The Story of A Year

Where were you a year ago? Were you better off? Worse off? In a different city, a different country? Not yet in a relationship, about to be a parent, learning you had to say goodbye to someone who is now gone?

walking4Change happens daily, hourly, yet the magnitude of it lies in wait like a song slowly rising to a crescendo over the course of a year. Then, it hits a high note – higher than you ever expected – and you think, “my god, where did THAT come from?” I look back over the last ~364.25 days at and see so many differences from the year before it’s hard to pick out the individual changes. Like the notes in a song, they all blur together. Some phrases do stand out, however: new themes, transitions, sudden changes in rhythm and tempo, and, of course, the surprise endings.

Surprise! Someone I’ve known since she was a tiny baby went to college – on a full scholarship, no less. Way to go Clare! Your self-described mission is to end human trafficking. 18 years ago, when you were born, I was the age you are today, and not nearly as directed. You’ll make the world a better place, I know. Speaking of born, three fresh-baked humans joined my fold this year. This is a big deal, particularly in a group like mine that doesn’t make new people all that often. You three are the children of doctors and engineers. Your parents and we, their friends, will see to it that you have the best of everything. The world is already a better place because you are in it.

18 years ago, I was, funny enough, working on Mars Suit design at UC Berkeley. I was in excellent company, and I still know many people from that epoch of space-time. The fact that we’re still working on Mars suit design, a generation later, should say something about the scale of these endeavors.100 days watermarked

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and these days we don’t colonize planets in a decade or two. The pace at which we’re going interplanetary seems exasperatingly slow at times, I know. We haven’t dedicated ourselves to interplanetary travel in a way that’s forced innovation’s hand. For better and worse, we’ve had other ambitions. The even greater truth – the one that keeps me going even after 18 years – is that there is abundant evidence that we are capable of tipping the scales of creation towards almost any end, including colonizing another planet. Radical technological acceleration has occurred in places that matter to people in their daily lives: smart phones, smart cars, touch-screen tablets, 128 GB SD cards in 250 megapixel cameras, reusable orbital rockets, hollow organs grown in labs, with solid organs coming up behind them. I look at our suit design and think, “If you were a consumer item, you would have been built yesterday.”

I look at Mars and think: if we wanted to be there, we would be there. It’s not that easy, but in many ways it is that simple. Will breeds resources: time, money, and manpower. After decades of lukewarm warm-ups and false-starts, it feels as though the will to make this interplanetary masterpiece a reality is rising, becoming palpable, and preparing to make its grand debut. It feels good. For whatever else space travel is – a Herculean labor, a implacable challenge, a conundrum, an immense investment at all levels of society – it has always sounded like us. The ongoing attempt to become interplanetary is authentically human.

Speaking of ongoing attempts, this time last year, I was halfway through something else I’d been plugging away at for a couple of decades. My first science article ran in The Daily Californian in 1997 (a full-page piece on Comet Hale-Bopp). That I could pursue a graduate degree in journalism in 2014 was entirely due to profound generosity. Thomas Campbell Jackson, the man who produced Particle Fever, put me through school so that I could better communicate what science does, and why, and how it makes the world a better place. In the process, I met two dozen incredible people. I never would have known these women – yes, my USC Masters of Journalism class was all female – and today, I can’t imagine my life without them. First, because they are outstanding writers. You can judge for yourself by following these links. Second, because we’re all here to make journalism great, which is to say, to turn information into useful and pertinent knowledge and increase the world’s net intelligence. You can never know enough people like that. Lastly, for a whole nine months, I was not the strongest-willed, the most outspoken, or the most opinionated person in the room. It was unspeakably refreshing. Every one of them is out there, right now, being awesome.

HISEAS Crew Xmas CARD 2015 with copyrightThis year, I also thank the Universe for everyone’s health. I have 4 grandparents over the age of 90, two friends being actively treated for cancer, and several hundred good friends scattered across the face of the Earth, and, bless it, NOBODY died. STRONG work, people! It was a good year for that, with one exception. We take a moment to think of Victor, a young man, and a very funny one, gone too soon. They played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes at the ISS for you, my friend. Hail and farewell.

I met Victor in this last year when I took my first, and it turned out, pivotal step into simulated space. This year, thanks to HERA, I learned something about piloting a space plane – and how it makes your fellow mission specialist laugh out loud when you keep your promise to crash it before the simulation is done. The commander for our HERA IV mission, Ethan, is standing in NASA mission control right now, helping payloads make their way to the ISS. The mission specialist who laughed at me is very gamely on mission control for my current mission. The flight engineer from that mission is… currently downstairs talking to the space architect about art, and software integration and – hold on – a movie called Sharknado 2. Interesting. Like most sounds in this 1,200 square foot dome, their voices are carrying up the stairwell, straight through my thin plywood door and into my 9x5x7 foot bunk. In a minute or two, I’ll head down there and say hi on my way to the kitchen to see about rehydrating lunch.

All of this is possible, as I’ve mentioned, through generosity, a lot of luck, and no small amount of forgiveness. There are things that we’ve all wanted for ourselves and for the world – things we’ve been unable to produce or provide, in spite of repeated attempts and a fantastic amount of effort. Some of these are small: getting published somewhere, anywhere; losing a few pounds; finishing a certain book. On the other end of the spectrum stand Mars Suits, Mars missions, and stemming the tide of epidemics – obesity, violence, and environmental disaster. We all have big dreams and small, and disappointment to suit all sizes. To see those dreams made into reality, we have to forgive the fact that, so for, we haven’t succeeded. Forgiveness for lack of success is needed in order for hope to carry us forward. There are scorched launchpads at Cape Canaveral that serve as memorials to missions attempted and lives lost. Is that failure? The embodiment of disappointment? If we’d never launched another shuttle or stopped reaching for space altogether, it would be. 18 years and a lot of forgiveness later, I’m a doctor-journalist on a simulated Mars mission trying to design a Mars suit. It’s a better place than I was in even a year ago. It’s where I was trying to get to for all those years. I hope that wherever this finds you, you, too, are better off in some palpable way. If not, wherever you are now, in 2016 may grace, good fortune, and forgiveness conspire to bring to you the place you’ve been trying to reach, and beyond.

1/3 of the mission down - 2/3 to go!
1/3 of the mission down – 2/3 to go!

Ne’ilah by Marge Piercy

The hinge of the year
the great gates opening
and then slowly slowly
closing on us.
I always imagine those gates
hanging over the ocean
fiery over the stone grey
waters of evening.
We cast what we must
change about ourselves
onto the waters flowing
to the sea. The sins,
errors, bad habits, whatever
you call them, dissolve.
When I was little I cried
out I! I! I! I want, I want.
Older, I feel less important,
a worker bee in the hive
of history, miles of hard
labor to make my sweetness.
The gates are closing
The light is failing
I kneel before what I love
imploring that it may live.
So much breaks, wears
down, fails in us. We must
forgive our broken promises—
their sharp shards in our hands.

