As the resident podcast enthusiast (ahem, fanatic) of the #BookSquad, I have appointed myself captain of the #PodSquad. This is mostly an excuse for me to write more blog posts about podcasts because my brain is filled with them, and I love recommending them to y’all! So welcome to this little spin-off squad. Get your ears ready.
Last week I discovered a delightful seven-episode podcast called The Habitat. Gimlet produces the show, so I had a good feeling about it because they make some great stuff. Just ask Kelli, who listed Gimlet’s Heavyweight as one of her favorite things of 2017 on our year-end episode.
The Habitat follows a crew of six people living for a year on an artificial planet Mars (actually in Hawaii) to test how humans will fare when we send them to Mars *for real.* But they’re not just isolated from their normal lives for a year; they’re as close to isolated from planet Earth as they can possibly be. They have to act as if they are actually on Mars, meaning, for one thing, that they can’t even open the door to their habitat without donning a spacesuit first. Interested yet?
When I first heard the concept, I thought it sounded like MTV’s Real World, but trapped on another planet. Sign me up for that. Well, sign me up to listen. I don’t actually want to live on fake Mars. The bathroom situation alone is enough to make me say nah. More on that later.
The program is called HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), and this particular mission is the fourth of its kind. The crew, comprised of Carmel (a soil scientist and the crew commander), Shey (a medical doctor), Andrzej (a pilot an engineer), Cyprien (an astrobiologist), Christiane (a physicist and engineer), and Tristan (an architect), entered the habitat, a domed structure half the size of a tennis court, in summer 2015.
Host Lynn Levy, a science journalist (formerly of Radiolab,one of my all-time favorite podcasts) documented the crew from 48 hours before they entered the dome until the finally re-emerged onto Earth. Using the recorder Lynn gave them, the crew created audio diaries and recorded answers to questions Lynn sent them.
At first, it seemed like the podcast would just be about the weird and unsettling world inside the dome. We get details of everyday life that remind us just how difficult it would be to live in this situation, much less in actual space. The crew eats powdered and dehydrated food. All liquid in the dome is recycled, including the urine expelled by mice in laboratory experiments. Like in space, all email communication comes through on a 20-minute delay, and that’s really the only communication method that exists. If the door is opened and someone isn’t in a spacesuit, they’d have to simulate death and the whole experiment would end.
And what about human waste? Well, the way Lynn explains pooping is like this: A crew member has to ask everyone else to turn around while they float to the other side of the dome and do their business. Oh, and they have to get totally naked to do it. The whole process can take up to an hour. The weirdest part is that between pooping and depositing said poo in the compost toilet, sometimes a turd escapes and floats across the room. Escaped turds! No!
But pretty soon, listeners will discover that the podcast is not really about the dome, but about the people inside it. As relationships form and deteriorate, The Habitat forces us to ask some difficult questions about what happens to humans when they are this isolated. When the Paris terrorist attacks happen, Cyprien, a native of France, is forced to wait in agony for more news because, well, he’s supposed to be on another planet.
Lynn asks the question everyone wonders while listening: Is anyone hooking up in there? In Episode 4, Lynn gets obsessed with couplings, finding evidence for love matches in the smallest interactions and vocal changes. I mean, it’s three men and three women totally isolated for a year. There’s gotta at least be some flirting, right?! You’ll have to listen to find out.
The end of Episode 4 also marks the first time we hear of some very real frustrations among crew members. Carmel and Tristan joke that they know which crew member would be murdered first. When Christiane asked what she’d change about the experiment, she says she’d exchange a crew member or two for different ones. People start to argue about the value of real exploration versus staying safe and making sure the experiment endures. But all of these hiccups are what makes the podcast interesting to me. It shows what happens what humans are forced together, especially in extreme circumstances.
So what happens to the HI-SEAS crew? No spoilers here. This is an easy binge though. The episodes are only about 30 minutes long, and the real audio from within the dome is really engaging, even when it’s supposed to show how “boring” things can get in there. The production value is great (because Gimlet), and Lynn is a curious and empathetic host. Bonus: each episode ends with a different cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” (My favorite is by Ellen O at the end of Episode 1.)
Overall, I recommend a listen. On top of the interesting concept and sometimes shocking facets of life in “space,” it’s also a fascinating study of humanity. And now that you’re in the #PodSquad, let me know what you thought of The Habitat.