What's it like to live a year on Mars? We asked a HI-SEAS astronaut

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Sep 4, 2016, 9:17 AM EDT

Mars can be a dangerous and lonely place — even if it’s technically just Hawaii.

Sheyna Gifford has spent the past year living in a space habitat with five other crew members, only venturing outside with the protection of a spacesuit to collect samples, explore tunnels and hike the rocky terrain. No, she wasn't technically on Mars — but about as close as you can get without leaving the comfy confines of Earth.

Gifford was part of the latest Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission, which marked the longest Mars simulation ever undertaken by NASA. The crew set up shop in an abandoned quarry on the northern slope of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, living in a habitat designed to mimic what future astronauts will eventually use on the Red Planet. The site was chosen because it actually looks a lot like Mars thanks to the volcanic conditions, and its a fairly remote locale. Not, like, Mars-level remote. But still remote.

So we caught up with Gifford while she was roaming around Hawaii — enjoying everything the island paradise has to offer outside of a dome — to ask her all about what it was like to live on “Mars,” and what future astronauts could learn from this 365-day sociological experiment.

Check out our interview below, edited for clarity and flow:

I understand it’s still fresh, but looking back at your experience as a whole, what’s the most important lesson you feel future astronauts could take from this year-long simulation?

Gifford: As a whole, we tend to focus on the science. How smart you are, how physically strong you are, how well you can do this task, how well can you fly the rocket, how well can you land, how well can you maintain a spacesuit, grow food — just how well can you do your job. Of course, that’s critical. You don’t want to send people to space who can’t do their job. But you also don’t want to send people to space who aren’t capable of introspection, personal reflection and self-improvement. 

It doesn’t matter how awesome an indoor farmer you are if you are totally incapable of acknowledging the personal work you have to do to make it possible for other people to live with you and to do that work. So I’d say the most important thing for those future astronauts, those future explorers, those future Mars columnists to bear in mind is you have to take that image of your best self and try to overshoot it. You’re an overachiever. Be better than your best self. You’re doing it for your crewmates and for the mission. If that's not quite getting you there, imagine that you’re doing it for your kid, or your mom, or the person you love most in the world. Be that best self. That’s my advice to them: Be better than your best self if at all possible.


You spent a year locked in a dome with five other people, with no outside communication aside from delayed messages (designed to simulate the actual isolation of a Mars mission). You literally haven’t met a stranger in more than a year. From a sociological perspective, how do you feel that changed the way you interact with people, especially now that you’re back on “Earth”?

Gifford: When you’re locked up for a year, you kind of know what to expect. You know how to interpret. You know what mannerisms mean. You know what someone’s vocal reflections mean. You known by the look on their face that their having a bad day or they’re in a good mood. You have to learn, now that you’re out of the dome, to read expressions again. To read body language again. Too look for signs of how people are doing, because all you’ve had to worry about interpreting for the past year is five specific people. And now, you don’t know how to read the signs. It’s kind of going back to square one. 

How did your relationships with the other members of this crew evolve over the year-long period? Did the experience galvanize you all like a family? Did cliques develop among the group? How did you handle any disagreements and arguments in such a confined space, with no “escape,” so to speak? 

Gifford: There’s always an escape, even in space - I don’t mean out the hatch [laughs]. I mean, into your bunk room; into the bio lab; into the cocoon of your work; behind the aegis of your job. Whether or not you like a coworker personally, you step behind the aegis of your job and you interact with them professionally. So, there is always an escape, even if it’s not a physical one..

There were groupings, but it was also a family. Of course, in a  year any family has arguments, even if they’re friendly arguments, or disagreements about things. And how you handle that? You find out what you’re really arguing about. Are you really arguing about the dirty dishes and who stole the Pyrex? Are you arguing about the fact that the bio lab has taken all the Tupperware and now you have nothing to put the leftovers in? Or are you really arguing about something else? Are you arguing about how we use resources, and how you feel like people aren’t being respectful or responsible? You get past the superficial and find out what people are really upset or concerned about and deal with that. That’s how you deal with all arguments, fundamentally, on Earth and in space.


"There's always an escape. Even in space, i don't mean the airlock" -Gifford

Now that you’re back on “Earth,” how has that reclamation process gone? What’s been the strangest thing to get used to now that you’re out of the dome?

Gifford: Definitely an economy based on money. In space there’s no money, and nothing to buy. So, you just get used to that fact. If you want something, you either have to make it, borrow it, or go without it. Those are your options. 

Here, if you don’t have something, you can go acquire it for some amount of money. The value of things in space is really in people and what they can do. The value of things on Earth is a little more ambiguous. Sometimes, it’s in people. Sometimes, it's in property - and or personal possessions - or abilities. The things we value on Earth are different than the things we value in space. We have no need for fashion or looking good up there. No need for ostentation. Adornment is very minimal...being good and being functional will always take precedence in space until we reach Star Trek levels.