Gratitude at the 1st Quarter Mark

If this mission to Mars were a football game, this is the moment when we would stop the clocks, huddle, and take a moment to switch goals. In sports, and in life, these enforced breaks are arbitrary, but useful. In football, even if you can’t stand the ensuing commercials, it’s a good time to run to the restroom or refresh your beverage.  In life, it’s the perfect time to reflect on what the rules have been, how well they’ve served the team thus far, and if the goals do, truly, have to be moved for the next three quarters to play out smoothly.

Celebrating 3 months on sMars!
Celebrating 3 months on sMars!

All this is to say that yes  – things on sMars are going well. We’re still up here at 8000 feet, and, for all things, grateful to be. The weather was cold and dark for weeks, causing us to bundle up and tread the energy line carefully. A few days ago, some repairs were made to the hydrogen system, and VOILA- the sun came out. It’s been shining brightly for days. Even the legless horses of the fog, so fond of flocking around our dome every sunset, have been huddled in the valley below. Also, for the first time since the mission began, we received a robotic food resupply. Cooking had become increasingly creative as the weeks went on. We were down a couple of kinds of dehydrated meat, some veggies, and gluten-free flour. While the number of things you can make using only a few ingredients is truly remarkable, it’s good to have regular flour and dried fruit again. Even without powered eggs, which didn’t make it into the delivery, we were able to make a giant cookie for Cookie’s 30th birthday (which, obviously, had to happen).

Like the cooking and the weather, over the length of the mission, the science playbook has been evolving.  Just recently, we repaired our long-range antenna. Now we can hear the crew up to a kilometer away. As we’ve grown more dexterous at traversing the broken landscape – avoiding the sharp shards of frozen lava, or finding and following the flows that look like thick ropes or even strips of concrete – we’ve been able to locate large skylights. These are  essentially the collapsed roofs of giant lava tubes that run for miles in every direction. Some of them have crumbled in such a way that we can get down into them. That’s useful for a lot of reasons – not just adventure and excitement, but also for safety and science. On real Mars, as we’ve discussed, living underground is a lot safer than above it. Mars crews will have to locate, explore, and characterize good candidates for safe places to built settlements, even temporary ones. It would be great if we could send robots down to scout subterranean living locations in advance. Sadly, as the “helper” android at Fukushima so eloquently proved when it failed after 3 hours, when robots go down a hole, they don’t often come back up again. In this part of the solar system, if you want to walk, climb, crawl, survey, integrate information, and report back to the team, humans are still #1.

The end game of our current geology mission is to find a skylight big enough for all three of us to take shelter during a radiation event. We need to find these holes in the landscape, measure their width and depth, assess the safety of entry, and plot the fastest course from our habitat to the skylight. After the radio antenna repair, that’s coming along nicely. We can now hear crews even when they’re out of line-of-sight to the habitat, which happens not infrequently when you’re spelunking on sMars. For the rest, we’ve got crops growing like gangbusters, our food cultures produce more than we can eat if we’re not careful, and the crew has recently learned how to rescue someone who’s been through a rapid decompression. That’s a post for another day – coming soon! – but I promise, it was pretty cool.

Other challenges remain, though, and they’re pretty much the same ones that any Mars crew would face. The administration wants us to do more, and so do we, but there are only so many hours in the day. Everything takes longer here – not just the science, but washing dishes and clothes, and making basic repairs to the hab. Then, because our dome is only 1000 sq feet, and most of that is head space, we’re producing far more compost than we can possibly use. Mark Watney was able to farm with mostly his square footage, and so would I, if there weren’t 5 other people here and a second story built into the structure. It’s not just human-made compost we make several pounds of every week, either. We make at least a  large coffee can full of food waste. We could put it all to use, but don’t have the physical space in which to do so.

Building temporary greenhouses is our next big project. As with everything else, it’s just going to take time – and, tools, many of which we don’t  have. Think about it – at the moment, we can only launch 2 tons of mass to Mars at a time, at hundreds of millions of dollars per launch, and a maximum landing accuracy of somewhere within a six mile radius. Let’s be clear: being able to hit a circle six-miles wide on a moving target that can be up to 200 million miles away is VERY good. We’re getting better at launching and landing stuff, too. Once the LDSD works, we’ll be over 2 tons and down to a little less than 2 miles. The question still remains: How many tools do you pack into that 2.8 ton package? 5 Hammers? 150 Nails? A dremmel, glue gun, a single sazall? A 3D printer, a lot of substrate, and stuff to sharpen it up with? These are some very good questions, and we aren’t close to the answers. What I can tell you is that if we’re going to put our compost to good use to grow green food in “space”, we’re going to need a lot more space – space with heat, light, and air pressure, none of which are easy to come by, and all of which require scarce resources like tools, material, and time.

It’s not an easy play, but Mars was never meant to be. As our mission enters the second quarter, we face the three opponents I just list above, and, beyond that, a very mean-looking offensive line. As tough as scaling up production on external greenhouses might be when you only have a few hand tools and a cordless drill, it’s work, and humans tend to do better with work to keep them occupied than without it. While second quarter will no doubt see more projects and more challenges to strive for, seek, find, and not yield to, we’ll also be approaching a psychological milestone.  It’s sort of the metaphysical equivalent of sailing towards the horn of Africa. Back in the seafaring days, there was a well-justified fear of the place. Ships would founder there, fight impenetrable storms, and go to ground. Near the end of the second quarter, space crews have historically encountered a period in the mission marked by depression and listlessness. For all we might run out of power, have unexciting diets, and be pressed to do more then humans can physically do, none of these daily realities is more menacing that the possibility of this problem, known as third quarter syndrome.

I can’t see that happening here – not with this crew, who works, plays, dances, and makes movies (now on Hulu, and coming soon to the BBC!) to the point where we very nearly burn out. I also won’t deny the power of historical precedent. So we’ll celebrate the holidays cheerfully, work on as many new projects as we can without wearing ourselves out completely, and try to stay more than on top of our game as we enter the second quarter. We’ll look forward to half-time, try to hit our stride right at the end of the second quarter, three months from now, and, just maybe, make a little history along the way.



Movember on Mars

movember smallHello World! While we’re on sMars, the crew is doing our best to support continued operations back home. This means lots of research about how to live in space, now and in the future. It also means helping make discoveries that improve life in ways beyond, and much closer than, Mars, in fields like psychology, environmental science, biology, and physiology. That’s what this short post is about. For the month of November, the crew of HI-SEAS IV is joining the people of Earth in fighting men’s cancer. For the next 29 days, Movember on Mars will raise funds for prostate cancer research.

Our Fearless leader, Team Captain and Chief Engineer Andrzej Stewart, has put aside his proud whiskers for this noble cause. Please join him and the rest of The Mars Movember Team here: Donate or become a team member; leave us a note of encouragement or a fun photo. We like it all! See you there.




