a favourite part of the daily routine. Obviously mealtimes are always good to stop and catch your breath. If we had interesting activities that was a lot of fun.

Sleeping habits! Now that was an interesting thing. We all had different sleeping habits. We had a couple of people that went to bed very early and got up very early. I was one of the middle folks, so I stayed up a bit later and woke up maybe 8 o’clock or so. And some folks went to bed later than that and woke up later. This wasn’t anything really planned but it sort of had the effect that for most hours of the day someone was up. There were a few hours when everyone was asleep in the night but it made that we had maybe 18 hours coverage of people awake in the dome. That’s probably not a bad thing. We had someone paying attention a lot of the time.

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HI SEAS hab. NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin

WELL BEING/SENSES

Ella and Nicki: What were the effects on your body and mind of not being able to go outside easily, without a suit on? How were your senses affected? Did you miss any familiar sensory experiences in particular? How much time did you spend in your own private space?

Andrzej: I’m probably not the norm on this. My personal observations on this came from my two week HERA (NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog) mission at the Johnson Space Centre and I also continued to notice this on the HI-SEAS mission as well. I found that I was actually very comfortable in that environment. When we were on the HERA mission we’d taken pictures of the outside world with us. I’d watched the movie Interstellar and I remember the scene from that where Matthew McConaughey’s character gives another character something to listen to and it was like thunderstorms from home. And so I’d gotten some, I think it was some waves crashing on a beach in Hawaii for that mission and taken them in there thinking I was going to miss Earth. And it turns out I was perfectly comfortable in the artificial environment and I didn’t miss that feeling of being outside. Again I think that was something very individual. I think if you were to talk to other crew members, especially some of the crew members that are more into outdoor things like hiking and that sort of thing, they did miss that sensation of going outside. But for me, I didn’t really miss that feeling of fresh air. I don’t know what that says about me! Maybe I am very well suited to that environment. But you know it’s a very individual thing. For me I was fine but if you were the type of person who likes to go outdoors, it would be a tougher thing to do.

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Photo of HI SEAS participant on EVA, taken Nadia Drake for National Geographic

Ella & Nicki:

Did you miss any senses?

Andrzej: I would say you do kind of miss the sensation of being around lots of people. It was something that you don’t really encounter, so especially when you come back from a mission, it does take some getting used to.

One thing I did miss, being a pilot I missed the sensation of motion and  flight. So even though we did have some VR studies we were doing there, including a couple of videos that were taken from the side of the cockpit of jets during airshows, that kind of helped but there was nothing that equaled that sensation of being in motion and being in the sky.

Another thing that I didn’t realise that I’d been missing but manifested after the mission, was the sensation of lots of things happening around me. I didn’t realise this until I was driving around one day, it was a very windy day and l looked out and I could see traffic lights swaying around, I saw trees moving around. And I realised that wasn’t something I’d encountered in a year. Being on the mountain we did have winds and stuff like that but rocks don’t sway.  So it was almost like sensory overload coming back. There was a little bit of sensory deprivation whilst we were there, that did take a little bit of adjustment when we finished the mission and were coming back, at least it was for me.

As far as private space it kind of depended on a certain number of factors, it depended on what I was working on. It also depended a little bit on the weather as well. During the colder months in the winter we wouldn’t be able to run the heater as much, so we tended to stay in our rooms a bit more, kind of just to keep warm, to keep under our blankets. Whenever it was warmer we’d usually get out of our rooms a lot more. For me I did have a period – I believe it was January – when I was spending a lot more time in my room. I was working on an Astronaut application for NASA at the time, and all of my free time was spent working on this application. So I did have a one month period in there when whenever I wasn’t working on the habitat science I was sequestered in my room. But that was because I had a specific thing I was working on. I know that we did appreciate having that personal space. Because sometimes you do need that ability to get away and have your own area. One thing you do notice being in there, is with six people being in a dome like that, there is always somebody around. It would be in stark contrast whenever we did have people out on extravehicular activity – if we sent 4 people out, and you were one of the 2 people staying behind, then the dome was this calm and peaceful place. It was something that you didn’t get to experience much, but whenever you did it was this unique experience.

PERSONALITY

Ella & Nicki: How much do you think personality played a part in the success of your time in the research facility?

Do you think your personality played a role in why you were selected?

How many people did you live with?

What were the dynamics of your group like?

