An Interview With The First Person To Play Golf On Mars… Sort Of

Jocelyn Dunn is the first person to play golf on Mars.

Ok, not really on Mars, but pretty darn close. Sort of. Dunn is part of a six-person crew of faux Martian astronauts living in a facility on the Big Island of Hawaii. HI-SEAS – the Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation — is a NASA-funded effort to study the psychological effects of long-duration space travel. The idea is to put astronauts together in a simulated Martian habitat for various periods of time and study what transpires.

HI-SEAS’ physical facility is a dome on the slopes of Mauna Loa, one of the two mega-volcanoes that make up a large part of the Big Island of Hawaii. The current crop of astronauts is the third to spend a lengthy time in the habitat. The third mission’s astronauts are spending eight months inside the facility living as though they were actually living on Mars, with time-delayed communications and limited access to the Internet, etc. They’re about six months into their journey and disaster has yet to strike. What’s more – they still like each other!

Figure 1. The HI-SEAS facility.


But back to golf. Here’s Jocelyn’s swing in her space suit on the slopes of Mars/Mauna Loa:

Figure 2. Dunn’s impressive golf swing. 

Dunn golfing

I read in the New York Times about the new crew that entered the HI-SEAS dome back in October and noticed that one of the crew (Dunn) had many things in common with a character in a novel I’m writing that takes place on the Big Island. Seeing the chance for a cool plot development in my novel, and having always been interested in space travel and Martian colonization, I reached out to Jocelyn Dunn via email. To my pleasant surprise she responded and we’ve had an interesting dialogue about her experiences.

Interview With Jocelyn Dunn

I asked her the obvious questions: why did you decide to spend eight months cooped up in a fake Martian habitat? “Well, mainly because I feel passionate about this type of research and it unites all my academic interests: aerospace, biomedical, and data science.  But also because I was attracted to the idea of signing off from worldly distractions and focusing on personal and intellectual growth.”

tambookHow is your time structured each day? “We do not really have rules about how to spend our time, we just have milestones and expectations for certain tasks, then the rest is up to us.  The goal is to have an autonomous crew.”

What is your command structure? “In terms of command structure, we do have a commander, Martha [Lenio].  She’s not a micro-manager, but she is a decisive leader. Then we have the mission support which has two ties. First is for the simple questions and help, like ‘please send me the manual for the radio, a weather report, etc.,’ and then second tier are NASA researchers and mission directors. They respond to more important problems that have unclear answers.”

Is there a policy about dating in the habitat? “There is no policy about dating. We had conversations before we moved in about how we all felt about romance developing among the crew. The consensus was that we did not mind as long as the romance remained as private as possible and did not interfere with mission goals.”

What is your power source and would it be the same on Mars? “Primarily, the HI-SEAS habitat runs on solar energy. We also have hydrogen as backup and a gas generator. Yes, solar and hydrogen would be the primary power sources on Mars. Without an atmosphere, the solar arrays built for Mars would be able to utilize more wavelengths of light than those built for usage on Earth. Hydrogen will also be a vital part of the energy system on on Mars as hydrogen can be produced through electrolysis of water or other methods. This would be especially useful in high sunlight scenarios when the batteries have been fully-charged and there is excess power being generated that can then be used to produce hydrogen.”

Establishing “Human Redundancy”

At the risk of cheapening the value of Martian colonization, I analogize establishing colonies on Mars, from a practical perspective, to having multiple credit cards or having multiple backups of important documents on your computer and in the “cloud.” It’s all about redundancy. Having all of humanity’s eggs in the Earth basket we call home leaves us pretty vulnerable to various possible disasters. If we value a role for humanity in the unfolding of the universe in future eons it would be good to have some additional homes in case Earth runs into serious problems.

I would certainly miss Earth if I were to embark on a ship for a life on Mars or some other part of our solar system, but Mars is spectacular in its own way. I’ve read and re-read Kim Stanley Robinson’s amazing series of novels about Martian colonization: Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. He paints vivid portraits of the Martian landscape, including features like the Pavonis Mons crater that is a five-kilometer sheer circular wall. Robinson also paints a convincing picture of what he calls the “areophany,” the unfolding transformation of Mars into a habitable planet that takes place in his series of books, that has a real spiritual component for many of the Martian colonists creating entirely new lives on a new planet.

While colonizing Mars remains a fictional endeavor for now, there are a number of companies and countries working hard to make it reality in just a decade or two. Mars One is an interesting effort to send a one-way mission to Mars within the next decade, similar to the mission described in Robinson’s books. Elon Musk and his SpaceX company are taken more seriously in their efforts to eventually carry humans to Mars. Musk plans to announce the details of the planned Mars mission later this year, though no date has been set yet for when the mission might take place. Early speculation suggests sometime between 2025 and 2030.

NASA is working on space vehicles that could in theory take astronauts to Mars, but there are no U.S. plans to actually do this until sometime in the 2030s, if then. So for now Martian colonization seems likely to be mostly a private sector endeavor and that may well be a good thing, because private companies can move more quickly and innovate better than national space agencies.

I asked Jocelyn whether she would volunteer for a one-way trip to Mars. “If participating in a one-way trip to Mars with current technologies, it seems likely that my life would end in a year or so after running out of supplies, so, no I would not. There is still much research and development required before a mission to Mars will be viable. I’m skeptical that my generation will begin colonizing Mars, but I am hopeful that my generation will begin exploring Mars with round trips to and from Mars!”

I’m reading a new novel about Mars, The Martian, by Andy Weir, and it paints believable scenarios for all sorts of potential disasters for the first Martian explorers. So Jocelyn’s concerns are pretty well-founded!

Is Our Desire For Space Exploration Spiritual In Nature?

Robinson’s books do an excellent job of weaving a spiritual theme into Martian colonization, with his exploration through various characters of the areophany, the re-making of Mars. I asked Dunn whether there was a spiritual component to her volunteering for HI-SEAS and being interested in Mars:

Yes, some say that the desire to explore is innate to humanity. We must keep exploring so that humanity can expand beyond Earth and have a continued presence in the universe. On a higher-level, this question reminds me of debate in the space community about whether we should keep searching for life elsewhere or if we should aim to spread Earthly life throughout the universe. So instead of sending rovers to explore for evidence of life, should we start sending rovers to distribute microbial life, etc.? It’s not the same for everyone, but for me, exploration nourishes my spirit and encourages positive-thinking while testing endurance and determination.

Inside a spacesuit, there’s a solace that I’ll try to describe. Even though radio comms are chattering in my earpiece, there’s a separation from everything – the people, the terrain, and even reality. In order to protect against a harsh environment spacesuits purposely exclude the outside world from the senses. But this separation also opens up space for the imagination, for self-reflection, and leaves room for an individual’s spirit to thrive – similar to how it feels to sing in the shower or dance while no one is watching! However, in requiring maximal physical and mental toughness to meet the objectives of exploration, rather than feeling like a personal retreat for a reflective soul, the confinement of a spacesuit could be likened to entrapment with an anxious mind, for some, the epitome of claustrophobia.

It’s an exciting time as Jocelyn and her fellow pioneers work to multiply our single spaceship (Earth) into one or more additional spaceships (Mars and other planets/moons). Dunn and her colleagues keep interesting blogs here. I’ll be following Dunn and her colleagues as they continue their adventures. Maybe one day I’ll get to golf on Mars too, or even play low-gravity tennis.

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