Montanans Return To Earth After A Year In Mars Simulation

Sep 12, 2016

For the past year, two Montana natives lived on Mars — or, as least at close as we can get. Carmel Johnston and Tristan Bassingthwaighte were part of a simulated Mars-mission, funded by NASA and run by the University of Hawaii. From a Hard Rock Cafe on Oahu, they told MTPR's Nicky Ouellet about their past year living and working in an isolated space dome.

Nicky Oulett: What's it like to be back out in society after a year living in the dome?

Tristan Bassingthwaighte: Oh man, it is so much more stressful than being in the dome. Just, ugh. yeah. you get out and your family is there and that's great ... but there's literally 60 people with big cameras and audio recorders ... and I'm just trying to eat the first real strawberry that I've seen in a year. It just doesn't stop.

NO: Bassingthwaighte is a space architect from Missoula completing his doctorate at the University of Hawaii. Johnston, the mission crew leader, grew up in Whitefish and studied soil and water science at Montana State University. Along with four other crew members, Johnston and Bassingthwaighte wore space suits to go outside, conducted scientific experiments and even mimicked the time delay for sending messages to and from outer space.

Tristan Bassingthwaighte, one of six crew members who lived in a Mars simulation for a year, is a space architect from Missoula completing his doctorate at the University of Hawaii.
Credit Courtesy The University of Hawaii

NO: What does a typical day in the dome look like for you, in terms of research versus personal recreation time?

Carmel Johnston: Personal recreation time, I am not familiar with that. Most of the day revolves around research tasks. When you're not doing that you're coordinating for the next one.

NO: How do you go from studying earth-based hydrology and soil to studying Mars?

CJ: Earth and Mars developed in a similar way. We have volcanism on Mars, we have volcanism on Earth. We have flowing water on Earth and we used to have flowing water on Mars. So a lot of the lessons we can learn on Mars are directly applicable to Earth, because Mars is kind of glance into what could happen to Earth if we don't take care of it. It's actually quite fascinating how similar the two planets are.

NO: Can you give me an example of something you would build for space that could also be useful here on earth?

TB: Oh yeah. If I get to live in an extreme environment, Mars, space-type thing, then I’ll be basically the only space architect out there with that experience ... The big thing is how you're designing interiors ... They were very much going for the let's make it feel as open as we can thing ... You never actually feel like you're by yourself, and it can start to wear on you a bit. You can give people privacy and soundproofing, and maybe get rid of a little of the white paint, you'd be a little happier.

NO: So if you were going on an actual mission to Mars, and you could only pack one thing in your suitcase, it would be noise-canceling headphones?

Caramel Johnston, a soil scientists from Whitefish, MT was one of six crew members in the latest HI-SEAS Mars simulation.
Credit Courtesy The University of Hawaii

CJ: Yeah, I would highly recommend that for everybody, as well as just soundproofing the entire building as well. Put soundproofing on stairs and in between walls and around doors and make it so when a door slams it doesn't shake the entire building.

NO: What other little bits of culture shock have you experienced in the past week since exiting the dome?

TB: You know, I watched my roommates do the dishes last night. I almost had a heart attack. They were pouring water, they leave the tap on to rinse the suds off. The suds were off two minutes ago, put the bowl down before I die. I’ve been so resource-conserved for so long, I don’t think I can drop the habit.

CJ: I don't really know what happened in the world this year besides a bunch of terrorists attacks and all my friends decided to get married and have kids. But it seems like nothing else has happened in media or music and movies and stuff because the same videos are the top videos on YouTube. Like ok, didn’t miss anything.

NO: Does that make life outside the dome seem a little trivial, when you're spending all day working on science that's totally revolutionary and groundbreaking, then to come back and see cat videos are still popular?

CJ: I guess yes and no. Cat videos are pretty awesome. I think people underestimate how much humor is important for going to space, especially living in isolation or confinement of any kind, you have to have some form of fun outlet. We had our mission support send us the cute cat videos because that's what we missed and so we wanted to see little videos of that kind of stuff.

NO: Already into their late twenties, Johnston and Bassingthwaighte are too old to be considered for a Mars mission — they’ll continue supporting space exploration here on Earth. They both say that despite the lack of privacy, the noisy roommates on Friday movie night and missing fresh fruits and veggies, their year on Mars — even fake Mars — was worth it.

CJ: It is rewarding in so many ways. Even if every day was a challenge or every day was difficult in the end it was such a good experience because one, you learn a bunch of things about yourself and how you deal with people but also you just contributed to science in a real way. That's pretty unique and I feel it’s rewarding enough for me.