Throughout July, GeekMom is preparing for the planned launch of the Perseverance rover on July 20th with Mars Month, a month filled with Mars-themed content. Be sure to follow the Mars Month tag to find all of this month’s content so far in one place. Today I am reviewing Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars by Kate Greene.
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Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars is a sort of memoir that recounts the four months the author spent living inside a simulated Mars habitat known as HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) located on the slopes of Mauna Loa. Along with five other people, she spent those months conducting research for NASA into how diet will affect the physical and mental health of a crew sent to live on Mars, along with other experiments such as sleep studies and a look at the effects of prolonged isolation – something I feel most of us appreciate a little better this year than we ever did before.
Rather than just focusing on the four months inside the dome, however, Greene expands her experiences to offer insight on the way human exploration and research was conducted in the past and how it should look into the future. She shares excerpts from the diaries of Shackleton’s crew recorded during the months they spent stranded alone on an ice floe and compares them to our own time in HI-SEAS but, more importantly, she looks to the future and asks questions I’d never even thought to consider. Why do we insist on able-bodied astronauts when legs are more of a hindrance than a help aboard the ISS? Could some forms of artificial limbs actually be beneficial to astronauts living on Mars? Should the first crew to Mars be all-female given that research consistently shows that our generally lower body mass and nutrition requirements make us ideal for the mission? These questions open up a whole world of thought experiments that challenge the way we look at space exploration. Greene notes that “historically, much of Earth’s exploration has been rooted in colonialism and subjugation,” and asks us to consider “what kind of remnant legacies and unexamined assumptions thread through today’s discussions to colonize Mars?”
Related to this are the questions on human research and experimentation. Greene considers ethics and how the limits of acceptable research have changed over the years. She looks back at the horrors of the Tuskegee Study and reveals how today’s tech companies are using us all as unwitting guinea pigs by manipulating our social media feeds – often without our knowledge or consent. She compares this to the endless consent forms she and the other HI-SEAS crew members had to fill in as part of their mission, and also to those filled in by her disabled brother Mark prior to various experimental medical procedures. How different was his ability to “choose” or consent compared to hers when he could either give agree to the experiments or die?
Woven through the discussions of life in HI-SEAS and the thought-provoking questions on future space travel is a deeply personal narrative that ties the whole book together. Throughout her time in HI-SEAS, Greene’s oldest brother Mark was dying after a lifetime spent battling spina bifida and her marriage was also beginning to unravel. She looks back on these events with the benefit of hindsight (her brother eventually passed and she has now separated from her wife) and uses them to consider how major life events and relationships will be tested by long-distance space travel. Should a family member fall deathly sick while an astronaut is on Mars, there is no way to get them home in time, nor even combat the 40-minute delays to communication that the speed of light imposes and the prevent real-time video calls that so many have relied upon to be with family and friends in their final moments during the COVID-19 crisis.
Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars is a deeply thought-provoking book that will encourage you to reconsider everything you think you know about space exploration. Not only does it offer a fascinating look at life inside a long-term NASA study but it also looks in detail at the challenges that future Mars crews will be faced with and asks us to confront our own preconceptions about who is best to face those challenges and why we think that.
GeekMom received a copy of this book for review purposes.