What Living on ‘Mars’ taught me about Experiential Futures & Community Resilience on Earth

Ksenia Benifand
Jul 16, 2019 · 11 min read
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MAU Crew 1121 on a scouting mission (left to right) Aimee Valliere, Health & Safety Officer, Tarun Bandemegala, Engineer, Janet Biggs, Executive Officer/Crew Journalist, Ksenia Benifand, Commander. Image Source: Mars Academy USA

It’s Sol 17, 2050 on Mars. One of the first batches of settlers have just completed a terrain scouting and surveillance mission, they also finished their engineering check around their habitat. They are now ready to return back:

“EVA Lead to HabCom, permission to enter the airlock. Over.”

“HabCom to EVA Lead, permission granted. You may enter the airlock.”

“EVA Lead to HabCom, acknowledged. We are entering the airlock now. Over.”


“EVA Lead to HabCom, airlock is now secured. Permission to initiate the recompression sequence. Over.”

“HabCom to EVA Lead, permission granted. Initiating the recompression sequence in 3..2..1…”

Once the recompression sequence is complete, the crew safely enters the habitat.

This is an example of a standard interaction protocol between an astronaut crew stationed on Mars (or the Moon) in a local habitat (HabCom) and a team coming back from an extra-vehicular activity (EVA). They are requesting HabCom to give them a permission to enter the airlock, where they will undergo a recompression sequence before they can safely enter the habitat and remove their helmets and suits. All of this is done in full gear with helmets, gloves, flight suits, gators, and simulated air supply backpacks. And if you ignore or fail the protocol sequence, you ‘die’, and can even ‘kill’ your entire crew — in other words, you ‘break sim’.

I have done this sequence dozens of times now as part of my analog astronaut training. And happy to report that I have not ‘killed’ myself nor my crew!

Analog Astronaut Training & Embodied Futures

“We are at a point in history where a proper attention to space, and especially near space, may be absolutely crucial in bringing the world together.” — Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

In case you are wondering “what on earth is an analog astronaut?”, here’s a good definition:

“An analog astronaut is a person who conducts activities in simulated space conditions. …Analog astronauts engage in a wide range of research such as human physiology, psychology, crew cohesion, exercise, and nutritional studies along with testing cutting-edge science, technology, & engineering applications. Analog missions are recognized by NASA and are seen as an important part of space exploration.” http://www.analogastronaut.com/

And now that you know the definition, and may be wondering “why on earth would you do something like this?”

To understand why I would do this, you need to know a little bit more about me. I am an experiential futurist, a designer, and on top of that, I am an experience junky. When I was in my teens, my Dad used to call me an adventurer, because I absolutely LOVE trying out new things, meeting people who are totally different from me, and experiencing new adventures. These adventures are not limited to visiting unique and exotic destinations — although that is definitely part of it… they also include trying out different lifestyles, new ways of thinking and new ways of being to see what it’s like, so that through the process of fully embodying a new experience I subsequently gain new and unique perspective of an aspect of life and reality that I hadn’t previously known as part of my design and futures practice.

For example, a few years ago, I spent a year living completely zero-waste for my Masters’ research project on transitioning our behaviors towards a Circular Economy. Or more recently, in my attempt to learn more about communal living and resilience, I lived in several intentional community houses to understand what it’s like, so that as a designer I can better understand the challenges and opportunities and subsequently design strategic interventions.

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Image Source: Mars Academy USA

So when an opportunity was presented to experience an analog Mars simulation for an extended time period, I was very curious to try it out! This opportunity provided me with new insights about the future of space exploration in the context of human behaviors, and how this work can impact life on Earth, in terms of technological development as well as socio-cultural evolution. I am extremely interested in building resilient communities, and learning how humans can create new paradigms of living together (imagine Burning Man on Mars!). This training is providing me with deep embodied insights of new human relation possibilities and conflict resolution within extreme, isolated and confined environments.

Living on Mars (in a 5 day simulation)

“If you want to have a program for moving out into the universe, you have to think in centuries not in decades.” — Freeman Dyson, Theoretical Physicist

At the end of 2018, I met an incredible woman by the name of Dr. Susan Ip-Jewell, the CEO of Mars Academy USA. Susan is a visionary, with expansive goals to exponentially change the paradigm of learning to develop future leaders for the 21st and 22nd centuries, or as she refers to as ‘Mars Shots’.

