What living on 'Mars' taught one space researcher about saving Earth

Senior Editor
Yahoo Lifestyle

Outer space, to many of us, is about having a hopeful plan B — a place that can save us from world war or an epidemic or environmental disaster. But that might not be the best way to think about it. Instead, says Sheyna Gifford, a space physician who spent a full year on a simulated mission to Mars, learning how to get to another planet may be a means and not an end.

“The question nobody asks is what happens if we don’t become an interplanetary species?” Gifford asks in an episode of the new short-documentary series Beyond the Horizon directed by Jared Leto, which began its second season last week on Yahoo, Tumblr, HuffPo, AOL, go90, and Yahoo View. “Mars will never be a backup of Earth. … But if we can make it there, then we can make it here. Because we can’t get there as single countries believing only what we want to believe, and people who only get along on certain terms when we feel like it. We are going to have to get beyond ourselves to make that work. And when we do that, I don’t see why we have to stop at Mars. We can go anywhere.”

Sheyna Gifford on the set of <em>Beyond the Horizon.</em> (Photo: Ryot)
Sheyna Gifford on the set of Beyond the Horizon. (Photo: Ryot)

Such lofty goals begin to sound plausible when you listen to the clear, calm thoughts of Gifford, a St. Louis-based resident physician and aerospace educator in the U.S. civil air patrol who, in 2015, served as the chief medical and safety officer during the year-long fourth mission of the HI-SEAS study. That’s when she, as part of a four-person research crew, spent a year living inside a 1,200-foot geodesic dome up on the slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, an expanse of land that’s geographically similar to the surface of Mars.

For that year in the dome, during which they researched what would be required for people actually to live on Mars, the scientist was allowed only limited contact with the outside world, via texting and emailing that was time-lagged to approximate speed-of-light delays — but “since you’re pretty darn busy trying to grow food, conserve water and power, exercise, and explore space, there is not a lot of spare time to send emails back home,” she says. She was permitted to travel only about a mile away from the base, all while wearing a simulated spacesuit.

“I did not feel constrained by it at all,” Gifford (who is about to be featured in another documentary series, James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction on AMC) tells Yahoo Lifestyle, explaining that the parameters really helped her to stay in the moment. “Within a few hundred meters around the dome, there was a surprising amount to do and see: old, frozen lava flowing into strange formations, deep caverns, and tall ridges. Inside the dome itself, there were constantly things going on — science projects, music, drone flying, 3-D printing, strange engineering, and even stranger cooking experiments. At night, if you walked outside in your spacesuit to watch the arm of the Milky Way rise, you felt like you could be anywhere, on almost any planet in our part of the galaxy.”

Gifford with Jared Leto, director of <em>Beyond the Horizon.</em> (Photo: Ryot)
Gifford with Jared Leto, director of Beyond the Horizon. (Photo: Ryot)

In Beyond the Horizon, Gifford notes that as humans, we tend to think “there’s always more people, there’s always more air, there’s always more food, but there isn’t. And in space you realize that.”

She elaborates for Yahoo Lifestyle, adding, “The explorers pushing the new horizon face very different challenges from the explorers of old. Don’t get me wrong — things got pretty hairy at times for the folks who spread across the face of this world. Supplies like food, water, and heat ran low all the time. But no matter how bad things were for them, the explorers of old didn’t have to worry about running out of air. … They knew that at some point they had a good chance of finding the resources they needed to survive.” Space, however, “gives us no such kind assurances. … Every resource you will ever need has to be brought with you, sent ahead, or discovered at your very, very, very far-off destination.”

Based on Gifford’s experience on the mission, humans are not quite ready to dive in to a long space mission, since we don’t know how to “predict and plan for everything we’re going to need to survive a journey like that in advance. We don’t yet know how to explore an environment devoid of resources for an extensive period of time without running out of the things we need to keep ourselves alive.” But, she adds, “We’re figuring it out.”

At various times during the one-year mission, food, water, and power ran short. “In November, around the time that Andy Weir’s The Martian was hitting movie theaters, one of our food resupply robots failed. At the same time, bad weather — on [real] Mars, it would be dust storms — prevented our solar panel system from producing much power. It was a very cold and rather dismal Thanksgiving on simulated Mars. Later in the mission, water resupply robots failed, and the water circulation system itself broke down. At every step, we improvised.”

Gifford has been interested in space since childhood, and one of her earliest memories involves her father showing her photos from the 1976 landing of an American spacecraft on Mars. “I remember being confused, because Mars didn’t look all that welcoming — but at the same time, I wanted to go there really badly. Being human is strange like that.”

She now focuses much of her energy on supporting young girls who are interested in STEM fields. Through her work as an air-patrol educator, she’s able to provide, at no cost, learning kits for robotics, telescopes, gliders, and books about science, engineering, mathematics, or aerospace to any schoolteacher or homeschool teacher who asks. “I also have a few STEM mentees of my own. They are remarkable people,” she says. “The two young women, one of whom is in college and the other of whom will be shortly, are going to make the things I’ve achieved look like small beans before this decade is out.” She also keeps “an open door to the young kids in my neighborhood,” and she spends time with them planting in her local community garden, with the aim of showing them how they can help grow the world, both actually and metaphorically.

Her space goal, meanwhile, is “to ensure that humanity has the power to leave this planet at will and to keep going, and going, for as long and as far as we possibly can.” In addition, she says, she wants to help everyone find a way to stay healthy, fed, clothed, and educated while doing it. “Also,” Gifford adds, “I would like to fall asleep in zero gravity at least one time before I die. That would be a bonus.”

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