Happy Anniversary



It’s almost impossible to believe, but 2 months have gone by since my crew and I said goodbye to direct sunlight and unfiltered air.  It’s also been 2 months – 2 months and a week  – since I said goodbye to my husband, two cats, and home in St. Louis.

Leaving people behind is always unfair. There’s no two ways about it. Somebody, sometimes both bodies, take a hit. In our case, we try think about it as a win. We’re a team. The team goals are clear: explore the universe, seek things worth sharing, and share them with the world.

So, in honor of the team goal, which we’re living every day, albeit apart for now, I present:

The Team:



Team Motto: Make you life a story worth telling. Also: Find, Seek, Strive, Never Yield.

ann3stars and meteriod

The Result: Life on another planet, almost



Next Halloween, on the one-year anniversary of this day, I’ll be home. Love you!

Photo By Carmel Johnston



21 years to the Day: A Wave of Remembrance

As phenomena, “Fire” and “space travel”  go together about as well as “angry dragon” and “napalm”. So 21-years to the day from that my grandmother died, I forgo tradition a bit for the sake of safety. Sitting beside an electric candle, I try do what it is we’re supposed to on the anniversary of someone’s death: remember them.  Remembrance is a bit like opening a drawer full of bric-a-brac: old photographs; scratched CD mixes; a borrowed scarf that was never returned. Every time I approach this particular drawer, I pause as I reach the handles. There are things in there, probably even things I could use, but I’m not a fan of looking inside.

Funny how a generation can pass by and still, still some  things never quite settle. For this one, even my own advice – the same thing I’ve told many families after declaring their dear ones departed – doesn’t stick.

Here’s the nuts and bolts of the declaration. When it comes time to declare a patient deceased, the loved ones stand by. The first thing we (doctors) are supposed to do when someone may have died (and revival is not an option) is apply some “simulation” to the patient to see if they’ll react. I usually put pressure on a soft point like the earlobe. At the same time, I call that person (that former person’s) name. When he/she does not respond, I turn to the faces of the people who loved this sister/brother/best friend and report, “Your neighbor/high school buddy/brother-in-law is not responding.” The rooms stands by breathlessly while I check for breathing. When there is none to be found, I check for pulse. Finally, after a long pause, I gently day. “Your father/mother/child does not have a pulse. I am so sorry. Your loved one has died.” I wait a moment, turn off any machines that might still be on, and ask if there is anyone – spiritual/family/funerary – I can call. The required paperwork comes shortly thereafter.

If I have the chance to take the death certificate to the family myself, I’ll relay the only peace of advice that has ever helped me begin to feel better when someone passes: It has often been said that gratitude is the cure for grief.

Gratitude has gotten me through losing four friends my own age to accidents and natural causes. My first friend to pass, JL, gave amazing foot massages, for which I will ALWAYS be grateful. To say he was “a scraggly dude” misses the mark by orders of magnitude. The man had no sense of fashion whatsoever, to the point where he quite enjoyed dressing like an indigent circus performer. He hated cars – ironic, since one would be the source of his demise at the age of 22. He would take the N Juda light rail to the beach in San Francisco, and back, cold and wet, without complaint. JL’s smile was a masterful work of art hung on a wall 30 degrees off-center. It’s easy for me to sit here and list the things I miss about JL, the things I lost on the day he passed. I can do the same with HT, DC, and VV. It would take me a while. Hours, maybe a whole day, but I can pin down the things I am grateful for about each of them individually and collectively. Perhaps it’s because of this that I’ve made my peace with some of these deaths, and started to make my peace with the others.

That sentiment has yet to see me through Grandma Ida’s passing , and, for the first time, I think I understand why: with her, I cannot begin to quantify my gratitude

It’s not that I’m not grateful – quite the opposite. It’s that the magnitude of my gratitude is so vast that it’s overwhelming. It’s like those 40-foot north shore waves on Oahu, Hawai’i. When I say 40 feet, that’s the face height of the wave. That measurement does not include the base or the crest. With this wave we’re talking about a literal building of seawater, several stories tall, and getting taller all the time.

When I watched surfers paddle in, it was like watching a person ride an escalator made of churning foam. Down, down, down they would slip on their boards, as if the water were made of ice, not liquid. Then, up, up, up they would be lifted, riding the thinnest of fleeting rails, flying almost, along the giant, continuously collapsing, several-ton gray facade.

One day, I brought a friend from Japan with me to the north shore. He sat on my left, shaking his head, back and forth, pausing here and there to chant, “I can’t believe that they are doing that. I can’t believe it,” as if the phrase could ward off evil spirits. As if by invitation, a waterlogged surfer ran up from the shoreline and half-collapsed just to our right. I was about to ask him if he required medical assistance, when he turn to me, grinning, and said, “You two forgot your BOARDS, man!”

That’s it right here: the gratitude I feel for her – for the person that I am and the life that I lead – is a giant freaking wave on the shore of my existence, and I forgot my board. Come to think of it, in terms of being grateful for my life, I may be just learning how to swim.

There’s no GOOD time to take off the water wings, is there? So here goes: I may be like my parents in terms of intellect and physical appearance, but I am like my grandmother in terms of character. The old lady was a tough nut to crack. You know those people who are opinionated? Very opinionated? So opinionated they remind you of a backhoe loaded with TNT cruising down the highway at 100 mph? She would have been going 110. Grandma Ida as quiet with her opinions as a big rig going over gravel. She had a mind. It would be spoken. Anyone not appreciative of this tendency was at liberty to depart.

This attitude is hilarious to a seven-year-old. You know what’s even funnier? Having a grandparent send you to New York City by yourself at the age of 11 to see a show. My parents found out, of course. When they called to inquire in a manner less than entirely polite why their not-even-teenage daughter was loose in Big Apple with $40 and a ticket to Les Miserables, she laughed “like hell” and hung up on them.

Now that I’m approaching the age my mother was when she made that call, I cano see why she didn’t think it was so cool.

But man, it was so cool.

In addition to being apologetically if quixotically bold, Grandma Ida was indefatigably loyal. When it came to what she believed you could achieve, reality took a backseat to her will, and, occasionally, her whim. A perfect example: after my grandfather died, she became a volunteer at an activity center for old people, the vast majority of whom were younger than she. One day, I witnessed her casting A Midsummer Night’s Dream from among the wheelchair-bound. She marched up to one man made small by the weight of time, sunken in on his cushions, and, handing him a massively magnified photocopy, highlighted in vibrant yellow, declared, “Today, YOU ARE KING OBERON!” He grinned, and, in some strange way, he was very regal.

Grandma Ida believed in the people around her so fiercely that she compelled you, with the efficacy of a torpedo being propelled from its compartment, to believe in yourself. Brandishing the phrase, “You aren’t dead yet, so quit acting like it!” she repeated this performance for the Queen, who leaned upon a cane when she stood, and all the lovers, who held their parts in shaking hands.  In her presence, a shuffling mass of walker-dependent was transformed into a capering band of faeries, pixies, and bedazzled teenagers – and one bedraggled teenager hammered into sturdy enough shape to survive nearly anything that came her way.