Dr. Ip-Jewell introduced me to experiential-based learning and simulating living and working on Mars. Little did I know at that time, that meeting started me on a brand new journey into the world of analog astronauts!

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Image Source: Mars Academy USA

Mars Academy USA (MAU) offers immersive, in-person, Analog Astronaut training where crews from different disciplines, cultures and professions live, work and collaborate together in MAU’s mobile, modular Mars Basecamp. MAU also recently pioneered the MARS MEDICS training programs focusing on space medicine, health and wellness, incorporating biomedical innovations and exponential technologies.

Since the beginning of 2019, I have completed four training simulations each lasting about five days. I have had a chance to lead a mission as a Crew Commander and provide support as a trainer & mentor for a student crew from Texas A&M University.

Every day of each missions is packed with activities that mimic potential lifestyles that will be experienced during space settlements, including:

  • Conducting GEVAs — Geological Extravehicular Activities, where the Crew trains under MAU’s protocols in terrain scouting and aerial reconnaissance using drones and soil sampling.
  • Conducting MEVAs — Medical Extravehicular Activities, where we simulate searching for and rescuing a fallen crew member using Military Medic Training for Basic Field Medical Care Protocols;
  • Cooking and eating dehydrated food, rationing portions for both water and food, to ensure these last the whole mission;
  • Underwater CPR and other water based activities like weighted walking — water is analog of microgravity so this is a powerful simulation training;
  • Undergoing simulated medical training for Teleanesthesia and telesurgery, intubation simulation and use of 3D printed VapoJET (3D printed inhalation anesthesia device), and suturing wounds;
  • Conducting health and wellness training and exercises with Tai Chi, Akido, Art, Body Mapping Scans in virtual worlds and lots more.

We also spend a lot of time bonding and participating in trust building exercises, which I believe is the most significant and crucial aspect of making each mission a success, and an area I am most excited about to ensure a paradigm of human-centered space exploration.

Experiential futures as a critical research & design tool

“ [Human Future] is something which lies within our hands, to be shaped and molded by the choices we make in present time.”” -Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

Designing immersive futuristic environments where one can conduct longitudinal research and prototype various products to determine if and how they solve real world challenges, can help researchers and designers expose patterns underlying people’s behaviours and experiences; explore reactions to probes and prototypes; and shed light on the unknown through iterative and embodied hypothesis and experimentation.

We can experiment, study, measure, iterate and refine today before it becomes a reality of the future. As humans plan future missions to Mars, we are getting ready to deal with future astronaut crews spending significant lengths of time living in isolation and confinement. They journey to Mars alone takes 8 months, and then all the time to settle and live there. Researchers are exploring many questions: What types of personalities work best together? How will we cope with small spaces and living together with the same small group of people? How will we administer complicated and unique medical procedures if there are no specialists? How can we design for constraints that will be faced by these future explorers?

By living in and designing for potential futures, we can better anticipate what lies ahead, and can actively determine impact, make better choices, realize the consequences of our decisions, and measure outcomes over time. Design can help to make futures visible, tangible, and interactive.

Building Resilience on Earth

“We do not realize what we have on Earth until we leave it.” -James Arthur “Jim” Lovell

Did I mention that my first ever mission was also timed with my honeymoon!?! Spending a week in an isolated, confined, extreme environment, sharing a tiny habitat and sleeping quarters with other analog astronauts — what a way to start of a marriage! Lucky for me, my husband loves adventures as much as I do, and was thrilled to join me on this ride.

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My husband, Joe Lang, and I on our very first mission. Picture taken at Vasquez Rocks, California.

Being part of the mission, allowed us to hone our communication and emotional awareness skills with one another, we made time for frequent check-ins, and spent extra care connecting with one another. After undergoing our very first mission together, I feel much more connected to him back ‘on Earth’. I am proud of his leadership and seeing him flourish in a new environment!

Inspired by Mars Academy USA’s work, my husband and I designed a custom Virtual Reality Conflict Resolution Application and are now conducting a longitudinal study with MAU to test our VR app during pre-simulations and during the analog simulations in low and mid-fidelity settings. We are collecting data and our research will be presented at the 70th International Astronautical Congress, Washington, DC., in the fall of 2019.

Building Powerful Relationships Rooted in Trust

But it’s not just about romantic relationships… in every mission, we take time to learn about one another and develop trust. It starts even before the mission, in the pre-simulation portion of the mission. The “pre-sim” lasts 2–3 days and this is when crew bonding starts to take place. We begin practicing the protocols we will be running during the mission and preparing ourselves physically and psychologically.