Andrzej: So this set of questions, unfortunately I can’t dive too deeply into and that’s because these questions are very close to the central reason for the mission. So a lot of that gets into the data and things that are being studied for the mission. So I can’t really talk about these things, in part because that is the property of the scientists doing the studies. Since the scientist know better than I do, that’s for them to comment, not for me to comment. That also gets into the privacy of other crew members. What I can say is that I think personality does play an important role and you want a wide range for personality and crew types on a mission like this. What you want to avoid is ‘group think’, the idea being that if everyone is thinking the same way, there is a possibility that no one is thinking. If one person is doing something unsafe, for example, and the other five agree with them then that means you’re doing something unsafe. You always want to have a diversity of opinion and a diversity of viewpoint. So if you are going down the road where something bad is about to happen you always have one crew member that looks and can say, ‘Hey guys maybe we should stop and think about what we are doing’! So that is a good thing and something we aim for in real life missions is having that diversity of viewpoint, of life experience and that sort of thing. On engineering teams at NASA, that’s not limited to our flight crews, but also our mission control teams, our engineering teams – anywhere throughout the organisation. That being said the other side of the coin, if you have this diversity of viewpoint, diversity of opinion, sooner or later those are going to come into conflict and of course that did happen on our mission as well. It’s not even necessarily big things, small things can sort of manifest and being stuck in this pressure cooker environment can blow up into bigger things. I know one thing that we did struggle with was for example dish washing. We had a couple of crew members that wanted to save all the dishes until the end of the day, and other crew members seeing as we didn’t have much space or dishes, wanted to do them after the end of each meal. And that did become a sticking point, maybe even more than it would do out here in the real world, just because that enclosed pressure cooker environment.

I can’t really go much more into this type of thing. But what I can say is that personality played a role into my selection. The basic thing they say and for astronaut selection as well, you want to choose the type of people that you want to go camping with.

Oh, and how many people on my crew? For the Hi SEAS mission it was myself and 5 other crew mates. I have also done a human exploration research analog mission at the Johnson Space Station that is a smaller facility, and for that mission it was a 4 person crew.

CHALLENGES AND REWARDS

Ella & Nicki: What was the most challenging thing?

Andrzej: I’d say the most challenging thing, at least for me, was the communication with Earth, so to speak. Both mission control and friends and family. A lot of that has to do with the time delay. To give you a bit of background, places in the solar system, places like Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, these are all really far away. So whenever we send signals to spacecraft in these destinations, it takes minutes, to hours for those signals to cross the void. So as part of our mission, as part of the research, we actually simulated those time delays in communication. So we had a constant 20 minute delay on  all communications, emails would go to a  delayed mail server and be held there for 20 minutes before being sent along and the same with incoming emails as well. That meant no live phone service with the outside world, no skype, no real time forms of communications. There’s no face to face contact, no real time live conversations, Conversation that would take just a few minutes in real life because of that delayed back and forth would take hours even days. So it became very difficult to maintain communications. You would send signals, you would hope the people the other end were paying attention. You have probably felt this in the real world too, where if you send an email in the real world you hope people get it, in a reasonable amount of time and respond. In the real life if they don’t respond to you, if they are nearby you can stop by their office and ask them a question, you can pick up a phone and call them, if you get impatient. But in that environment there was no other way to communicate, so that if people ignored your email and were busy, and didn’t have time to get the communications, then there wasn’t really a whole lot you could do. That being said it worked to keep distractions out as well too, it wasn’t all bad. It did let us focus on the science that we were doing. It was almost like living in a monastery, I would say. A lot of the distractions, of constant information being taken away, it really gave you a chance to focus on what you were doing.

Ella & Nicki: Is there anything about you that you feel changed from having this experience?

Andrzej: I am probably a little more blunt now. The reason for that is, for a mission that is that long and in an enclosed space, means that you can’t run away from your problems. You have to admit whenever problems occur and face them head on. And that is something that you learn over the course of the mission, is it’s not going to get any better unless you face it and work to make things better. And I think that is something that I have brought back to Earth with me, after the mission – that I kind of don’t let problems sort of… fester as much as I used to, I kind of dig in and face them head on now. If something’s wrong I’m more that happy to point it out and say ‘hey guys, we’ve got a problem here’. Maybe that can be seen as a kind of bluntness but it is something that I’ve seen that it’s kind of helped out, at least for me.

Ella & Nicki: Is there anything you wished you had known before taking on this challenge?

Andrzej: Not a whole lot, and I think part of that is because I had that two week mission first, which was an experience in and of itself, but it was very short and it gave me an opportunity to do a little bit first, learn what it’s about and then do the big one. I was fortunate to have a staged approach to the big mission. I think that taught me the challenges that I was about to face when I took on the year long mission.

Ella & Nicki: What was the most rewarding part of your time?

Andrzej: This is going to sound cliche but kind of the whole thing, I mean just being there… working on science for a year, having distractions taken away. Being in this very science focused environment for me was the most rewarding experience, knowing that you are working on stuff that’s going to help humanity go out to the stars. Hoping that you know, of course things there were difficult sometimes but hoping that you are going through those difficulties so that whenever we do send somebody to Mars they don’t have to go through the same difficulties that you have. You have learned about them and learn to mitigate them in a safe environment before we send people out into the hazardous environment of space.

LIVING SPACE AND PERSONAL ITEMS

Ella & Nicki: What personal items did you take with you and why? Were these influenced by space constraints? Of your personal items which became the most important? What home comfort did you miss?

Andrzej: Personal items, so we were limited to about two suitcases worth of items on the mission. We could take more if we had experiments. So I think we did all end up taking a little bit more than those 2 suitcases worth, because we all had various things we were working on. I managed a few extra pieces of computer equipment so I could have a flight simulator to practice my flying whilst i was in there.

