Inner Worlds IV: Kate Greene, the traveler to Mars

On boredom, poetry, and parallel universes

Wojtek Borowicz
Inner Worlds
9 min readFeb 1, 2017


Credit: Jess Anderson

These are strange times for exploration. On Earth, we have seen almost everything there is to see. Beyond our home planet we have observed, named, and cataloged hundreds of thousands of celestial bodies — but only set foot on one. So far, space has been the ultimate look but don’t touch experience for human curiosity.

But we persevere in the shared dream of space exploration. From Silicon Valley billionaires planning to colonize Mars within the next few decades to scientists trying to recreate Martian conditions on Earth in preparation for future missions. HI-SEAS — or Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation — does just that. University of Hawaii and NASA send scientific crews for simulated Mars missions on the slope of the Mauna Loa volcano. Tens of millions of kilometers from Mars, it is still as close as we get right now.

Kate Green, a laser physicist turned journalist, was part of the first HI-SEAS mission crew back in 2013. In a sense, she has physically visited another world. I remember reading her essay about the experience and feeling perplexed. What she’s reminiscing in her writing from the time in HI-SEAS is the feeling of boredom.

I remember thinking: how can Mars be boring?

Three years later I had the opportunity to ask her exactly that. We also talked about other aspects of her otherworldly venture and about how Earth felt after Mars — and how did Mars feel after Earth. I promise you won’t be bored.

Wojtek Borowicz: Why did you sign up for the HI-SEAS project?

Kate Greene: I always wanted to be an astronaut. One of the things we discussed as a crew was how many of us wanted to go to Space Camp as kids but never did. Perhaps HI-SEAS was replacing the childhood dream for us.

I read an article on NPR about HI-SEAS with a call for participants. At the time I had been freelancing for a couple of years and I was thinking about what to do next. I thought that sounds crazy but let’s just check it out. So I clicked through and read the requirements. And then I had this physical reaction: my palms started to sweat, my heart began to race, and I realized I really want to try this.

So you fulfill your dream of becoming an astronaut. The day comes, and you set your foot on another planet for the first time — sort of. How does it feel?

We arrived at night, so we wouldn’t know what it looked like. The inside of the dome was not decorated at all, it was up to us. But it had this sort of new-spaceship smell, because of the vinyl covering. We picked our rooms, which were about the size of walk-in closets, and we got to setting things up in the rooms and in the working area. And then we went to bed.

One thing that was hard right away was that we didn’t have a window. The only way to look outside was to put on a spacesuit and go there. I didn’t leave the dome on the first day, so my reality was very much centered inside its white walls. So when I actually stepped outside for the first time, it was a huge relief. It felt like the size of my world just expanded significantly. It was really fun to explore, shake out my legs, and get to see a whole new landscape.

Let’s fast-forward 120 days. How does it feel to be back from Mars?

First of all, I very easily sunburn! I am a pale, fair-skinned person. I was vigilant about applying sunscreen as soon as we stepped out of the dome to hold the press conference, and so I stayed pretty pale for a couple of days. But I finally decided I needed to get some color, and so after 10 minutes without sunscreen under the Hawaiian sun at midday, I was scorched.

A thing I noticed after coming back to San Francisco was how sensitive I was to sounds and activity. I was having a beer with a friend at an outdoor bar, and a dog barked nearby, then a pigeon flew past us. It startled me, and made me realize I had been living in a state of sensory deprivation.

Is coming back to the reality of constantly changing sounds, sights, and smells the weirdest thing about your return from HI-SEAS?

A lot of things were odd, but it’s hard to define what exactly is weird. I can think of a few things that surprised me during the mission. I felt relieved to not have to buy things. All our food and supplies were already there so I didn’t have to think about groceries, didn’t have to think about toilet paper, and about other basics. When you’re out, you buy dinner with friends or stop by a store to look at shoes or clothes. None of that was there, and it was a relief.

What’s the first question people ask after they hear you spent four months on Mars?

What was the hardest thing, and what did I miss the most.

Credit: NASA

What struck me when I was reading your articles was the theme of boredom. We’re used to exploration as an adventure, something glamorous. How can Mars be boring?

I think it depends a lot on how the mission is designed. If you were constantly exploring, always going on long hikes and picking up new rocks and samples, Mars is probably heaven for you. My work was much more centered inside the dome. My job was to collect and analyze sleep data. I was also writing and reading a lot, so I didn’t spend as much time outside as my crewmates. Combine that with the fact that our environment was pretty static. Not a lot of surprises and you were seeing the same things every day.