My grandmother ordered me to be true to everything I felt was important; to value sanity; safeguard my integrity; to quit only after all cardiac function has ceased, and not moment before. On her gravemarker in the temple it says, “Reason Above All.” She valued utility highly – very highly – but not so much that beauty, particularly the kind espoused by honest and talented people, was lost on her. When her time finally came, she called everyone she loved. She wished us well, climbed into her bed at home, and passed away in her sleep.

With her dying breath that woman shot me out into the world. I landed a very, very, VERY long way away. 21 years later, I am exactly where she would want me to be. By no small coincidence, I am precisely where I want to be. I’m not sure that you can climb a wave of gratitude that immense. Not without a motorboat powered by rocket fuel and a running start.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to list all the things about her that I miss. Maybe it will take a week. Maybe a month. Maybe then, the gratitude will work its magic upon the grief – transform the painful, face-first crashes on the shore of memory into a long, peaceful wake. I would like that. A generation of mourning seems like long enough. And I know that not riding this wave to the end is the one thing I’ve ever done that would earn her disapproval. So there’s no way around it. Like the man said:

I need my board.

Space Oddities

One of the weirder things that can happen to you when you go to space and write a blog that you can get hit up for interviews VIA THAT BLOG. This has happened to me a number of times. For the first time, however, someone attempted to  interview me via a comment on my blog. Now that…is something special.

It’s a bit of a strange venue by which to approach anyone, particularly a scientist who also happens to be a journalist. After all, I am A) published, and therefore easy to find via a number of more formal means and B) going to look at you a little funny. Call me an old-fashioned journalist, but asking someone for an interview via their blog strikes me as a little like trying to pick up someone at their own birthday party.

“Happy birthday! I know that we’ve never met. Wanna have dinner with me sometime?”

It’s not totally out of bounds. It just lacks a certain…recommended panache.

Now, attempting to conduct the interview via the blog…that’s like asking the birthday girl to be your best girl when you’ve never gone on a single date.

But hey, if this is my party, I want everyone to have a nice time. While it may be a bit odd for a total stranger to offer me his varsity sweater out of the blue, it’s by no means the end of the world.  So let’s pour ourselves a tasty beverage, get as comfortable as possible, and take a long look at what this fine fellow is being so forward about:

  1. It’s been more than 20 days since the beginning of the Mission. How’s your current life? Are you satisfied with these days?

My life is pretty great, thanks. I eat well, exercise daily and take care of myself mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I also take care of others, which is a vocation I find very fulfilling. So far, I only have to harass 2/5 crew people about their health. One crew person needs more fiber and cultured foods. The other needs more exercise. Both have been quite good-natured about the aforementioned wheedling-for-the-betterment-of-their-physiology by the local physician, whom they cannot escape anyway, so they are trying very nicely to appease, yes indeedy.

2. Do you get along with your team?

Shockingly well. On the other hand, it’s part of my job to get along with people. No matter what people do or say, or how they say it, I am required to care for them. So constitutionally, and by professional default, I like people.

What’s surprising to me in many respects is how well they all get along with each other. The previous crew was rather homogenous: largely engineers who could sit around and bond over filing magnets and fixing the treadmill (not kidding).

This crew represents the most professionally diverse group to land in the dome to date. No two people are alike at all. Skills overlap in some areas, but not by much. Personalities, proclivities, even food preferences vary widely. Sleep patterns, levels of personal and professional cleanliness, exercise routines…no two are the same. On average, a maximum of 4/6 people will like any given kind of food. In fact, so far, the only thing we have all found that we can all agree is tasty is really really REALLY good milk chocolate. And my pizza. Everyone likes my pizza. 😉

So, while you could potentially plot us all on the same Venn diagram, we would each occupy different sector. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right?

Let this be a lesson in the power of respect. Respect for disparity, and even for diversity. More to the point, respect for diversity under pressure. Not a single one of us is replaceable. We know this as well as we know the ration of oxygen we need to keep us alive. We also know that by keeping these other people healthy and happy, we’re maximizing our chances of the same.

It’s nearly impossible to forget this fact: I need these people. They need me. At dawn and at dusk, and at all points in between, the reminders are constant. Every time I turn to a computer to do a task, I am reminded of the fact that I can’t run the habitat computer network. I could be trained to, as could any of us, but we don’t have to. The Chief Engineer takes care of that. He also maintains the space suits when we’re otherwise occupied. Nor do I have to grow the food. I could, but the Astrobiologist and the commander are all over it. That frees me up to culture food – yogurt, bread, tempeh – that will keep everybody’s systems happily chugging away. The Chief scientist has also designed and built the apparatus that collects water from the environment. The space architect fixes the hab. All this frees me up to do medicine and write this blog.

No matter how much someone may vex you, if you need them to eat, drink, and breathe (at least, when on EVA) you are going to find a way to get along with that person. As an added bonus, none of these people are especially difficult to get along with.

Like most professionals, each of us wants to have our own way in our own idioms (Soil science, water capture, astrobiology, engineering). Since we are the only ones in our domain, it works out rather well.

3. You are living without fresh air, fresh food or privacy… What are the most difficult point?

Explaining to people that we have fresh air, fresh food and privacy.

We don’t have these things in abundance, mind you. But even a real Mars crew is going to have some of all of these things. Fresh air via the fuel cells and plants. Fresh food via the cultures and plants. Privacy via doors that shut, or flaps that close.

The people who design these missions are wise, as well as smart. They know that mission success means a thriving group dynamic. A thriving group dynamic means personal survival, comfort, and dignity. So they make sure that we, individually and collectively, have some measure of control over our daily routines.

In fact, the good folks at ground support insist that we do more than just eat, excrete and get our tasks done. If we feel lonely, hungry, or uncomfortably, they are unhappy, unsettled and unsatisfied. A good day’s work for mission control is knowing that we got our tasks done in good order, went for a run, read something entertaining, cooked and shared a good meal, made a dent in our personal research, and wrote the folks back home. That puts a smile on their collective faces – knowing that we did much more than just survive today. Knowing that we had some fresh air, some fresh food and a bit of personal space puts all the people back at NASA in their happy place.

4. I saw in some articles HI-SEAS crews really can’t prevent interpersonal conflicts over these long-duration missions. What did you quarrel about? and How do you get over that?

The only human who cannot prevent interpersonal conflict is the one living by himself on an island with a single palm tree, devoid of coconuts, for company. And sometimes, not even then.

Mostly, we butt heads about the mundane stuff, just as all roommates do: dishes, dirty laundry. Who used the last of the milk, etc. Once in a while, we disagree about science, or procedures. So far, those disagreements are always respectful and almost always resolved rapidly.

5. What kind of things do you eat? What would you most want to eat?

Welcome to space! We eat home cooked meals everyday.

