Life On Mars With Dr. Sheyna Gifford

Sheyna Gifford
Sheyna Gifford

Life On Mars With Dr. Sheyna Gifford

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Dr. Sheyna Gifford tells us about her year living on a volcano in Hawaii with just five other people as part of HI-SEAS IV, a NASA project to simulate life on Mars. Sheyna was the space doc on the mission, accompanied by a physicist, an architect, an engineer, a biologist and a commander.

Living in a 1200 square foot biodome and going outside only in their space suits, the crew studied the psychological effects and group dynamics that could be at play when astronauts make it to Mars. On Nerdette, Sheyna tells Tricia what the year was like and how she got through it. She also gives some excellent homework.

Tricia Bobeda: You lived in a confined space with five other people for a year to simulate what it would be like to live on Mars. What was the biodome like?

Sheyna Gifford: I like the term biodome. I think it will trigger memories of either a very cheesy movie or a very strange social experiment. There were definitely biological lifeforms in the dome, although we were vastly overwhelmed by the amount of equipment just for the record. It was more like a computerdome than a biodome at the end of the day, if you want to go by sheer mass. 

HI-SEAS, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, was an attempt to simulate one year on Mars. This was just as if we had landed on Mars, and we were setting up shop and bunking down for the long haul for the one year you would probably spend before heading back to Earth. 

The way that Earth and Mars sync up in their orbits, there are very specific times, it’s like catching a bus. You can either catch the early bus and it’s a short trip or you can catch the late bus and it’s a long trip. On the other hand, the late bus lets you sleep in. So there’s certain advantages to traveling to and from other planets. And one of the best transfers between Earth and Mars involves staying on Mars for a year. So the question is, “What becomes of the people who stay on that planet for a year? How much do they eat, how much do they sleep, how much exercise do they need? How well do they get along during that year? How does the teamwork hold up? What are the factors that contribute to a cohesive or more dysfunctional crew? Are there warning signs that NASA can learn to look for when there might be trouble ahead so that they can intervene, and how do they intervene?” 

So HI-SEAS was very much a psychological experiment. 

Bobeda: Was it ever like a TV sitcom? Did it feel more like a sitcom or The Real World?

Gifford: I think I’m gonna punt and say door number three. I’d say it felt more like Star Trek. The original Trek. You know how there’s a constant dynamic of personalities between the commander, the chief medical officer, and the chief scientific officer? It’s loving and antagonistic by turns, but always always the mission comes first. Because we’re out here to explore. That’s pretty much exactly what it was like. 

Bobeda: What are some of the things on the more physical side that you’re trying to simulate in the dome?

Gifford: So the actual structure inside the dome was about 1,200 square feet of living and storage and workspace. I’d say a three-bedroom apartment, but the world is a very diverse place, and a three-bedroom apartment in New York City is not a three-bedroom apartment in St. Louis or a three-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. 

The easiest thing to actually imagine is the cargo space inside a big rig. So you’ve got this cargo shipping container, and if you reorganize the interior space inside that container into a two-story geodesic dome, that is where the six of us slept, ate, worked out, lived, grew plants, carried out experiments, stored our electricity, danced, sang, threw parties, worked through issues. It was all in this shipping container. 

Bobeda: What was the dance playlist like?

Gifford: The chief scientific officer was quite fond of salsa. Apparently this is very German. German people love Salsa. Which, being from L.A., I have no objection to. It was a lot of very exuberant Latin music for dancing. For working out, it was actually dependent on who was running the stereo for the workouts. It could vary from electronica to country, which our commander was quite fond of, being from Montana. I really like Rodrigo y Gabriela, and jazz, classical, or punk rock with a beat. Music to work out to. It would really depend on who was running the radio station that day. 

Bobeda: We’d like you to assign our listeners homework. What do you think they should read, watch or do?

Gifford: If going to Mars or traveling in space appeals to you, think of yourself already as a traveler in space. You’re traveling in space, you’re on a very large ship the size of the Earth, and just like in space, resources are limited. You have only so much food, water. So much air. So begin to look around your world and think of yourself as having only so much of anything. Behave accordingly. 

Buy only the food you’re going to eat, and if you’re not going to eat or use it, compost it. Turn lights off. Wash dishes in the sink and then use that water to do the floor. Plant something that generates oxygen. And really choose when you buy things, when you purchase things, when you fill your life with stuff. Think of it as the things you want with you on your ship. If you don’t want it with you on your ship, do you really want it?

Fill your life with the people you want with you on your ship. If you don’t want them with you on your journey to the unknown, maybe choose other people

Most of all, decide who it is you most want to be in life and be that person. Be your boldest, most brilliant, most patient individual. Because that’s the kind of person who survives in space. Maybe not the academic genius, but the social genius. The one who looks past frustrations and finds a greater mission with the people in their lives. 

If you want to be a space cadet, please start now.

Bonus homework!