BOZEMAN – Montana State University alumna Carmel Johnston made national news after emerging from a dome located on the slope of a Hawaiian volcano where she lived for a year as part of a NASA-funded project to simulate life on Mars.
Johnston, a soil scientist from Whitefish who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MSU’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture, served as mission commander of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, project, led by the University of Hawaii.
The focus of the yearlong mission was to study how living in isolation in deep space for long durations affects crewmember cohesion and performance, and to provide NASA with data on how to select and support a flight crew that will work cohesively as a team while in space. For the mission, crewmembers had to behave and live as if they were truly on Mars.
Along with five other researchers, Johnston moved into the two-story, solar-powered dome on the Mauna Loa volcano on Aug. 28, 2015.
Johnston said there were a number of reasons she joined the mission, which was the fourth – and longest – of the HI-SEAS missions. Previous missions lasted four or eight months.
“I wanted to participate in HI-SEAS to contribute to space exploration, conduct research in a unique environment and test my personal limits,” she said.
Before entering the dome, Johnston spent the summer working in Glacier Park, enjoying as much time outdoors as she could.
“There aren’t too many things that you can miss in the dome other than your family, friends and the outdoors,” she said.
As commander, Johnston’s role was to ensure that crewmembers were compliant with the mission objectives and research tasks, such as geologic exploring and analysis, team cooperation tasks and completing daily surveys.
“I spent a good deal of time emailing with mission support about our status, progress or any issues that were occurring and then working to fix any problems that we had,” Johnston said.
The crew documented some of their day-to-day life for The History Channel’s “History Now” video series, “The Martians.” The series gives viewers a look inside the dome and at some challenges crewmembers faced, such as how they handled their assigned tasks, what it takes to grow a garden in light-limited conditions, the struggle of keeping in touch with loved ones and what it means to rely completely on solar power.
In the third episode of the series, Johnston gives a tour of the crew’s food storage area and talks about the importance of food to crew morale.
“The relationship between food and crew morale is really important,” Johnston says in the video. “If you’re eating food that you don’t like, then your morale is going to be really low, so I make a lot of the same things my mom makes and that makes me feel closer to home and also more connected to my family.”
Johnston explained that earlier HI-SEAS missions performed a food study to determine whether astronauts would be more satisfied with cooking their own meals rather than eating the premade freeze-dried meals used on the International Space Station.
“We made fantastic meals that tasted exactly as you cook in the normal world because we had most of the same ingredients,” she said. “As long as you have a basic knowledge of cooking and ingredient proportions, you can make amazing meals out of freeze-dried or backpacking meals. There is no reason to eat bad food in space.”
Johnston said that an upside to being isolated in the dome was the lack of outside distractions.
“We had the ability to shut out all the distractions of modern society,” she said. “No social media, no news streaming, nothing that didn’t come through email and a 20-minute delay in each direction. You could shut out the outside world and just focus on your tasks at hand.”
The crew’s emergence from the dome on Aug. 28 attracted attention from multiple media outlets, including National Geographic, NPR and Smithsonian magazine, all wanting to know more about the experience of living with five other researchers in a 1,200-square-foot space with limited resources.
Johnston said coming out of isolation to an onslaught of media attention was overwhelming, with “microphones and cameras in your face, and people asking questions, when all you really want to do is eat breakfast.”
The Smithsonian story by Matt Jancer shares the ways the crew enjoyed their down time, including weekly board game and movie nights and the ways they transformed freeze-dried ingredients -- delivered by a quarterly “resupply bot” – into ”Martian“ cuisine.
In the Smithsonian story, Johnston mentions how being in isolation reveals someone’s existing personality.
“You can fake your personality for a couple of weeks, at most, but over the long term, your true personality will come out in the end,” Johnston said in the interview.
The National Geographic story by Nadia Drake details how the researchers spent the year without access to open air – crewmembers had to wear a full spacesuit when they left the dome -- and with limited contact from the outside world. At least two crew members, Drake wrote, experienced deaths of loved ones while in the dome and missed weddings and births, as well as holidays with family and friends.
In a segment from NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Johnston shares the similarities of living in the dome and on Mars.
“You have to live with all the resources that you have,” Johnston said in the interview. “And, if you don’t have something, you either need to get by without, or you need to make it.”
She said the biggest challenge over the year was adjusting to the way other people dealt with situations and working through these differences.
“In normal life, you could just walk away,” Johnston said in the interview. “But in isolation, you have to deal with those situations and you have to come to an understanding at the end of it. You can’t just leave because you need that person for the next day.”
Johnston said much of her education at MSU prepared her to successfully complete the mission.
“The experience I gained in doing remote fieldwork (while pursuing) my master’s degree prepared me for collecting and analyzing data in a remote location,” she said. “The skills and topics I learned in geology, geomorphology, GIS, remote sensing and soils courses were directly applicable to collection and subsequent mapping of our ‘Martian’ landscape as well as growing fresh vegetables for the crew to enjoy.”
Despite any hardships and stressful situations, Johnston said the payoff is knowing the team’s research in determining important factors to consider when sending humans to Mars will benefit future explorations in space or other similar environments.
“The data we collected is focused primarily on a mission to Mars, but it has applications to any remote or extreme environment,” she said. “How do you select the ideal crew composition? What happens when you can't walk away from an argument? What support is needed from the ground in order to keep astronauts productive and happy?”
To view a video about the mission, go to: http://www.hawaii.edu/news/2015/08/31/year-long-hi-seas-space-simulation-mission-underway.
National Geographic interview: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/nasa-mars-hi-seas-hawaii-human-mission-space-science/.
Denise Hoepfner, email@example.com or (406) 994-4542