Sometimes they are whipped up in a hurry: reconstituted soup with a side of rehydrated veggies. Sometimes, the crew have slaved in the kitchen for hours. No joke, a few days ago, my crew mates made chicken marsala. This involved reconstituting chicken; using flour as a binder to make patties; rehydrating all of the ingredients for sauce; stirring them into a reduction; finding substitutes for things we don’t have, which is most everything; and producing something that, cross my heart, I would have paid money for in a restaurant without complaint.

Also, sometimes we make things that are kind of weird. Edible, but strange (fried tuna patties, anyone?) The scientists have been let loose in the kitchen! Sit yourself down, put a napkin in your lap and prepare to be part of the experiment.

Also, we get fresh bread, fresh yogurt and fresh cheese pretty much everyday.

So…What do you eat every day?


6. What did you do to take part in this mission?

A lifetime of learning and physical fitness, coupled with an ongoing interest in space that I never relinquished. Beyond that, I was at the right place, at the right time.

7. Do you have a plan to apply the real Manned mission to Mars later?

Do we have one scheduled?

If we surmount the mind-bogging number of barriers standing between us and a Mars mission – the human factors, the mechanical mysteries, the plant-based conundrums, the software gaps, the confounding fuel issues – if we weave evidence, trial-and-error and the fundamental laws of physics into a cloth that successfully covers the giant pile of nearly complete guesswork that is every first endeavor, and do this so successfully that we can have a Mars mission…I will rouse myself from my state of awe at the capaciousness of the human intellect and spirit long enough to sign up to go. Just check to make sure that I’m not dead first.

8. What is your role in this mission?

Intermittent harasser of mentally and physically fit space nerds, and advocate for generally safety, MD.

9. Recently, the movie has become the talk of the town. Did you see?

It’s not out yet. Did you? If so, there are some folks at Fox Pictures who would like a word with you…

10. What do you think the key to survive Mark Watney in Mars? Outstanding scientific knowledge? Positive mind?


Assuming he were an actual person? A calm, focused, finely honed mind encased in a total unwillingness to quit, topped with a healthy helping of snark.

11. What would you do if you are Mark Watney?

Sell the movie rights to my life story. Retire to France. Culture grapes that taste absolutely nothing like potatoes. Learn to appreciate disco.

12. Mission is 339 days left. Please tell your aspiration for the rest of this mission.

  1. Stay humble.
  2. Be able to do 5 pull-ups in a row.
  3. Finish a book chapter on global health policy.
  4. Stay sane.
  5. Run 6 miles a day.
  6. Get into a full downward dog, effortlessly, every time.
  7. Speak Russian at least as well as a 5-year old
  8. Teach my crew how to do search and rescue. Not just in case something happens to me while we’re out here – in case something happens to anyone in their circles, ever. So that they can be there for those people – especially if those people happen to be them. This will be my way of always being able to help, even when I’m not physically present.
  9. Make the best bagel on sMars.
  10. Write the wittiest, most informative blog in the history of Mars…. except for my crew mates’ blogs. May my fellow space oddities find a way to capture this experience even better than I can.

Rosh Hash 5776

A sweet and safe new year to my friends, family & Earthlings everywhere!

Love fwalking on red mars with bag and polerom Mars

The birthday of the world

by Marge Piercy
On the birthday of the world
I begin to contemplate
what I have done and left
undone, but this year
not so much rebuilding
of my perennially damaged
psyche, shoring up eroding
friendships, digging out
stumps of old resentments
that refuse to rot on their own.
No, this year I want to call
myself to task for what
I have done and not done
for peace. How much have
I dared in opposition?
How much have I put
on the line for freedom?
For mine and others?
As these freedoms are pared,
sliced and diced, where
have I spoken out? Who
have I tried to move? In
this holy season, I stand
self-convicted of sloth
in a time when lies choke
the mind and rhetoric
bends reason to slithering
choking pythons. Here
I stand before the gates
opening, the fire dazzling
my eyes, and as I approach
what judges me, I judge
myself. Give me weapons
of minute destruction. Let
my words turn into sparks.

Mad Respect: Mission Day 14

This post should really be titled, “MAD MAD MAD” respect.

Respect for what, you may ask? For life-long astronauts? For scientists and support-staff who over-winter in Antarctica? For servicepeople aboard submarines and ships who do this isolation thing all the time?

Absolutely, but I’ve respected the heck out of those folks for years. This is BRAND NEW respect we’re talking about here.

Over the last two weeks – two weeks already! – I’ve come upon a PROFOUND pile of respect – basically a MOUNTAIN of respect – for people who feed families of 6 or more in underdeveloped countries. It’s an all-day-long, and half-the-night-long endeavor. I don’t know how anyone does it for weeks, months, YEARS on end.

I am not kidding in the slightest.  I had ABSOLUTELY no idea what it took to keep a group of this size fed and watered by HAND until I was thrown on top of a volcano with five other people who like to eat bread, drink milk and dirty dishes all day long,

How did I miss this?  In high school, I lived in a dorm with 12 other people, including two 18-year-old Japanese football players who individually – not collectively – consumed a lasagna, a loaf of garlic bread, and a green salad the size of a 6-month-old baby for dinner EVERY DAY. In college, I lived in a co-op with 40  other similarly talented consumers of food and makers of domestic chaos. Berkeley + lots of pillows + movie night + popcorn => a mess of epic proportions. Kernels continued to be found in every nook and cranny for weeks afterwards (especially when the movie is REAL GENIUS. I should have known better). In graduate school, I had a minimum of 3 roommates at all times, most of whom were European (99% bread, wine and products derived from olives by volume).

Then it becomes obvious how I missed this. In grad school, I used to make a couple of loaves every week…in a bread machine. Here, I am making a loaf of bread A DAY, by hand. That is, after I, or another crew member, makes a liter of milk (long live Nido). Then, there’s the several rounds of yogurt culturing daily. Don’t get me start on the cheese. This crew likes their cheese (we may be 99% cheese by volume).


Rationally speaking, I know that a group of six scientists ranging in age from their mid-twenty’s to their mid-thirty’s can’t possibly be eating as much as my roommates in high school and college. The difference here is that everything you want to put in your mouth, you have to make it first. That’s where the mad respect comes in. There’s no running to the corner bodega around here. If you want milk, you reach into the pantry for the powdered whole, you head to the kitchen island for a measuring cup, and you set to work.

Once you have your milk nice and liquefied, you can think about making some bread. That’s assuming that you have a bread culture going, happy and bubbling away in a corner somewhere. Fortunately, we started ours shortly after the hatch closed. Our starter is a sourdough – milder than the San Francisco variety, a bit sweeter, and slightly more versatile. Also, after being fed and watered every day for two weeks, it is FUERTE. The starter – let’s call it Bob for short – began as a single packet the size of your thumb. Today, if you give it water, flour and something sweet to chew on (we use honey), Bob can grow into a puffy loaf the size of a football within an hour.

Someone still has to feed and water Bob – wake him up and get him moving in the morning. I’ve been making bread since college, so I didn’t think twice about doing it. Now that I’ve been baking loafs of bread by hand for two weeks…


…RESPECT. Mad mad mad respect. For the people who do this every single day of their lives. And also – for the food itself.

