One year in a dome in Hawaii: “DIY will be part of life on Mars!”
Published 2 September 2016 by Ewen Chardronnet
French astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux, 25, spent one year in a simulated habitat on Mars, 2500 meters up on the slopes of the world’s highest volcano in Hawaii. He talks about his experience rich in Do it Yourself.
It’s been barely three days since he came out. It’s midnight in Paris, noon in Hawaii; Cyprien Verseux tells us by phone how he managed to get by in daily life on the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (Hi-Seas) mission organized by NASA and the University of Hawaii, in order to prepare for life on Mars. The French scientist, graduated from Sup’Biotech and specialized in microbiology and space agronomy, was a bit like Matt Damon in The Martian during this mission that simulated life on the red planet. After spending one year cooped up in an 11-meter-diameter dome situated on the heights of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Cyprien and his five crew members emerged on Sunday, August 28. The primary objective of this fourth Hi-Seas mission was to simulate a stay on Mars in order to test the living conditions and mental health of the future pioneers of the red planet.
While they regularly had to answer an arsenal of psychological questionnaires, the crew members (four Americans, one German, one French) found the time to work on their research projects. Carmel Johnston, crew commander, worked on food production, hydrology and its impact on Mars and Earth. Christiane Heinicke, chief scientist, worked on extracting water from Martian soil using solar energy. Sheyna E. Gifford developed procedures for medical emergencies, such as surgical tools printed on demand for testing remote surgery. Andrzej Stewart, aerospace engineer, studied the use of outdoor drones. Tristan Bassingthwaighte, architect, studied designs of the base for upcoming missions. Cyprien Verseux worked on the evolution of microbiomes inside the habitat and using cyanobacteria to produce resources on Mars from materials naturally present on site (CyBLiSS: Cyanobacterium-Based Life-Support System project).
During this past year of the mission, did you have to find DIY solutions to everyday problems?
Oh, yes! DIY will really be part of missions on Mars! In our simulation in Hawaii, these kinds of The Martian situations came up quite often in everyday life, as we obviously couldn’t go to the store, so had to be inventive. If we had forgotten something, or if we broke something, we had to make do.
When we plan for one year of experience, even if we have a list of equipment, sometime down the road in the field, we realize that we have a new idea but we can’t develop it because we’re missing something, we break something and can’t replace it, we forgot something specific that might have seemed secondary when preparing the list but could have been useful, etc. In normal life, you can always adapt and buy later what you need, depending on how the project evolves. We couldn’t do that here, so we had to make do with what was available.
Hi-Seas IV crew entering the dome (video by University of Hawaii):
When did tinkering become fundamental to the mission?
Simple example: one day, our photo-incubator broke. But I absolutely needed it. So I had to tinker one together. With a fellow crew member, we took a big plastic Tupperware container that was used to store food, inserted a thermostat that we found on the base, a ceramic warming bulb that we plugged in, then we found some electrical wires from unused extension cords, LEDs for light, a PC fan and a thermostat to regulate the temperature.
And in daily life?
For several weeks, we had no running water. Our water pump was broken. We had a tank with water charges that we had to fetch, which involved an EVA, an extra-vehicular outing in a suit. There was another problem with these regular outings: the water wasn’t potable, there were algae, lots of things floating on the surface, etc. So we had to tinker a system to distill the water. We took a big plastic container, we put a hot plate on the bottom, angled a plastic film on top, with a container, so that we could distill the water and drink it.
Hi-Seas IV at the halfway point through the simulation (video by the University of Hawaii):
What about food experiments?
Sometimes we tried out stuff. For example, in my blog I talk about how I tried to make a roast turkey by amalgamating rehydrated turkey cubes into the shape of a turkey. As there were six of us, for the year-end celebrations I thought, “I’ll make a six-legged turkey, that way nobody will have to fight for a drumstick.”
More seriously, I used hydroponics. As we had very little space and very little equipment for it, I used old plastic bottles of agave syrup to support the hydroponic system. By cutting the bottles, turning them upside-down, putting moss inside, you created a hydroponic system.
In your biological research, how much do you resort to DIY?
For example, I simply made another incubator with aquariums. I put LEDs around it, used a photometer to find the right distance from the source, to get the right light intensity. I also used an aquarium bubbler to air out and mix.
During the extravehicular outings, were you confronted with critical situations where you might have made a breach with the outside?
To avoid that, we always went out with thick black PVC electrical insulating tape, just like in The Martian. Sometimes, when we went down into a lava tunnel, maybe a rock would tear our suit a little, so we put black PVC on it.
How did you benefit from real-time advice from the research team or participants from previous missions?
We did communicate with Mission Support, even though the exchanges weren’t quite what you would call real-time—there was an artificial delay of 20 minutes both ways, to recreate the distance with Mars. The people on Mission Support relayed in order to maintain permanent contact with us, and some of them had been on the crew from the previous mission, like the engineer Jocelyn Dunn, whom I met after I came out. We could also contact the people in charge of specific fields to ask how they did this or that, to get the past diagnostic of some equipment, where they stored this or that equipment, etc.
How would you assess your research?
I’m still waiting for the results of the microbiome. The analysis will take some time. For the cyanobacteria, I wanted to see if we could use them to transform elements present on Mars into plant nutrients, so that we could cultivate plants from Martian resources, one of the components of CyBLiSS. The results we got in the dome confirm that the idea is feasible. Now I can’t wait to find a well-equipped laboratory to formalize these results!
Any particularly funny DIY anecdote to wrap up?
I have a rather personal story… with a vacuum pump. We had a vacuum filter between a vase and a container, so in principle, we put the liquid on top, we suction it with a vacuum pump, and the liquid moves to the bottom container. Except that we couldn’t find a vacuum pump. So I put a pipe on the vacuum end, hermetically attached a syringe and used it as a mouthpiece to suction and create a vacuum. I spent a dozen hours laboriously sucking with my mouth. Once I was finished, I put down the syringe and took a deep breath. Then I looked at the wall and thought, “What’s that hanging on the wall hook?” It was a vacuum pump! Except that it looked like a glue gun and not at all like what I was looking for. I had seen it but hadn’t realized it at all. I found myself quite annoyed, with aching muscles. I had just spent 12 hours pumping like a Shadok!
“Walking on Red Dust”, Cyprien Verseux’s blog