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NASA Completes Year-Long Mars Simulation In Hawaii


Six people have returned from a year on Mars or at least a simulation. They were technically in a dome in Hawaii, participating in a NASA-funded experiment run by the University of Hawaii.

The six researchers and scientists were led by Commander Carmel Johnston, and she joins us by phone from Hawaii. Welcome to the show.

CARMEL JOHNSTON: Hi. Thank you for having us.

SHAPIRO: So you spent the last year in this dome. How was the environment similar to what living on Mars would be like?

JOHNSTON: Well, living in the dome is so similar to living on Mars because you can't just go to a store if you need something new. You have to live with all the resources that you have. And if you don't have something, you either need to get by without, or you need to make it.

SHAPIRO: You only got food and water shipments every couple of months. Was that difficult to sustain?

JOHNSTON: Well, if you do you're planning right, it shouldn't be that difficult to sustain (laughter). We had resupplies for food every two months. I mean we just made a giant list of everything that we needed and we foresaw needing in the future. And the water resupply definitely - you have to plan exactly how much water you're going to need every day, and if you want to do a load of laundry, that kind of skews your numbers a little bit.

SHAPIRO: Was there any room in the planning for, I need a chocolate bar every now and then, or, I like jalapeno peppers or anything like that?

JOHNSTON: Oh, we have a lot of chocolate (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Really?

JOHNSTON: That was not off the list at all.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) So what was the biggest challenge over the course of the year?

JOHNSTON: I think it kind of has to do with how people deal with different situations fundamentally because the way that I deal with a situation is probably different than somebody else. And until you're stuck in isolation and you can't leave and, you know, if somebody gets on your nerves, you can't get away from them, you aren't actually forced to deal with that at all.

And so in normal life, you could just walk away. Like, oh, this person's ticking me off; see you later. 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.

SHAPIRO: You know, there's this play called "No Exit" with the line, hell is other people.

JOHNSTON: Yeah (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Did you relate to that on an unusually personal level?

JOHNSTON: I'd say so.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JOHNSTON: But it was a very good experience because even when there's good and bad about every situation, you still have a good outcome of all of it because it's all data. It's all stuff that's going to help the future astronaut.

SHAPIRO: When you came out of the dome yesterday, what was the first thing that you were desperate to do?

JOHNSTON: The first thing I was desperate to do I think was to eat some fresh pineapple. We've had real food obviously the whole year. But having something that was fresh and has a bit of a different texture was really interesting.

SHAPIRO: And so pineapple was your first thing that you went for.

JOHNSTON: Well, I went for the pineapple, but it was all gone (laughter).

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JOHNSTON: So I think I had blueberries and raspberries, which was also a very good alternative.

SHAPIRO: I know you love the outdoors. You love being outside. Did you find it difficult over the course of the year not to be able to go for a hike or go canoeing or just even - I don't know - look at a changing landscape?

JOHNSTON: Well, we were able to go out on EVAs - extravehicular activities - where we'd go outside in our spacesuits, and we'd explore the landscape. And even though it wasn't my typical idea of outdoor adventure, it was certainly exciting. And we usually had a scientific basis for going out there. But it was completely foreign landscape to all of us. And so getting to explore it for the first time was so unique.

SHAPIRO: That's Carmel Johnston who led the team that has just emerged from a year-long simulation of life on Mars. Thanks so much for your time.

JOHNSTON: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.