The ALPS In Brief Podcast

ALPS In Brief — Episode 44: It’s a Different World — Literally.

April 15, 2020

Do you feel like you're living on another planet right now? There's a reason. Humans are social animals and social distancing and isolation is not our normal here on Earth. Mark sits down with his son Tristan, and Carmel Johnston, two crew members from NASA's HI-SEAS IV study to learn what is required to survive and even thrive during an extended mission to Mars and how we can adapt our own behaviors to stay happy here on Earth.

Transcript: 

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

Welcome. You're listening to ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte, the Risk Manager here at ALPS, and today we're going to have a little fun, do something a little bit interesting. Believe it or not, I'm going to try to make some connections between Mars and all of these stay-at-home or stay-in-place orders all over the country. Now, how are we going to do that? I guess saying Mars is a little bit misleading. We are going to talk about a Mars simulation and I am so pleased and excited to have two very special guests on today and honestly both of them are very special people in my life and in the life of my wife. The first is Carmel Johnston.

MARK:

Carmel is quite an outdoorsman. Boy, trying to get her to do a podcast can be a bit of a challenge, but just because you never know where she is. I was watching this morning, a YouTube of her as she was doing a TV show in Australia of all places, but she also spends quite a bit of time now in Glacier National Park, another place that is near and dear to many of our hearts as folks in Montana. Carmel has a background from Montana State University, a master of science in land resources and environmental sciences. And now she is the Utility Systems Repairer and Operator at the National Park Service. And actually, Carmel, you're going to have to explain, is that the same position in Glacier?

CARMEL JOHNSTON:

Yeah, so it's called Utility Systems Repair Operator, but essentially it's a water and wastewater operator position so, all the water that people drink we create, and then all the wastewater that happens afterwards, we treat before it is given back to the earth.

MARK:

Okay, very good. And I'll explain a little bit more about Carmel here in just a minute. The other guest that I'd like to introduce is someone that goes back in my life quite a few years. We first met in, I believe it was, Tristan, wasn't it 1984 if I'm remembering correctly? This is Tristan Bassingthwaighte and Tristan among, and again, like Carmel, these two, you can find them all over the world at different times. Of note, Tristan received his Masters in Architecture from Tongji University in Shanghai, and then went on to complete his Doctorate of Architecture from the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Tristan has done all kinds of things, but my interest in having him visit with us today is, some of what he does is, how would you describe it, in terms of the different, I'm losing my words here, Tristan, but what type of architecture ties in here?

TRISTAN BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

I specialize in the design of habitats, research bases, even you could say, drilling platforms, the areas people would go on earth or in outer space that are isolated, dangerous working environments, confined environments, and then how to understand the social and psychological issues that occur with people there, being removed from family and society and walks in the park and fresh coffee, and trying to address them architecturally, so that we could say, live on Mars for 10 years and not have everybody go crazy or something along those lines.

MARK:

My senior moment was extreme environment design. That's what I was struggling with, just every once in a while recall isn't what it should be. While you listeners might be wondering why I have these two guests visiting with us today and what Mars has to do with stay-at-home orders. Both of these folks were participants in a Mars simulation. It was, what is called HI-SEAS IV, and it was a 366 day mission, and Carmel was the crew commander for this mission and Tristan was the crew space architect, and they really have all kinds of stories and insights and experiences to share. But this was a project between NASA and the University of Hawaii, and they literally lived in a very small space for 366 days, never being able to go outside on the side of, it was Mauna Loa, if I'm remembering correctly, but Carmel, could I have you just share a very brief little background in terms of what this experience was about? And Tristan, of course jump in anytime.

TRISTAN:

Hmm.

CARMEL:

Yeah, so we were the six participants of the Hawai'i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation Mission Number Four and that consisted of the six of us living in a 1200 square foot dome on the side of Mauna Loa for the year, and like you said, we couldn't go outside unless we were wearing a space suit and we lived off freeze dried, dehydrated powdered ingredients for the year unless we were able to grow our own vegetables, and we were the guinea pigs studying the effects of isolation and confinement on all of us and out of all the different tools and techniques that people have thought of up to this point for dealing with those psychological aspects of confinement.

