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.

Leave a Reply