For the most part it was a lot of clothes, a few personal items, a few photographs from home. I took a lot of books. I thought I was going to read a bit more than I did in there. My laptop computer. I also took a Lego Mindstorm Kit. I wanted to learn robotics while I was there, and that seemed like a fun thing to do. A few board games as well, for the crew to play. Things were definitely influenced by space constraints.

One thing I will say is that it is almost sort of a calming experience, because you’re living with so little stuff essentially, you kind of learn what is really important. You kind of learn to live a bit more simply. If that makes sense. By having a lot less stuff it’s almost freeing. To the point when I came back after the mission, I did a big clear out of a lot of personal items. I found there were a lot of things that I had been keeping up in the attic and in the basement, that I had been keeping for a rainy day, to bring them out and do something with them and realising that it’s never going to happen. I was really just hoarding this stuff and it was almost a relief to get rid of this stuff I’d been acquiring over the years with no intention of using. Cutting down on all the stuff I had was almost a soothing experience, living with less.

The most important personal item for me was my laptop computer just because it’s such a versatile thing. I mean it’s something you use for your work. It’s something that occasionally came out with me on extravehicular activity. Whenever we did out astronomy EVA’s, the computer had some astronomy software that I would use while I was outside. So that was something that I could use as a tool outside. It also became a media centre, so we had a server in the habitat that had movies and TV shows and music that we could consume and so that became my portal towards that. I mentioned the books earlier and what happened is a few months in I realised my laptop had some video games on it. I actually ended up getting into some video games, some open world stuff like Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program, just because how versatile it is. You can also use it to record videos to send home, it was the tool I used to read emails both from mission control and family. To me that was the most important item, just because how much you could do with it and it because was a gateway to my communications with the outside world.

Home comfort – the thing I missed the most wasn’t really a thing. It was more friends and family rather than things.

AFTER

Ella & Nicki: What was it like when you returned to your normal life afterwards?

Andrzej: So the way I put it is, whenever you go on a mission like this it’s very different from anything you have ever done, but you expect that. So you go in knowing that your routine is going to be shaken up. That you are going to have to learn how to live again almost. But after time all these new things just become routine. So the way I put it is – what was novel became normal but at the same time what used to be normal becomes novel. And so especially for someone who is doing it for the first time, and this was an experience I had after the HARA mission. I didn’t quite realise what was going to happen. But you go through this process on the mission where all your routines change and then when you come out you have to learn all your old routines again. That can be the part that you’re not ready for – you expect a mission like this to to be unique and novel but you don’t expect coming home and going back to the old ways of doing things to be unique and novel as well. So it can be a little bit of a challenge to come back initially and learn how to live, you have to remember how you used to do things, and that’s not always easy to do, you have  to make decisions that you haven’t had to make in a while.

Things like going to the grocery store and realising you have many different types of the same item to choose from, where as before it was you got whatever you got, and that was something you didn’t have to think about. All of a sudden you have 30 different types of dental floss and you’re used to just having your standard issue dental floss and which one am I meant to use – my brain hasn’t worked that way in a while, and I have to think through it again.

Being around lots of people again takes a little bit of getting used to, because you’ve only been around 5 people in total. All of a sudden there’s lots of people around you, especially if you go some place public like to a shopping mall, so it’s lots of people moving  around you and they’re not necessarily paying attention to you. That’s another thing too, whenever you’re on a mission like this  you’re the centre of the focus – there are lots of people relying on you to be successful, to get the science objectives they need, to have you successfully do their experiments and to help you have a successful mission. They are all very accomplished people, very motivated people, everybody on a mission like this is motivated to help you, motivated to help you succeed. And then all of  a sudden you get back into the real world again, and then there’s all these people, and people aren’t as motivated as you’re used to and they might not be paying attention to you or know that you are even there. Lots of people in a shopping centre for example are going about their own business and they don’t notice you. And that can get a bit of getting used to too – learning how to operate in a society full of many many people again.

DESIGN

Ella & Nicki: Is there anything from your experience that you think could specifically help us with the design of our Martian House? How could the design support the well being of the imagined occupants?

Andrzej: I think it was very well understood throughout our crew, that having that private space, if you’ve got the space to do it, it doesn’t even need to be large, that even a little bit of privacy can go a long way. Because sometimes you do need that time to yourself. Being in a dome like that, even though you are separated from society, you are never alone. Unless you’ve got your little space to go hide in. It can be very overwhelming sometimes, sometimes even to the most extroverted people. I consider myself to be extroverted but at the same time, even I need my time to myself, my time to collect my thoughts and that sort of thing. So if you can have some way for the crew to go hide if they need to – maybe that’s not the right way of saying it – but some way to have their own private places.

Find ways to make multiple use of items too, so our dining room for example, which doubled as a movie room  because that is where our projector was and was where we had all our meetings. The main area of the habitat was where our offices were, that’s also where we got into our space suits and also where we did our exercise. So whenever you look at a space try to make it so spaces can take on multiple roles.

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Andrzej Stewart – photo credit Richard Clark

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