Part 1: s p a c e d o u t
The first image you see of the habitat is a golf ball sliced in half, stark white and naked against a windswept barren lava plain. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. A tiny speck on the side of a giant blackened volcano, emerging from the mist. We drive the shuttle up, up, up through the clouds on a winding rocky dirt road until we land safely.
It’s surreal being here. Just hours ago I had been going insane, isolated with my six roommates in a tiny apartment. Stuck in the same routines like a skipping record.
I signed up for the HI-SEAS analog astronaut lunar simulation mission SELENE I as a fluke. Almost as a practical joke. I didn’t expect to be selected, especially not when the majority of my work comes from tinkering on my lonesome. I don’t have the degrees or experience or accolades as these other five strangers around me. Half the team are PhDs who have worked with NASA in the past. The other half already have analog astronaut experience.
Growing up, I was always a bit of a space cadet. My Dad was systems engineer who worked as an aerospace contractor from Satellite Beach, Florida so I would go on winter vacations to visit and hear stories of Space Shuttle launches. We’d put together cardboard rockets on the kitchen table and shoot them into the stratosphere at a nearby high school.
I remember one time it was past my bedtime and we brought the telescope in the backyard to take a look at the rings of Saturn peeking through the branches of the trees; gently swaying in the breeze.
The fresh breeze on my face for the last time, we stepped inside the habitat and sealed the airlock.
What they don’t tell you is how quiet it gets in the hab. When you are able to hear everyone, the slightest noise becomes amplified. The default mode was to keep quiet and listen to the wind outside.
I only began to realize how completely isolated we were when I peeked out the window. All I could see for miles around was barren volcanic rock. No life.
Shared adversity has a way of bringing people together. Seeing as we’re all suffering through something different, I made it a point to get to know the people in the habitat and learn their stories. What motivates people to go — would they go to the moon if given the chance?
“He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet.” ~lord of the flies
You have to be somewhat crazy to voluntarily pay to be a human guinea pig. That’s what all of us are; a way for NASA to test out the squishy bits of space travel. Human interaction is what would cause a mission to implode well before any of the technical systems break.
In the 1954 classic Lord of the Flies, a group of boys get stranded on an island lost at sea. Completely isolated, they begin to turn on each other. “The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away.” Supposedly emblematic of how society sits on the brink of catastrophe, the book serves as a warning to children that there is a reason for the rules that we live by.
The funny thing about Lord of the Flies is that there was a real world example of a group of six boys being stranded on an island. Rather than fighting among each other, they survived for more than a year before being rescued, even bandaging up the broken leg of one of their compatriots.
Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist once said that the true mark of the start of civilization in ancient culture was when a femur was discovered that had been healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, when you fall and break your leg you die. A broken femur is evidence that someone has taken the time to stay with the person who is injured, to help the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.
The funny thing about being in a space habitat is that you construct your own rules, your own routines, your own civilization. It was surprisingly busy. We helped each other.
continued in part 2…
Bio: Elliot Roth is a synthetic astrobiologist who works to turn pond scum into pond yum. For the past 12 years, he has advocated for the democratization of biotechnology though the creation of five different laboratories in locations as varied as a shipping container to the attic of a Victorian mansion. He holds a degree in biomedical engineering, was trained in design thinking, and started 7 different companies and 2 nonprofits. His most recent company, Spira, has become profitable by replacing artificial colors using carbon-negative algae-based pigments grown by a global network of farmers. Elliot received the Kairos, Halcyon and Future Founders Fellowships, and presented at SXSW, Synbiobeta, Thought For Food and numerous other conferences on the topic of social impact and solving for human needs using simple DIY microbial engineering. He aspires to teach even more classes on the intersection between synthetic biology and our anthropocentric material experiences, and is working on side projects to create hydrogen airships and an open-access health system on the ocean. You can reach him via @thatmre on FB, TW, LI and any other social platform.