MARK:

Yes. Yep. Very good. And Tristan, maybe you can share just a little bit when we talk about isolation, there were six for those of you listening, a total of six individuals participated in this year long mission and I believe it's to this day, the longest isolation experiment run yet here in the States anyway, but there's isolation, too, in terms of communication and Tristan, could you share a little bit about that?

TRISTAN:

Yeah. When you actually go up there, you find you've got your row of laptops so we can all do our work and research and everything. You've got several electronic devices like iPads and everything to do quizzes and surveys, enter the various information for the experiments we're doing, write about how we feel, et cetera, sort of tracking our emotions and reactions during the course of the year. But also there's a viciously delayed internet that only allows access to a few research sites because that's what we were doing. Phones don't work.

TRISTAN:

There's no real time communication with anybody that's not in the dome. So if I was going to say, write an email to grandma, I could compose the whole thing and send it off and it would be held in an ESSA server for 20 minutes and then delivered to her. So, all of our digital communications that people focus on these days are light speed delayed the way they would be if we were actually on Mars. So, you're very, very, very removed from everybody physically and in terms of communication and every way you can imagine. So it's not just, oh, you're in a tent but you can hang out on Snapchat if you want.

MARK:

Very good, thank you. When you guys signed up for this and got selected in terms of what you were thinking it would be like versus what you ultimately discovered, did you know what you were getting into?

TRISTAN:

Yeah, I would say I had a fair idea because I was actually applying to this near the tail end of my Masters research and the Masters research was also on [inaudible 00:08:24] environmental architecture, sociology, psychology, and I only found HI-SEAS because I was trying to research analogs that were on earth and then honestly, just ask some of the participants questions and that accidentally turned into applying.

MARK:

How about you, Carmel?

CARMEL:

Yeah, I think we knew a lot about what we were getting into, but there's definitely a component to it that we had no idea how isolating it really would be. And several of us had done previous analog simulations before, not to that length of time, but two week simulations here and there, and each simulation you go through whether it's HERA or MDRS or HI-SEAS or SIRIUS, any of those, they all have different components to it. And so, ours was the delayed communications. You had unlimited amount of data to be dropping data packages if NASA needed to send us something, but it would be delayed and it would be in the say, constraints of how they would actually send data to Mars.

CARMEL:

Whereas other ones it's, oh you have unlimited real time communication but you only get a certain amount of data per day or per week or something. And then every simulation space suits are different and the different things that you're testing are different, which is great because we're compiling all these resources of the different aspects of isolation and confinement, and then, the ultimate test is going there. And so, hopefully if we practice all these different components to it here, then it will it make easier for actually getting there.

MARK:

Maybe, I'm just going to take a tangent for a quick second, in light of our listening audience here and I really didn't explain what HI-SEAS stands for. It is the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. So it's H-I dash S-E-A-S, if you ever want to look something up and see what HI-SEAS is all about. Was it hard?

CARMEL:

Oh yeah.

MARK:

How so?

CARMEL:

I would say that it, well, up to this point, it's been the hardest thing I've done in my life, but that is barring that my parents are still here and so when they go, that'll probably be the hardest thing I have to deal with. But having a lack of communication because our connection to society and our friends and family is humongous and each one of us, Tristan will tell stories about his friends that fell off. Each one of us had friends that wouldn't write back or they'd forget about us until the Martian came out, and then all of a sudden we get a lot of emails and people saying, "Oh, we're thinking of you." And you're like, well, where were you two months ago when I really needed you to respond back to an email?

CARMEL:

And it's kind of the out of sight, out of mind concept of as soon as you're gone then people forget because you're not in their regular life all the time. And we were just stuck up there doing our research and it was very easy to feel disconnected from the people that we cared about the most, which made us feel like, well, maybe we don't mean that much to them or you start playing all these games in your head about why people don't respond back. It's probably because they have kids and they're living their lives. But to you it seems like, well, this is really important to me.

MARK:

Tristan?