Take yogurt as an example. A lot of us enjoy yogurt. Many of us are aware that under that cool white exterior, the creamy yogurt experience is powered by some very active little bugs. Our batch of yogurt bacteria are called Filmjolk. For ease, let’s call our yogurt culture Haans.

When you nudge Haans from his slumber, feed him reconstituted whole milk and leave him somewhere nice and warm, in about 8 hours he hands you back a soft, vaguely sweet, mildly sour substance that turns into yogurt when you strain it through cheesecloth. In return for a cup and a half of milk, Haans (or, two tablespoons of him) will hand you back a little less than a quarter cup of Filmjolk. He’ll also smear himself all over a couple of bowls, a few spoons and a big square of cheesecloth, which you then have to scrub out. He’s a messy, messy guy. You are now cleaning up after him – after yourself and the crew, really – in exchange for what amounts to a few bites of yogurt.

Mad, mad, MAD respect for people who make enough yogurt to feed their families.

In truth, there are easier ways to do a lot of this stuff. You can culture yogurt in big batches, for example. All of that requires two things we don’t have a lot of: energy and living space. We don’t have a big fridge in which to store a quart of yogurt. We don’t have an oven than can bake 5 loaves at a time. We have a limited number of kW per day. We use most of those watts to keep the lights on, the water pumping, and the composting toilet fans running. GOD FORBID those toilet fans should quit (they blow the gases coming from our composting waste from wafting into the living space).

So Haans lives in the warm corners of the hab during the day. At night, we place bowls of rising bread near our bunks so Bob can baste in our body heat and rise while we’re asleep.

It’s like feeding an invisible garden with a watering can full of vigilance. We try to keep these little buggers alive, so that they can do the same for us in their turn. Neglegence means that the culture dies. No more bread. No more yogurt, until we grow another. This has already happened once. On a particularly cold night in the hab – we don’t have a lot of extra power for heat – a fromage blanc yogurt culture that had been left out to grow froze to death instead. It didn’t have a name.

I’ve been camping before, many times. I lived on an island in the Caribbean for two years. During my time in Grenada, there was a terrible drought. Even with strict conservation, I had to choose which of my papaya trees to keep alive (there wasn’t enough water for all three). I wanted them all to make it, but in truth I didn’t need them to survive. Before the drought, and after, the women selling fruit at the corner stands used to beg me to bring them back the tops of the giant pineapples they would sell me for less than a dollar. The top is the root. They needed them for the next year’s crop. I would cut them off carefully, and return them quickly.

I did that out of respect. This – this is the closest I’ve come to living on the edge. Take care of this or you don’t get bread. Take care of this or you don’t get yogurt or cheese.

Of course, we could live without these things, in some mediocre sense, for the next year. We have enough dried beans and vitamins to survive until next August. It won’t go well, though, and neither will we. By volume, each of us is more bacteria than human cells. Many of those are in your digestive track, and they are used to a certain way of life. To do more than just survive, to thrive and  function at our highest potential, we need to consume food that’s alive, too. Nothing out here on the lava fields is alive unless we’ve brought it to life and kept it that way.

Looking back over history, most of humanity was born into this circumstance. The daily reality of needing to keep food alive dictated their days, their nights, their entire lives. A year from now, if I wish, I can go back to buying 4 oz of Yoplait for 99 cents. I can take advantage of someone else’s vigilance – pay them for keeping the food alive until I’m ready to eat it.

The ability to pass an entire lifetime paying someone else to keep the food alive so recent a phenomenon that it’s almost breathtaking. A hundred years ago, it wasn’t a choice for most people. It’s now the default for nearly everyone in modern society.

Here’s what our mission highlights: In ultramodern society, when we head out to the stars, we’ll be going back to living on the edge. The cultures we have here making the food that keeps us alive and healthy – Bob and Haans and all the others – weighed merely ounces on the day we launched. Since then, they have turned out pounds of edible food. As living things we’re dependent upon, we’ll have to care about them and for them in ways most of the people reading this have never cared about food. We’ve all enjoyed food. A few times, the food in front of us has been so darn good it was a transportive experience.

At the edges of life, bread, simple bread, a living thing and a staple of human existence, invokes so much respect that it earns itself a name.

 The alternate title for this post is, “Don’t Kill Bob.”

Sinking In: Mission Day Five

When the experts assure you that something is absolutely, positively going to go a certain way, start making a backup plan.

It’s mission day 5. Blooking out 2 smally now, according to folks in the know, the media should have forgotten about the six simulated astronauts in a 1000 square-foot dome on the barren hillside of a volcano somewhere in the Pacific. While we’re up here getting our science on, the world is moving on. Police are getting shot in Chicago.* Joe Biden is giving speeches.**  In the Russian arctic, a group of scientists not so different from us is being besieged by polar bears.

Predictably, five days after we closed the hatch behind us and said goodbye to the world, my crewmates and I landed on IFSL.

The timing of this is uncanny. For the first few days in the dome, I didn’t feel like we were on Mars. We weren’t on Earth, exactly, either. We were in some sort of strange neither-world. Now, finally, it’s beginning to feel a lot more Martian.

I’ll admit: I was beginning to worry a little. During my last simulated space mission, there was no doubt in ANYONE’s mind: we were in SPACE. This immersive illusion was brought about by a combination of light, sound and rather impressive building-vibration. Back in April, four of us – an ISS vehicle controller, an air force battle commander, a ground controller for the Spitzer Space Telescope and me, Dr. G – walked into a vessel the size of two college dorm rooms and “blasted off” from Johnson Space Center in Houston.

When they sealed HERA‘s outer hatch, we sat down and buckled in. Through our headsets we given clearance to launch. This announcement was followed by the sound of stage one rocket engines and a low-frequency hum.  Then, as the sub-woofers below the building went from stage one to stage twHERA habo engines – these are the big mothers that really get you out of this world – the metal panels beneath our feet started to shake. On the electronic viewscreens, our only portholes to the world, the big blue bowl of the Earth curved into view. A breath or two later, our whole planet fit into inside the space of a single monitor.

We approached the moon at an impossible speed. A few seconds after I caught sight of the heavily-damaged yet hauntingly beautiful dark side, we were off again. Soon, on the screen at least, the Earth and the Moon were roughly the size of my thumb. Within minutes, the tgeographoswo spheres, one white and one sky blue, faded the black. After that, it was nothing but stars with darkness between until we reached our destination: Asteroid Geographos, the most elongated object in the solar system.

How we explored Geographos with our robots and space plane is another story. The point of this part of the story is that, from the beginning of that mission to the end, we were on our way to an asteroid. After that startling launch sequence; after seeing nothing but distant points of light for a week; after eating nothing but astronaut food; speaking to no one save my crew mates and NASA ground control; after doing nothing but preparing to explore a Mars-crossing space rock, every sense we possessed told us that we were IN SPACE. Our eyes saw the ISS fluorescent lighting. Our ears heard the echo of radio chatter snapping off of metal stowage drawers. Even our three meals a day, which we brought back to life with hot water and a syringe, conveyed to that we were hundreds of millions of miles from home.

