Quietly the snow floats by the main Hab window. It’s been fickle, has this snow. Sometimes it comes down in a whirling frenzy, in big fluffy flakes. Sometimes it wisps down in little dots. Yesterday, it whipped sideways across the window. When I got up early this morning, the rocks were all coated with snow — but only on one side.
THE TEMPERATURES have stayed in the 30s here; all the accumulation is off in the distance, across the crater to the south. We can see the snow-dusted tops of hills beyond the open plain close to us. We shivered when the thermometer was coated with ice this morning. A cup of tea is the drink of choice today. The Hab is a cozy place when one looks out at the Arctic summer turning cold, but there’s no heat other than that generated by our seven bodies, the six laptop computers and the hot plate that heats the water for our tea. I put my sandals away and pulled out my down booties. We’ve replaced our T-shirts with turtlenecks.
The weather did not prevent two intrepid analog astronauts and their Ghost Rider from setting south this afternoon, however. Ella Carlsson, navigator and commander of the mission, spent last evening plotting points farther south than previous extravehicular activity teams have gone before. This afternoon she set out with Digby Tarvin in sim and Jody Tinsley as guard. The goal is to expand our knowledge of the canyons around the southern edge of the crater.
The land here on Devon Island is overseen by two entities, the Canadian government and the Nunavut Research Institute. We have permits to visit and explore Crown land; this fact influences our choice of routes and the areas we explore. On Mars, there will be no boundaries of the political kind, at least not when the first astronauts land there. The scope of the territory they explore will be limited only by physical factors: the ability to generate fuel and carry it, type of terrain in the area, Mars weather patterns and temperatures, access to water, capability of communications equipment, types of navigation systems, the effects of radiation, the effects of partial gravity on human physical abilities, and the like.
Being able to deal with physical factors is essential to any Mars mission, by definition an extended space mission — two or more years. Today’s EVA team, part of only a monthlong simulation, is dealing with physical barriers to their success — snowy weather, all-terrain vehicles that have climbed one too many boulder pile.
But even on a mission like our current EVA team’s, psychological factors are just as important as physical ones. Can the crew work together to reach their goal? The crew members of a Mars mission will be in tight quarters on a ship for close to six months just to get to the Red Planet (and six months on the way back); once on the surface, they will be in close quarters on the station they inhabit there. Through it all, they must work as a team, be able to sort out differences, complement one another’s skills. They must be what my Jody calls “trip-aware,” able to see beyond their own needs and desires, to look at how their words and actions affect the group and the mission as a whole.
HUMAN LAB RATS
In a way, our group here at the Flashline station are lab rats. During the limited time we are here at this simulated Mars station, NASA researchers are testing us. What are the psychological effects of “isolation, confinement and risk”? I take these words from a description of “MASCOT” experiment materials I was given before I arrived at the Hab. MASCOT stands for Mars Analog Station Cognitive Testing; daily we each take a self-contained computerized test that analyzes our cognitive abilities. It’s actually a test designed and used by psychologists at NASA to do human-factors research on crews on the international space station: the Spaceflight Cognitive Assessment Tool for Windows, or WinSCAT. (NASA loves acronyms.)
InsertArt(1963452)The researchers back in Houston are able to see how our neurocognitive performance is affected by stress, fatigue, group dynamics and other factors. When Jan Osburg, the local administrator of the test, asked us if we wanted to be involved in human factors research, I said, “Sure!” What I visualized was getting to write a paragraph a day on how I was feeling, or maybe pick out which smiley-frowny face best fit my mood. But oh, no — it’s not that easy!
The test judges our response time and accuracy in completing a variety of mental exercises, mostly involving memory and some math. Obviously, if there are a lot of distractions (Barry Manilow music playing in the background, or people discussing what’s for dessert), my response time will be affected, and my accuracy will be lower than it usually is when I work in a quiet place.
But if I am sitting quietly, and my scores are still low, then perhaps more vague distractors are at work: fatigue, illness, toxic exposure. The test doesn’t measure some particular standard of performance — instead, it tracks a crew member’s performance over time. Lapses in performance are flagged; this way the test can help identify problems in concentration or thinking before they become obvious to other crew members or dangerous to the crew or mission.
HOW IT WORKS
When we are ready to take the test, we use the right and left mouse buttons on our computers to answer questions. We match symbols to numbers in one memory test; in another, we see boxes within boxes and have to pick out which one matches a pattern we’ve seen before. In another test, we are shown a long series of numbers, each of which flashes up on our screen briefly. We right-click if the current number matches the one we’ve just seen; we left-click if it’s a new number.
Then there are the math problems. We see a series of three single-digit numbers added or subtracted to one another and have to respond by clicking the appropriate mouse button if the answer is greater or less than five. This sounds easy. And some days it is. But others, I’d give anything for those smiley-frowny faces I mentioned earlier! When we have completed the test, we enter the date and a brief summary of the circumstances of our test — “Took test today after long EVA.” “Feeling a cold coming on.” “Tried the test while everybody else was on EVA — much better with no distractions!”
In addition to the daily dose of WinSCAT, we also fill out forms about space operations issues and another sheet that’s called (I’ve got to quote this!) “Planetary Habitat Analog Design Efficiency Survey.” This latter, Jan tells us, is used by folks involved in planning future space habitats. So while taking the tests day in and day out, and keeping a log, and filling out the forms is a bit of a pain sometimes, we know that we are giving NASA researchers information that they can’t get anywhere else.
We are, after all, the only folks on earth living in an analog space habitat. And our EVA team is out in the snow somewhere in a canyon to the south, working together to stretch the bounds of our knowledge about our simulated Mars, marking new waypoints on our map.
© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to MSNBC.com.