TRISTAN:

Yeah, I would definitely agree with that. I had all sorts of people that kind of vanished and dropped away. I mean, half of our relationships these days seem to be over email or text anyways. So, you'd think they'd be able to keep up, but it kind of gave you a good opportunity to, healthy or unhealthy, coping mechanisms can help get you through some stuff. So, it was a chance to pick up some hobbies and try and focus on work and do some other things as well, but you definitely feel it.

MARK:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). How did you make peace with that, I guess? How were you able to move forward? Because nobody at the end came out crazy, ready to be hospitalized. Nobody died, in terms of, you didn't kill each other, that kind of thing. So how'd you do it?

TRISTAN:

I think the big thing for me was a string of tiny little fun victories mixed with a few larger goals over the course of the last eight months perhaps. So, Carmel and Cyprian got really into trying to run a marathon and I thought that was the worst idea ever because who wants to run forever? That just hurts. And eventually, Carmel talked me into it and I ended up doing that. So I mean that was a, what did I do, like two and a half months of training to actually get up to that?

CARMEL:

Yeah, I don't remember having to talk you into it. I think you were like, "Hey, I think I could do this." And we were like, "Well, make your training plan. You can totally do it."

TRISTAN:

Yeah. Yeah, something like that. So, you start to run and everything and then I think she and Cyprian were coming by every half hour leaving treats on the treadmill and spraying me with water bottles and stuff. So, you've got your camaraderie on the inside and then when there's not some massive thing that you're working on or accomplish that day, Carmel and I invented the pizza cupcake, a lot of fun, small things that like, "Oh, this is today's victory. I have changed the culinary world."

MARK:

Can you, Carmel, just share for everybody listening again what running a marathon in a dome looks like?

CARMEL:

So, we have a treadmill there and at the beginning of the year, the treadmill was kind of adjacent to the window and then we found that Cyprian kept falling off of it because he was looking out the window, and so we put it in front of the window and then at least you had the same Mars landscape to look at while you're running, but for the most part you have to watch a lot of movies because running a marathon in general is pretty time consuming depending on how fast you're grounding. Either way, it's a lot of movement and listening to movies or watching movies or listening to podcasts or something, it's kind of the only way to take away from the monotony of one foot in front of the other for so darn long.

MARK:

Yeah, and for those listening again, can you appreciate what they're sharing? They're running marathons on a treadmill and trust me, this isn't a state-of-the-art brand new high tech thing, in front of, I wouldn't say a window, my memory is it was the window, and it is about the size of maybe a large pizza pan. It's just a circle and you're looking out at volcanic rock. There's nothing out there. So, just trying to put that in perspective. Crazy kinds of stuff. Did you want to share? Go ahead. I think I cut you off.

CARMEL:

Oh, you're okay. Sometimes there were clouds so that really broke it up and made it a little change of scenery. But yeah, it was pretty monotonous the whole time when you're running, but at the same time, that's the thing that's breaking the other monotonous cycle of your life, which is research and cooking food and being around the same people all day every day, and so that's actually kind of an escape is doing something pretty monotonous. It's funny that way.

MARK:

Let's shift gears just a little bit. These stay-in-place orders really are having an impact on people. I've been talking with some lawyers in recent weeks, several of whom work in the domestic relations space and they're reporting tremendous increase in families, whether it's just some abuse kinds of things going on to just divorce. People are getting a little crazy and stir crazy. A lot of people I heard in Paris for instance, you're not allowed to exercise outside now and I'd love for you guys to talk about what going outside meant for you, both in terms of how it was done and what it meant for you, but Michigan has just issued an order forbidding contact now with friends and family in terms of extended, you are not to go out and visit with anybody. You can only interact with people that are in your physical home.

MARK:

Now, of course, I guess you can say hi or smile at somebody at the grocery store. But that's a different thing. So, in light of the challenges, so many are having to face, that have never dealt with anything like this, and for some it's going to be four to six weeks. Others, it might be eight to 10 weeks, nothing like 366 days. But perhaps through the context of sharing your stories, how you survived and things, you could share some tips and insights into how people going through these stay-at-home, stay-in-place orders can again, come out the other side without too many bruises and nobody's killed each other. So, I'll let you guys chat here for a little bit on that.