For sure: but a few feet away, oxygen, heat and air pressure awaited. At will, we could have swept aside a few panels, found a door handle, and walked back into life on Earth. However, not a single one of us would have done it. Not because the illusion was complete, mind you. We knew, intellectually, that we weren’t in space, and not just because we had full-gravity. Sometimes during the day, we could hear gHERA crewround control laughing at us through the walls instead of the radio (usually during spontaneous dance parties***). During the night, thunder would roil off the tin roof of the aircraft hanger in which our vehicle was housed. Still, climbing up the ladders every day – up, and down, and up, and down – being awoken by music from beyond our little sleeping bunks, being hailed by ground control at 7 AM, and then the delay that caused those calls to be fewer and further between, all started to add up.

On one level, we knew that we were still on Earth. At HERA, on almost no level did it matter one bit. HI-SEAS was a different story–at least, it was until yesterday.

Here, the psychological effect wasn’t nearly as immediate. Maybe that’s because we didn’t “blast off” to Mars the way that we did to Geographos. As I mentioned in my mission blog, we were escorted up the mountain by a small entourage of media and support staff. We walked in over a doormat reading “Welcome to Mars” – a gift from my cousin at SpaceX – and that was that. Game on.

HI-SEAS has a kitchen stocked full of Earth-food. There are no daunting metal ladders. Here we enjoy the ability to stay in touch with the world via email (with a 20 minute delay). So, for the first few days, things didn’t feel especially space-y.

It was hard to put my finger on why. Though our food was from Earth, it’s largely dehydrated. Our power and water are restricted. To check the area for loose debris before the hurricane struck, we got the crew into space suits and went through a 5 minute decompression count-down.

Was it the hurricane that broke the spell? After all, there are no tropical storm systems on Mars. For the last 2 days, the white fabric of our dome has been whipped back and forth by whooshing air. In spite of what you may have read in The Martian – and Andy Weir is the first to admit this – Martian air, even in a storm, doesn’t whoosh so much as sniffle at you. Nor is there rain on Mars. Meanwhile, on Mauna Loa, for hours at a time, torrents of water tap on our curved roof with metallic insistence.

Was that why I was having such a hard time being “On Mars”? The food? The email? The weather?

In the end, it wasn’t any of those things. The effect did finally come, at an unexpected time, in a totally unanticipated way.

As I mentioned, here at the hab, we only have so much power. Weather permitting, our panels charge from 8:30 AM to roughly 5 PM. As you know, thanks to historic storms in the pacific, it has been raining on an off. Yesterday, we had a break in the clouds that lasted long enough to charge our batteries to 100%. This meant that any extra power we made was going to waste.

I quickly changed my clothes and started putting it to good use. As I jogged, I looked out one of our two portholes. It’s the only one with a view. If you stand at the window and look to the left, you face up Mauna Loa to the observatory. If you look to the right, on a clear day, you are looking up at Mauna Kea and the Keck telescope. In that moment, though, no buildings could be seen. As far as the eye could easily make out, from where I was running, it was rough red rock and sky from our doorstep to the horizon.

Every few minutes, I slid off the treadmill and over to the power panel to hit refresh. Yep, still producing. Back on the treadmill for another few minutes. Run. Check panel. Run. Hit Refresh. Run. Ask: Do we still have enough power for this or am I draining the battery and putting my crew at risk?


There is no risk to losing power – not really. If we run out of solar, we have a series of hydrogen fuel cells. If we burn through those -as the previous crew did a few times – we have a gas generator. Unlike the previous crew, we don’t even have to suit up and leave the hab to turn it on. It’s all automated though a series of apps and switches in our sea can – a corrugated metal trailer attached to the dome by  an airlock. If we were to somehow use all of that energy…we would be cold for a night until help arrived the next day. So, what was I afraid of?

Jogging in place, staring at the alien landscape, I realized, It’s the illusion we’re living. It’s the feeling that we only have the food that we have on hand. That we only have the power that we make. That we only have the water in the tank. After that dries up, burns through, runs out, that’s it. No more. Call it what you will – Mars, sMars, HI-SEAS, a really big, well-appointed tent on an active volcano in Hawaii – we’re living is as if we’re the only humans on this rugged patch of earth. And so we are, to a very large extent.

I credit my crew with helping to bring about this state of belief – not suspended belief, ACTUAL belief on some level that we’re out here making it work alone. We run around turning out lights. We save water from our showers and hand-wash our laundry. We’re raising cultures and plants for food. We’re being good to ourselves and each other, if for no other reason then, as of five days ago, we have no one else in the world. According to our own minds, on many levels, we’re it for now and for 361 more days. As precious as food, water and power are to us, thoughtfulness and patience are of paramount value until that hatch opens again on 8/28/2016.

Your state of existence, as well as ours, is fueled by what you see, smell, feel and hear. Input from your surroundings creeps in quietly and sinks in quickly, overriding any amount of logic you possess. That’s why magic (tricks) work. It’s how visual illusions function to fool you. That’s how we psyche ourselves into thinking that we’re safe in cars – or at least safer than in airplanes. That’s why expensive food tastes better. With enough sensory input, logic fails, or worse, runs backwards. In our case, helped us arrive at a destination hundreds of millions of miles away when we only left for a few days ago.

To question asked by so many readers – could we leave at any time? – the answer is yes, and no. The door handle turns well enough, but none of us would lay a hand upon it, except under duress. As we go about our day – hanging laundry, checking servers, examining samples – we eye the fluttering edge of our habitat and worry, vaguely, about the poisoned world outside. It isn’t there, of course. But if it isn’t there, why do we only leave this place in space suits?

* and **: Reasons hasn’t run the video they asked us to make them.

*** Very few people can fail to dance to Kenny Loggins’ Footloose

A Shtick by Any Other Name: Being Jewish on Mars

The Jews of Alaska self-identify as “the frozen chosen.” It’s even their domain name.

Hilarious and awesome. Of course, now that I’m headed to Mars, I have to think of something else to call myself.


Like all issues – ALL ISSUES – inherent to being a member of a 5776-year-old religion, it’s a little bit complicated.

The first part of the problem is that, on sMars, I’m the only Jew on the planet.

The people of the book heavily define ourselves as part of a collective. As a result, we don’t need a member of the clergy to survive (though, if there isn’t one around to resolve arguments on random minutiae like whether or not to leave the tent lights on during high holidays, average life expectancy drops precipitously). To marry, bury, name and bless things, we only need nine others of our kind.

That bring us to the second problem. Among the chosen people, I’m not 100% in the club.

In his recent love song to long-lost, somewhat-rekindled spirituality, Oliver Sacks describes how, upon revelation of his sexual orientation, he was shown the metaphysical door. He found solace and a community in science, where we don’t check your affiliations – religious, political or sexual – with quite so much vigor.