The HI-SEAS mission is staged on a volcano in Hawaii, which in itself is a fairly remote area (not exactly another planet, but close). Can you talk about that sense of isolation, and how you dealt with it?

Gifford: We didn’t have that much of a sense of isolation because we were constantly in communication with Earth. Even when we didn’t want to be [laughs]. The only time I really felt isolated was when our communications went down. They went down a couple of times due to power outages, and when lightning struck the server that ran our e-mail. It was actually kind of peaceful. It’s a good sim, but it’s not a complete sim. When you look out the window, you see Mauna Kea. What’s on Mauna Kea? A bunch of telescopes. These telescopes look to study space, but they aren't actually in space. So, you know there are people around.


One of the most intriguing aspects of HI-SEAS was the addition of a virtual reality component to allow crew members to create and spend time in virtual environments. How did you use it? What role do you think technology of this kind could play in a real Mars mission?

Gifford: [Former astronaut and researcher] Jay C. Buckey’s virtual reality program is a functional virtual reality system that allowed us to “visit” Blowhole Beach in Australia, a cliff in Ireland, and a CGI rendered fantasy fly through of Iceland.  That was really kind of fun. and a little bit transportive. You definitely went into the environment a little bit. 

The important thing that you can do with VR - or any study if you’re really looking to benefit astronauts and the people using it – is do what Jay did: He let us do what we wanted to with it. Our chief engineer said, ‘Hey, Jay, thanks for the trip to the beach. I’m not really a beach guy, but I am a pilot.' The next thing you know he’s flying with the Swiss Guard through the mountains of the Alps, flying with the Blue Angels, etc. We can send people to Boston, to Austin, New York, or wherever they want. Space is very impersonal. You take along the food you have to take to stay healthy, you do the exercise you have to do. How much choice do you have? Not a lot. VR is a way that people can have a personal experience in space.

You and the crew had work and tasks to complete, as any real astronauts will, but I’d imagine that obviously didn’t take up all your time. So, how did you combat boredom and stay busy and productive while living life in a bubble?

Gifford: Up on the mountain, there’s so much to do and explore. There’s a giant network of underground lava tubes. Every chance they got, the crew was going into ‘train tunnels’ of underground lava tubes that just go on and on. You would walk, you would crawl, you would scoot, you would climb and just have an adventure. Now, of course, the first explorers (on Mars) might not be allowed to do that that way we were, but we got out quite a bit. Basically as much as we wanted.

Sleep deprivation was one of our biggest worries, because we were a very driven crew: high-functioning and ambitious. Each of us had multiple research experiments and projects going on. For my part, I was doing seven research studies of my own. I wrote a textbook chapter, four academic papers, and two-part medical podcast. Plus, I was culturing cheese, yogurt and bread, and kombucha. I crawled into my bunk every night and fell asleep face first, and shot up the next morning so I could do it all again. So, boredom: not so much. 

"it hones your perception, I think, of why the world is truly dangerous" -Gifford

Though you and the crew could technically leave the dome, it was only while wearing analog spacesuits (which block the sun's rays, wind, etc.) to perform duties and collect samples outside in the nearby area. You’re in the world, but not of it. Can you talk about that process, and the suspension of disbelief it takes to play that role as if you’re on another planet? After a year, does it start to rewire your brain a bit in regards to your perception of the outside world?

Gifford: If you’re talking about the suspension of disbelief in that our environment up there wouldn’t kill us, you’re wrong [laughs]. I understood there was an atmosphere outside, the gravity was a full-G and not a third-G, but that was actually fairly irrelevant, because the environment would’ve loved to take a pot shot or two at us, and, in fact, did. Case in point: I was standing perfectly still at one point, looking for a way to crawl over a channel edge, when I fell through some lava. The environment could be very dangerous.

But it hones your perception, I think, of why the world is truly dangerous. It’s dangerous in different ways up there than ways down here...we’ve mitigated the danger of things, now. On the mountain, there’s only so much you can do to prevent the lava from collapsing, to prevent lighting from striking the dome, or prevent an accident where someone falls and busts their head. Each place has its dangers. Civilized Earth has its dangers. The wilderness Earth has its dangers, and space has its dangers. I cannot see that any of these are more profound than any other. The question is simply, 'What can you do to mitigate them?'

After a year away, what did you miss most about “Earth”?

Gifford: I’m holding my husband's hand right now. I missed him a lot, of course. I missed people...I thought this would be the thing I missed, the variety that people induce in your life. I know a lot of people. I’m a people person, because I like the things they do and say. I like their perceptions. Even if I don’t like their actions, I like how I have to think about what I don’t like about their actions; or their opinions, or fashion sense, or cooking. What do I like about it, what do I not like about it? I missed the variety of life on Earth. All varieties of life on Earth. Space has a limited variety of life, or at least, as far as we’ve met. I missed surprise and mystery, especially the kind that people induce.