TRISTAN:

Yeah well, I mean part of it is this is being forced on everyone, where as we got to volunteer. So we had to begin ours with slightly different mindset, which helps out. But I think, when you go into something like this, the problems that occur sort of, I mean you, you can imagine them being created because you're stuck inside and can't leave and there's no communication, whatever. But really, wherever you go, like when you go on a vacation, your problems are waiting for you when you get back because you were just on vacation. And when you go into isolation. You're just taking your life and your problems with you. So, I would argue that the people who are getting to spend a month with their spouse and then realize they can't stand the way they chew food and they get divorced, probably had other issues, it was likely not the the quarantine them split them all up.

TRISTAN:

So if you're going to be stuck somewhere and you can't go to the bars and hang with all your friends and do the normal life distraction stuff that defined your existence before all of this, you're going to, whether you realize it or not, meet yourself in some ways and realize where your priorities lay, the character traits that you actually enjoy and hate about the people you're living with. Even start to ask existential questions maybe. I know in the last like couple of weeks I've been like, what am I doing with my life and trying to just figure some of that stuff out again because I've got the time now.

MARK:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's great. You're so spot on. Carmel.

CARMEL:

Yeah, I think that's really well put, especially because we did choose to be isolated and so, it takes a special kind of special to even want to do that. And I mean honestly, isolation isn't for everyone and we know that because there are only certain people that volunteer for isolation studies or to go to other planets or to live on the ISS or go to Antarctica. Not everyone's volunteering to do that because it just doesn't mesh well with them, and you see people who choose to overwinter in Antarctica year after year. They enjoy it or they are at least able to get through it because that matches with that personality. So, having this forced upon everyone in the world right now really is kind of taking a lifestyle choice for some people and making it a mandatory lifestyle. So, finding coping mechanisms, things that help you make your life as easy as possible for where you are at right now is probably the best step for a lot of people because they might enjoy certain aspects of it, but they definitely aren't going to enjoy everything about it, as we did as well. There are certain things I miss terribly about the dome and then there are some things I'm like, I never need to go back there again for others.

MARK:

What would you say you missed? I find that interesting.

TRISTAN:

Oh, the food.

CARMEL:

The food. I actually kind of do miss the isolation because we were up there and you could just get so much work done and you didn't have a lot of distractions in some ways and I had a treadmill that I could run on most of the time because a couple of weeks ago they took away the gym at work and so now you're forced to exercise outside except for that it's snowing all the time, and they closed the park and they closed the reservation and you literally can't leave a one mile square radius anymore. And so, I'm going a little crazy for other reasons right now.

MARK:

You raised the term coping mechanisms and I think that's a good, can we explore that a little bit and just have both of you talk, what were your coping mechanisms? What really worked for you and if there was something that you tried and didn't, I'd love to hear that as well.

TRISTAN:

Yeah, I mean, I would say, part of the reason that we had said food was such a great thing is because Carmel's mom actually taught her to cook very well and I got to be sous chef two days out of the week inventing new things or learning how to make old favorites, whatever. We actually pulled off a super respectable salmon eggs Benedict, a double layer chocolate cake, the aforementioned pizza cupcakes. We made Swedish meat, no, not Swedish meatballs, oh, what were the meatballs we made? Italian meatballs or something and they were actually better than the meatballs at the restaurant we went to when we all got out. So it was a bit of a playing around and creative aspect there.

MARK:

I was working on my dissertation while I was there so I had some of my personal work as well. Some of my best selling tee shirts, I came up with the ideas and drew them while I was up there because I had the time. You sort of have the option between say, for people going through isolation now, you can do something that is numbing like getting through your favorite series or watching Battlestar, all four seasons, over the course of two weeks and you're sort of pausing yourself as a person in your life while you enjoy something. Or you could say, well I'm going to do something productive or creative and actually find ways to engage the part of yourself that wants to learn the language or an instrument or start doing art or becoming an incredible bonsai Shaffer person. One of those will actually let you survive a year and one of them will let you get through a couple of weeks.

