Carmel Johnston on her experience as the commander of the NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration

Editor’s note: Ms. Johnston was the commander of the NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation Mission 4 crew. She recently completed the yearlong mission simulating life on Mars. The HI-SEAS project is led by the University of Hawaii at Manoa and runs its simulations on the Big Island of Hawaii. She is a 2007 graduate of Whitefish High School. This is an excerpt from an essay she wrote about the experience, published in the Whitefish Review.

On our time in the Mars simulation, we accomplished all the normal activities you might see back on Earth, but six people living inside a 1,200-square-foot dome takes incredible organization and timing. We had to consider whether we had enough water each day to take a shower, wash clothes, or do dishes. Could we run on the treadmill? Would we have enough solar power to bake bread? Would we have enough food to harvest or did we need to plant more vegetables? Some days it felt like camping in a really large tent, while at other times it felt like a college dorm experiment gone awry. But at the end of the year, just like leaving that college dorm, I packed my bags and moved on to the next phase of my life.

Many people tell me they think this year-long experiment would be difficult to endure, but adjusting back to Earth has been far more difficult than learning to live on simulated Mars. The twenty-minute time delay for communications with our home planet became natural, and we never expected to hear back from anyone in less than an hour. Life on real Mars will be a test in taking all the best conservation practices from around the world and applying them in one location—a utopia where you live on solar power, harvest and recycle water, grow plants from your waste and the rocks outside, and live sustainably off the land. Conservation of resources is not a novel concept by any means. Plenty of people on Earth live with less than ten gallons of potable water per day. The average American consumes more than 150 gallons daily, but we survived on less than four gallons.

Nearly ninety years ago, the newcomers to the American West quickly learned the importance of protecting soils, conserving water, and managing land. During the Dust Bowl, settlers did not have any other choice but to use every bit of available space for harvest, while still putting nutrients back into the soils. They reduced, reused, and recycled. Every scrap of any product had a purpose, and they did not throw away items just because they were blemished.

As the generation of people who lived this lifestyle fades from our planet, I challenge us to not relive their hardship and loss that they witnessed—but, instead, to learn from them and follow their example. What is our end game? What do we want the future to look like? I am proud to be part of the newest generation who is planning and implementing conservation of our precious resources, rather than waiting until it is too late.

Humans have a very short history on this planet and all of us are only alive for a tiny fraction of that time. What good can we do as individuals in this short blink of time? Will we leave our grandchildren with a planet that is inhospitable or will we take a stand and stop living beyond the capacity of this rocky space ship?

I am young, but I carry with me the fear of not being able to accomplish everything I want to in the time I am given, whether it is during one year in an experimental Martian dome, or achieving the dreams of my lifetime. Life is a continuous game of learning, practicing, and giving back. I know there will never be enough time to do all the things I want, make an impact the way I intend, or to witness all the advances that will move humanity forward. But I can be one small piece of the puzzle. We are closer to sending people to Mars than ever in our lifetimes. It is one small step for me to help simulate this experiment on a distant island¬ to advance the knowledge of science—serious work, yes! Yet it was more similar to a self-sufficient and resourceful camping trip in the backcountry than you might think.

We are one human population living on a giant rock hurtling through space. Regardless of politics, race, or religion, we are all human beings, and we all need to fight to provide future generations with a beautiful planet—or the means to inhabit a new one. The prospect of traveling to space, whether it is Mars or beyond, is exciting and intriguing. It is a part of our solar system still yet to be explored, a true wilderness untouched by human hands. But the only way we will be able to survive there in the future will be to learn how to better live and act here on Earth first.