We spend intentional time getting to know one another, seeing each other perform technical tasks, and exploring our personal and professional stories. We all come from different walks of life, and professional backgrounds, taking the time to connect allows us to begin our bonds even before the mission starts. This is important as when things get tough during a mission, and there is a potential for conflicts to emerge, this bond allows us to proactively solve challenges and conflicts before they escalate.

Why is this important? I am fascinated by community resilience on Earth. As climate related disasters become more frequent, unpredictable, and larger in scale, humans will need to learn how to work together to adapt and survive. There is emerging research showing when communities bond prior to a disaster situation, they are likely to recover and recoup from a disaster in a shorter time period. Our community networks can help us improve our individual and community health & well-being, provide us with the means of managing unexpected events, and help us thrive within our changing context, fostering community resilience (the ability to adapt, recover, and thrive in spite of adverse events or experiences). These is an interesting opportunity to conduct experiential futures for disaster management and relief across communities to test community resilience.

Resource Conservation

While we are living in space and on Mars, we won’t have all the abundant resources we have on Earth. When we join the mission, we are asked to minimize our belongings as we have very little space, and are only allowed to bring the very basic necessities. We also track our food consumption and measure and monitor our food and water supply to ensure it lasts us until the end of the mission. Some of the crews got very creative with dehydrated foods and we’ve cooked up some feasts using interesting spices to add flavor and variability to our meals. This way of being can teach us to conserve resources on Earth. I actually found it liberating to be wearing my flight suit every day, and not to worry about fashion choices.

Medical Training and Search & Rescue Procedures

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Image Source: Mars Academy USA

A big part of the training with Mars Academy USA includes Search and Rescue using Military Medic Training for Basic Field Medical Care Protocols, as well as learning aspects of telemedicine, such as intubation, testing a 3D printed inhalation device called Vapojet, and learning wound suturing. The research and protocols that we have been using and testing for Mars settlements are now being applied to work that we are doing with development of AvatarMEDIC, an integrated “holistic system” to address the myriad of challenges in the fields of emergency medicine, telemedicine, tele-robotics, disaster relief, medical triage and remote search and rescues. A subset product of AvatarMEDIC is AvatarRESCUE, an IBM Watson powered application to mitigate human lost in disaster relief scenarios and emergency medical interventions. The work that we have done in simulation, is being directly applied for prototyping and development of a product on Earth.

Prototyping Governance

Mars Academy USA had recently began working with Carin Ism, Founder, Future Governance Agency, on prototyping and testing various forms of governance. We have started trialing various ways of decision making, accountability, conflict resolution, and punishment measures. More on this as it progresses.

Final Thoughts

One evening in the mission, Dr. Ip-Jewell shared a new concept called ‘Alchonaut’ (convergence between alchemy and astronaut), which underpins personal transformation and growth opportunity brought about by adventuring into the unknown that space exploration can offer. I have certainly transformed throughout my time with MAU.

I have honed my leadership skills, learned basic medical survival and search & rescue skills, lived in an environment with food and water rationing & conservation, developed emotional intelligence and living in a confined environment,. I learned a lot about myself, and where I am still vulnerable; learned about and used new technologies; and have met incredible people who will forever be part of my Mars family.

I am now getting ready for High Fidelity Analog Astronaut Training Mission to Upper Mustang, Nepal (at approximate 14,000 ft altitude) as expansion of MAU’s Neamae Project, where we will continue the development of Avatarmedic (ANA XPRIZE) This will be a PIONEERING FIRST Analog Astronaut expedition to deploy beyond 13,000 ft altitude! The purpose will be to train highly skilled professionals in the fields of space medicine, aerospace medicine, explorers, analogue astronauts, visioneers, innovators, developers, artists, academics, scientists, and researchers in analogue astronautics and exponential technologies to support future long-duration space missions, planetary surface explorations, and spin-off benefits to improve life on Earth.

There is one spot left, for anyone interested! Hope to see you on Mars!

Ad Astra!

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Image Source: Mars Academy USA

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Ksenia Benifand

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Connecting with people through participatory futures & design to enable healthy, equitable, empathy-driven & sustainable planet.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Ksenia Benifand

Written by

Connecting with people through participatory futures & design to enable healthy, equitable, empathy-driven & sustainable planet.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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