TRISTAN:

So, I think we're actually going to start to see as these stay- at-home orders carry on, more problems, because a lot of people are doing the numbing route, where they're investing heavily in say, television or whatever, something that's sort of a passive hobby, instead of something that actually lends meaning to what they're doing and helps them feel like they are progressing.

MARK:

Following up on that, I get concerned, too, about alcohol abuse. If there's not, the numbing kind of thing, just to kind of get through it and it's so easy to just casually increase and increase and increase and what becomes after dinner or before dinner beverage or two, you have a little bit at lunch, you have some in the afternoon. What the heck? I've got another beer or so in the fridge to get the nine o'clock movie and on and on. Carmel, how about you? Your thoughts.

CARMEL:

Yeah, I think, I have lots of thoughts. I've been thinking about this for five years now. I think right now it's okay to acknowledge that it sucks. Nobody's really having a great time right now and it's okay to say, this is not where we wanted to be and it's changing everything and it's hard, but what can we gain out of it? And it's okay to live in the grumpy mood for a little bit, but then the thing that's going to bring you out of it is planning and having a goal for the day, or I had one person who was retired, they told me the other week, I have at least one thing I have to accomplish every day, even if it's just making my bed or it's stacking firewood or something else. I have to write on the list, I did one thing every day because then once you do one, it'll be find, you'll start doing a bunch of other things, but if you sit in bed first thing in the morning and start watching a show, then it's six shows later, you're like, hmm, I guess I'm kind of hungry now and I might make something or I might just eat leftovers. And so having things to do in your day that need to be done that day is actually helpful because you have a drive and a reason to go.

CARMEL:

And I'm so thankful that I am still working right now because I have something that makes me, I mean, I would be not getting out of bed otherwise, but you know I have a purpose and I am contributing every single day right now and that gives me a lot of fulfillment knowing that I am still able to do this and I'm not forced to be at home because that would be extremely challenging for anyone to be told, you can't go to work, you're still getting paid, but then you're like, well heck, what am I even contributing right now? So, as Tristan said, coming up with workouts or a craft or a hobby or something you want to master that gives you a purpose for every single day. It's very easy for all your days to run together and to not know what day of the week it is, but if you have something that keeps you going forward every single day, that's a longterm game plan versus a short term plan.

MARK:

I obviously vicariously went through this experience just as a parent and trying to stay in touch and so I kind of lived the experiment as an earthling. It seemed apparent to me that two coping mechanisms that were very, very effective, and I think not only for the two of you, but that became effective and helped others in the dome, and that would be the use of humor and the ability to get outside. Now, I want to underscore for people listening, getting outside of the dome is not like you get to walk through the air lock and take your tee shirt off and get a little sun and go for a run up the hill. You're in spacesuits, you don't get the fresh air, the sun isn't on your skin for 366 days. Either both of you, if you would just share some thoughts about the importance of, did that matter? How did it matter, in terms of humor or just a change of scenery?

TRISTAN:

Yeah, I mean the big thing is it's a new stimulus. So, instead of the treadmill to try and escape from whatever's going on or doing our work or our hobbies, you actually can go over the landscape. The physical exertion is, while it has the same unpleasantness as jogging for a long time, it can at the same time feel cathartic and like you're moving your body because you are, so it can help meet some of your exercise goals and help you workout some stress.

TRISTAN:

But we were lucky enough that, I don't know if it's on the entire mountain, but we had several in the local area we were allowed to explore, but we had lava tubes so you could schedule an EVA, and do all this paperwork and get everything set up, and then the next day, you suit up and go outside and your teams and everything. And instead of just walking around on a barren landscape, which can be beautiful for its own aesthetic reasons, you're getting to wiggle through strange holes and cracks and find giant house-sized volumes under the lava that are totally empty or have a little skylight at the top with a shaft of light and trees and it's dark and a little scary but super pretty, and just this really wonderful fun exploring thing. And that was a massive stimulus and change of pace compared to whatever was going on inside the dome because we had dozens of these lava tubes and pits and everything that you could explore.

MARK:

Very cool. Carmel.