This is something the designers of the project were aware of. There were inflatable couches and chairs so that we could easily rearrange furniture. And we did on a few occasions, like parties to celebrate milestones. But overall, when you have this monotony in your environment, it’s easy to be lowered into a calmer mental state where the slightest stimulation can overwhelm.

What else do people not realize about the hardships in space exploration?

I do think monotony is the largest thing. It’s like being a firefighter or a soldier. There’s a lot of hurry up and wait, and then you need to be ready to just flip the switch and be on.

If you ever get a chance to go to the actual planet Mars, will you?

It depends on the reliability of the rocket and the cost of the ticket! But yeah, I’d love to go.

Do you read or watch a lot of sci-fi ? I’m wondering if you find the depiction of life beyond Earth more silly, now that you’ve experienced first-hand how it might look like.

I haven’t been a big sci-fi reader, but I did read The Martian within days of coming out of HI-SEAS, and I was profoundly struck by how much Andy Weir got correct. So much of what he talked about felt familiar to me. Of course we didn’t have the sort of challenges his main character did, but in many cases some of the stuff just felt like things that could almost happen to us.

You’re a writer and a poet yourself. Did four months on Mars affect your work?

It absolutely did. Spending time on Mars, in combination with reading different types of work, and writing in a different way myself made me more of the poet and essayist I am today. I went in as a journalist that had only really written news stories and a few features. But for my weekly posts for Discover magazine I had to inject myself into storytelling. Writing from the first person’s perspective was new to me and it changed my writing. I also wrote five posts for The Economist. That’s where I actually got my start as a journalist, so it was kind of a return to a way of writing I really like.

One of the most important things was that for the first time I started reading a lot of poetry. My wife sent me a poem a day. She would send this poem and what it made her think of, or add a little bit of analysis. And I would respond. It kept our correspondence up but it also opened me up to poetry. These poems worked on me, and when I came back I started writing poems of my own.

Do you continue to read poetry?

Oh, absolutely! I read poems all the time, I buy books on poetry, I take courses online. There’s a modern poetry course from the University of Pennsylvania on Coursera I’m taking right now and it’s just fantastic. I took the Iowa Writer’s Workshop online and that was really eye opening. I’ve also been accepted to the MFA program at Columbia University. I deferred in 2016, but am planning to attend this year.

In other interviews I usually discuss fictional worlds, but it’s not the case here, so let me pick your brain about science. You started your career as a physicist, right?

Yes, my focus was on lasers and semiconductors. As a kid I loved projecting myself onto the moons of Jupiter or Saturn and just imagining how this must look. It drew me to science and space. I was reading those very dry science books with all the data they had: how long the days were, how bright the sunlight would be. And I was just imagining what it would feel like.

What really attracted me to physics was the imagining of invisible processes and environments. With lasers and semiconductors you’re thinking on the electron level, so you’re embedded in this quantum world. You’re trying to figure out what makes sense for an electron and then how that’s realized as you scale up. Is light emitted? What color of light? What intensity of light? My physics experience was very much imagining the world of an electron.

What does science have to say about parallel universes? Are they real?

It’s fun to conceive of what it might be like to live in a universe with different physical laws. But what it is, is mostly math and our best guesses on what this math represents physically. In theoretical physics people take equations and follow mathematical roads from point A to point B. And when they get to the end of those roads, they look at what it might physically represent.

Parallel universes, or multiverses, are a fascinating conclusion drawn from this. The equations say it might physically be possible that this universe isn’t the only one. That the laws of physics we experience aren’t the only ones. There could be an infinite number of other universes and it perplexes a lot of people. How is that possible? How can that actually be? It comes out of understanding the math and mapping that math onto physical reality.

If you knew there was a parallel universe, with a parallel you, would you want to communicate with her?

This question touches on some fundamental, basic human aspirations. We wonder about the decisions we’ve made and if we had made other decisions, what would be different. It touches on regret, it touches on hope, and longing, and the feeling of not being quite sure you are the you that you want to be. It’s especially pertinent in the modern world, when we feel our selves can be scattered between different devices and different avatars. Who are we on Facebook, versus who are we on Twitter, versus who are we at the dinner table, and at school, and at work.

As a kid I wrote stories about time travel and meeting a future self. But now I don’t know if I’d want to meet any other self. There are plenty of selves to grapple with, without conjuring time travel or parallel universes.

Okay, so let me ask you just one last science question. What about the theory that we live in a computer simulation, an artificial world. You think we do?

I would need a significant amount of evidence to believe we do. And I’d be curious to see more experiments designed to find out if it’s true.

Liked that? Read other conversations about imagined universes at Inner Worlds.