When Adriana Blachowicz PhD ’19 decided to go into strict isolation from the outside world, it wasn’t in response to a global pandemic. She was preparing for another planet altogether.
Blachowicz was part of the inaugural all-female Sensoria team, a privately funded program to simulate the experience of living in a Mars colony. In January, she and five other scientists and engineers isolated themselves for two weeks in a remote dome in Hawaii. The site perched 8,200 feet above sea level on the barren slope of Mauna Loa, an active volcano.
Along with experiments on vertical gardening, microbiology and regenerating plant material, the crew explored leadership and team cohesion, art and even how mortality and burial rituals might be addressed in space or on other planets.
“One of my scientific interests was to understand how the dome’s microbiome — that includes all bacteria and fungi — changed with human presence throughout the mission,” says Blachowicz, the crew’s science officer and a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This helps us understand our environmental impact.”
I’m extremely excited to think of all the science and technological progress that will be coming as humans travel deeper into space.Adriana Blachowicz
Over the two weeks, she periodically collected samples from tabletops and floors to assess changes. “The most exciting part of my research was that I was able to process all the samples in real time because I was also field testing an instrument for automated DNA extraction developed for the International Space Station,” she says.
Ten days of heavy fog kept them from some outdoor activities, but they kept their spirits up in their tight quarters with books, long discussions and occasional movie nights.
“After lockdown, I was just so excited to feel the wind on my skin again,” she says. “And it was nothing compared to a real Mars trip.”
So is Blachowicz ready for liftoff? Not quite, she says with a laugh.
“I’m extremely excited to think of all the science and technological progress that will be coming as humans travel deeper into space,” she says, “but I’m more comfortable doing it as the support team back home.”