Science: Are you smart?

Smart person: Why, yes. Yes I am.

Science: You’re in. Grab a t-shirt and go solve something.

Similarly, though no in nowhere near as potent a dose as Dr. Sacks, as a child I was constantly being escorted to the spiritual threshold. My crime? Rather mundanely, but just as effectively, being “half Jewish.”

No one in the history of time has been able to tell me what I should make of being half of anything of substance. You can be half baked, half mad, and half interested. One cannot be, as far as I have ever seen, half loyal, half trustworthy or half a registered member of a religious cabal.

As a small human, I felt very much like the hero of the Gilbert and Sullivan play Iolanthe. “I am fairy down to the waistcoat.” Given that all of me loves chopped liver, and none of me would have been spared by the Nazis in 1940’s Germany, which half, praytell, is allowed to stay and worship with ya’ll?

Such exclusionary tactics are PROFOUNDLY antithetical to the entire premise of most religions, but, interestingly, not Judaism. Our ancient and wonky religion has an emphasis, unspoken in most modern manifestations but still utterly palpable, on having inherited something “special” through the female bloodline. Those of us without a full serving of the special sauce weren’t always allowed to stay and play with the other Jewish children. Not even kidding.

Even for a religion, this sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Like their very own species, religions seek to proliferate themselves, to keep up their numbers. Ours is no exception. So, they make copies of themselves, or, in this case, people. As anyone who has ever been to Brooklyn knows, ours is no exception there, either. In Brooklyn, and everywhere else on the planet, people are born with operating instructions made from nucleic acids, weak forces, whimsy and, possibly, some special sauce. And in our religion, as with all other religions except for Quakerism and a few other minorities,  these same purposely-made people are subsequently booted for birth-related indiscretions like sexual orientation, or having had the exceedingly poor taste to choose a non-Jewish parent.

So like Dr. Sacks, when shown the door, I opened it. On the other side lay a lot of very nerdy people who couldn’t care less whether or not my mother had converted (none of your business), if I had gone to hebrew school (yes), had a bat mitzvah or chosen to marry another member of the religion that only kind-of, sort-of wanted me in the first place. I was smart, so I was chosen. I could stay.

As Malcolm Gladwell and many others are keen to point out, at all levels in science, there are a disproportionate number of Jews. Gladwell has his own rationale for it, but for my part, the seemingly obvious reason is that Judaism disproportionately favors inquiry above tacit acceptance. As a Jew – half- Jew, quarter-Jew, whatever – the path to spiritual fulfillment is a sort of cognitive washing machine. It involves asking a million questions (load machine); getting at least as many answers (add detergent); ordering sandwiches (fill with water); masticating the resulting ideas into a thick pulp (spin cycle); getting a cookie (soak); and then re-asking all the same questions again in a slightly different way (rinse!). If your goal is to solve the maximum number of problems (though not necessarily in a minimal amount of time) it helps to have a few such people around. Also, a LOT of sandwiches and cookies.

Suffice it to say, when I was still a practitioner of the hard sciences, I ran into a LOT of Jews – well more than I have as a physician. Many of the members of the department of astrophysics at Berkeley were Jewish, and quite observant at that. The evolving superstructure of the Universe, was named, no kidding, “The fingers of God.”  Even the non-Jews tended towards the spiritual. Having described what happened the first 1/100th of a second after the Universe came into existence, my Introduction to Astrophysics professor Frank Shu threw his well-tanned, sinewy, chalk-covered arms in the air and cried, “And what happened before that? NO ONE KNOWS! I’m willing to chalk it up to god – how about you?” before the passionate need to write in linear algebra overtook him once more.

So it’s not that science and faith aren’t in the same boat, people. The passengers are, in fact, identical. It’s just that when religion throws someone overboard, that person can always swim towards science’s solidly rational archipelago. Lying prone on the beachhead, breathless and drenched, you can recover undisturbed by questions about who your parents were or your lovers are. Other questions, many other questions, will tug at you cyclically, insatiable and insistent, but not those questions.

So how, you ask, was it that I came to inquire about how to be Jewish on Mars?

You’ve read this far. You cannot POSSIBLY be surprised that I asked this question. What should surprise you even less is that I was not the first person to ask this question. In fact, there are papers already written on HOW TO BE JEWISH IN SPACE. No. Kidding.

One of them was written by a friend of mine. Quoth Rabbi Josh:

The past fifty years have seen the beginning of humanity’s long process of expanding

into space. To the Jews, a people who have existed in the Diaspora for generations, the

idea of moving beyond one’s traditional home is nothing new. But many of the religious

issues facing a successful migration to extraterrestrial environments are complex in the

extreme. When considering extraterrestrial halacha, this paper will work from the center

outward; from near-Earth environments to other celestial neighborhoods.

Rabbi’s Josh’s paper goes on to tackle such astronomical challenges as:

Q1: When you’re in a space station that circles the Earth every 90 minutes, experiencing multiple sundowns daily, when, precisely, do you get your Jew on?

A1: If your station is in a non-geosynchronous orbit above a planetary body, apply the Arctic rule.*

Q2: A lunar day lasts 30 Earth days. When do I mark the Sabbath on the Moon?

A2: Light the candles at the same time as Ground Control.

Q3: When should we celebrate Shabbat on Mars?

A3: Well, it depends.

Oh, God. Here we go.

Martian days are longer than Terran days by 40 minutes. That doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly. Every month, Martians have 20 more hours on the clock. By the end of the year, Jews on Earth and on Mars are celebrating the Sabbath on different days of the week.

Next question: is that a problem?

This is only a problem if you think that Earth is, metaphysically, the center of the Universe. Which…I can’t quite see, and neither can Rabbi Josh:

Mars is a planet in its own right, with a day/night cycle completely valid to the religious life its colonists. There is every reason to conclude that a Martian day would be an acceptable religious interval for Jews living on Mars.

The alternative would be to try and keep time with a city on Earth, which, assuming you stayed on Mars between launch windows, would result in celebrating Shabbat at noon, midnight and various times in between for a year (WAKE UP, DAVE. IT’S TIME TO BE JEWISH!)

Throughout the span of a human lifetime, spirituality waxes and wanes. Dr. Sacks is coming upon a time when coming home, metaphysically, before moving on into the next life, feels good. And when he knocked on that door, it was opened for him, with wonderful results. His people chose him again, and he them.

It’s hard to be a Jew in a vacuum. Even with a spacesuit on. It’s made infinitely easier by the fact that my crew chose me. We voted on who we wanted to be with us on this journal to sMars. I think, for now, that’s more than good enough. With any luck, they won’t be escorting me to the airlock. My secret plan to prevent this involves sandwiches and cookies.

Martian Medi-Jew, signing off.


* Because there’s no sun to be had sometimes, and no sunset at others, the frozen chosen and others at extreme latitudes mark the Sabbath by looking towards the nearest city that HAS a sunset and using that time.