— By Keri Troutman
For a scientist with a journalism career who’s always dreamed of being an astronaut, it doesn’t get much better than being picked to take part in a NASA Mars simulation mission. Last year Berkeley Lab science writer Kate Greene had the opportunity to combine her love of science, her talent for writing, and her passion for space travel for four months in a NASA Mars simulation environment.
“Going to Mars would be like the most trying road trip you’ve ever been on, with no pit stops,” says Greene. “I presume I won’t be going to go to Mars, but if there’s something I can do to help a future astronaut’s mission, it seems like a good way to contribute.”
Termed HI-SEAS (for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), the mission took place on a volcanic site at about 8000 feet on Mauna Loa, located on the Big Island of Hawaii, where she shared a 1,400 square foot dome with five other people.
Intended to study what keeps a space flight crew happy and healthy during an extended Mars mission, HI-SEAS has now hosted two missions. Greene was part of the first crew who were chosen from more than 700 applicants to live and work as astronauts and take part in NASA research studies, including one of their own—the focus for their crew’s mission was the impact of different food preparation techniques on astronaut health.
“The assumption was that if you’d applied for this mission, at some point you’ve wanted to be an astronaut,” says Greene. “I’ve spent most of my life wanting to be an astronaut; it’s really driven my career.”The HI-SEAS crewmembers lived as if they were on a Mars mission, including restricted water supply, close quarters, communication lags and blackouts, and spacesuits to be worn whenever venturing out of the base. Greene acted as second-in-command and as the mission’s official writer, blogging about the experience weekly for Discover Magazine and The Economist. For her own research project, she conducted a sleep study that measured how doses of blue-white light affected crewmembers’ sleep quality and quantity. Some research has shown that exposure to bright, blue-white light in the mornings can help keep the circadian system healthy. Regulating sleep cycles is a challenge for astronauts living inside a spaceship or space station for extended periods, and currently the most popular way to manage it is with pharmaceutical drugs.
“Potentially the data we’re creating could be used to help someone else’s mission become more successful,” says Greene. “That was really my motivation for being involved.”
Astronauts tend to undergo menu fatigue on long space missions, explains Greene. They eat less and less as time goes on, and it’s not clear exactly why. The main theory is that menu fatigue could be due to fluid shift in the head due to low gravity, inhibiting sense of smell and leading to decreased food intake. Researchers also theorize that sensory deprivation leads to dulled senses and subsequent decreased food intake. NASA conducted studies with Greene and her crew to investigate both of these possibilities. Another theory, the one that NASA tested intensively during Greene’s mission, is that involving astronauts more in meal preparation might help with menu fatigue. To test this, Greene and her crewmembers tested two food “systems” during their mission—one a more traditional menu of pre-prepared meals, and another that involved more preparation, choice, and menu variety. The crew attended a week-long cooking intensive before their mission to familiarize themselves with the foods and preparation techniques.
“To see whether one food system over the other made an appreciable difference in how much we liked the food and how much we ate, we filled out surveys before and after every meal and throughout the days and nights and wore arm bands that measured our metabolic activity,” says Greene. “We were absolute guinea pigs.” Data is still being gathered on which system works better.
Greene’s involvement with HI-SEAS didn’t end with the mission, which ran from April to August 2013. She provided support to the second HI-SEAS crew from April through August of this year, and she continues to collaborate with researchers on the sleep study she started during her mission. Though she still dreams of actually venturing into space as an astronaut, Greene says that her time at HI-SEAS gave her a fantastic glimpse of the experience.
“I realized through it that I really am interested in putting myself in different contexts—Who am I in space? Who am I as a writer?” she says. “I like the perspective shifts.”
Greene studied chemistry as an undergraduate and then went on to earn a master’s in physics before launching her career out of the lab and into the publishing world as a science and technology journalist. Her work has been published in WIRED, The Economist, Discover, Technology Review, U.S. News & World Report, and New Yorker, among others. Greene shifted her perspective to Berkeley Lab back in April 2014 and she’s now enjoying the people and personalities on the hill and drawing on her science and journalism background. She’s also teaching a graduate-level writing class for scientists this Fall at San Francisco State.
“Being a writer is the best thing that’s happened to me as a scientist,” Greene says. “I am finally free to ask the dumb questions that I felt, as a scientist, I needed to figure out by myself.”
Go here read an account Greene wrote on “What Four Months on Mars Taught Me About Boredom.”