Martha Lenio: “I wanted to see if I could hack it [living on Mars]”



Want to know what it’s like to live on Mars? Ask Martha Lenio.

The Waterloo, Ont. native spent eight months simulating life on the red planet as part of a NASA HI-SEAS experiment in 2014-15. Along with seven other would-be astronauts, Lenio lived in a dome on a volcano in Hawaii, only venturing outside in a mock spacesuit to perform EVAs (extravehicular activities).

The researchers ate freeze-dried and dehydrated foods, conducted experiments, and learned to get along in a 1,000 sq. ft. enclosure — all while being studied by six different research groups.

“What they’re trying to get at is how you pick a crew and support a crew for these long-duration isolated space missions without, you know, everyone going crazy and killing each other,” says Lenio.

“I wanted to see if I could hack it. I thought, mentally, I could do it — and in the end, I could, so that was good. I also thought it would be fun, though, to get to pick my own research project to be working on in the dome, to be involved with NASA research, and hopefully contribute towards a human space mission to Mars in the future. I’m also really into sustainable living, so off-grid, recycling everything, limited water, limited power — so that part was really fun, too.”

“Before going in, I was like, ‘I know why I want to do this, and I’m a normal person, but all these other people who want to live in a dome for eight months must be [weird] people.” – Martha Lenio

Lenio, who has a doctorate in Photovoltaic Engineering from the University of New South Wales, ended up serving as mission commander.

“I never thought I was a terribly strong leader, but as the [training] week progressed, you learned that there are different kinds of leaders, and different types of leadership styles, and I’m more of a lead-from-behind, make sure everyone’s okay kind of person,” she says.

“And I learned that’s a totally valid leadership style, and that maybe, for this kind of mission, you want someone who’s pretty hands-off and capable of bringing out the best in other people.”

“It was really good, actually, that they took us on [a] camping trip [beforehand],” Lenio adds, “because before going in, I was like, ‘I know why I want to do this, and I’m a normal person, but all these other people who want to live in a dome for eight months must be [weird] people.”

From October 2014 until June 2015, the eight researchers were continually monitored and tested for body language, interaction, and other indicators of stress and morale.

“What they’re trying to get at is how you pick a crew and support a crew for these long duration isolated space missions without, you know, everyone going crazy and killing each other.” – Martha Lenio

“Astronauts tend to be very stoic — you know, they want to go to space — and so sometimes, they’re not very honest,” says Lenio.

“So if you ask them, ‘how’s everything going?’ they’ll be like, ‘everything’s fine; I can do the work,’ and they’ll keep saying [that] until all of a sudden, it’s not fine, and then it’s really, really bad.”

“All our communications were on a 20-minute delay,” she adds, “so you could email mission support or your family, but it would take 20 minutes for that email to get there, and then if they decided to reply, it would be [another] 20 minutes for a response. So it’s like 40 minutes to an hour round-trip for a conversation.”

For Lenio, the dream of becoming an astronaut started as early as Grade 8. Earlier this year, she made it to a shortlist of 72 candidates in line to become Canada’s next astronaut, surviving a pool of 3,700 candidates.

As for whether she’s eager to sign up for a life on Mars?

“We’re not there yet,” says Lenio.

“People talk about colonizing Mars; we’re not going to colonize Mars. We don’t know how to sustainably live on Earth, and Earth recycles everything for us. We don’t have to do anything, and Earth will take care of itself. On Mars, you have to do everything, and we don’t have that figured out.”

Photo by Neil Scheibelhut.


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