CARMEL:

Yeah, I agree that those are probably, I'd say humor, going outside, and exercise are the top three mechanisms for keeping yourself sane while you're there. Tristan was the diffuser of almost all situations we had when anything would get tense, he'd crack a joke about something and we'd be laughing and then everything would be better or at least, it would be better than it was before. And so, one of the most valuable roles you have in a crew is to have humor, to maintain humor around a situation. You can be serious and get your work done, but being lighthearted for certain things is absolutely necessary because if you can't laugh about it then you're going to be in a world of hurt later.

CARMEL:

And I agree, going outside was huge and we did have, most of our EVAs were, our extra vehicular activities, [inaudible 00:30:28] outside. We put on our space suit and most of them were meant for doing geology research or lava tubes or the different tasks that the research team had for us to do out there. But sometimes it was just to go have fun because things would be so tense. You're like, I just need to go outside and maybe walk in a straight line because you can only do like 21 steps in the dome before you have to turn and round a corner, and you can't just keep doing laps. You have to go back and forth and just go outside and use your long distance vision and stretch all your muscles and you can even just run down the road if you wanted to, just totally different than being inside, and so mixing up that, like Tristan said, the stimuli of being indoors versus outdoors was really, really important.

MARK:

Yeah, I'm finding that's what's helping me right now. Now I telecommute so a stay-at-home order isn't quite the same impact for my wife and I than with other family situations perhaps, but I've been getting out. Since the stay-at-home, Tristan, you might be impressed here with your old man. I put 150 miles on my bike since the stay-at-home, just get outside, you can still socially distance. Nobody's within six feet of me, but I'm pedaling like crazy, and it's just been good. It really does make a difference, even just in mood.

CARMEL:

Fresh air is super good for everyone. That's got to be good for, if you are sick, having some fresh air go through your lungs and if you're not sick, helping keep yourself healthy and moving strong.

MARK:

Well, I feel like I've taken a lot of your time here and I so, so appreciate your willingness of both of you to share a little bit with the ALPS audience. Before I let you go, do you have one final tip or comment you'd like to share in terms of just, this is your chance to say it again, people that are just trying to make it work and figure out how not to go stir crazy. A final thought from each of you.

TRISTAN:

Yeah, I mean, I'd say the biggest is you've got the time down to let your vices squeeze you. So try and balance that out with less immediately fun but more longterm productive goals because it sucks now. Nobody wants to go and work out for two hours a day or do that paperwork that's lying around but actually producing something instead of just indulging in something will make four weeks feel a lot more like four and less like 10.

MARK:

Yeah, yeah. Carmel.

CARMEL:

I like that. I like that a lot. I also think, finding more than one thing, because one of my downfalls in the dome was that running was my thing and then anytime the treadmill wasn't available, whether it was power or it was broken or whatever, I was a wreck because I just didn't have the ability to do my one coping mechanism, and so having a whole suite of them, whether it's painting or you have some online videos you could do or a whole variety of things that make you happy and are helping you and can be productive at the same time, that would be good because if all of a sudden the gym closes and then it's bad weather outside. Then now you're like, well, what am I supposed to do? And you have all this stress or anxiety built up that I can't get rid of. You need to have a whole suite of things you can do in order to be able to relieve that.

MARK:

Yeah. To that, I would like to add in terms of the comments both of you shared. Just as a family member that was on earth during this whole experience, I would like to underscore the importance of social connectivity that both Carmel and Tristan talked about earlier in this podcast. We can't necessarily go out and meet friends at the local brew pub or something and have a nice evening, but there are alternatives, and to try to just call a little bit more, talk on the phone, do some Zoom meetings with family. We've done a little bit of this with some of the kids and that's been a lot of fun.

MARK:

So, don't underestimate as well, the value of staying socially connected. I think that can make a big difference. Well, that brings the podcast to an end. To those of you listening, thank you very much for taking the time. I hope you found something of value and please don't hesitate to reach out to me at ALPS. It's m bass, mbass, B-A-S-S @alpsinsurance.com. Happy to try and help in terms of any questions, concerns you might have on ethics, risk management, or even just getting through a stay-at-home order. That's it, folks. Have a good one. Bye bye.