#4 Stockpiling Food For Thought with Michaela Musilová
This is edition #4 of Stockpiling Food For Thought - the Sensorium Quarantine Weekly Special, with Michaela Musilová.
A “training center” for living in isolation under space mission conditions is located in Hawaii. We are referring to the intriguing project by the International Moonbase Alliance (also known as HI-SEAS) a research facility for performing missions simulating living outside of the Earth, specifically on Mars and on the Moon. We spoke to the astrobiologist and expert on life in extreme conditions, Dr. Michaela Musilová, about how astronauts are affected by the pandemic and why empathy is key for humanity surviving this global crisis successfully.
Dr. Michaela Musilová at the SOSA Mission Control Centre for the first Slovak satellite skCUBE when she was the Chair of SOSA.
Dr. Michaela Musilova obtained her PhD degree from the University of Bristol (UK) andstudied and conducted research at University College London (UK), California Institute of Technology (USA), Chiba University (Japan) and others. She is also a graduate from the International Space University (ISU)'s Space Studies Program. Michaela’s space research experience includes working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory; University of London Observatory; Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope; and the NASA and UK Space Agency’s MoonLite project; being an analogue astronaut and Commander of numerous simulated missions to the Moon and Mars at the HI-SEAS station in Hawai’i, and at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah. Michaela is currently the Director of HI-SEAS, as part of the University of Hawai’i and the International MoonBase Alliance. She is also a visiting professor at the Slovak University of Technology, vice-chair of the Slovak Organisation for Space Activities (SOSA), Adjunct Faculty at ISU and a senior research adviser for Mission Control Space Services Inc.
She has received numerous prizes and grants, including the Emerging Space Leaders Grant from the International Astronautical Federation (2016); Women in Aerospace – Europe Young Professional Award (2016) and she was selected as one of the most promising 30 under 30 by Forbes Slovakia (2015).
Michaela is actively involved in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, as a patron of the program in Slovakia and an Emerging Leader Representative for Europe, Mediterranean and Arab states. Furthermore, she enjoys participating in STEAM outreach activities from teaching at schools, giving public presentations, working with the media, and encouraging people to pursue their dreams. Her own big dream is to take part in a space mission in the future, perhaps with the involvement of Slovakia to find extraterrestrial life in space.
Sensorium: Where are you writing from, what is your situation?
Michaela Musilová: I am currently in Hawaii, where I live and work. A mandatory “shelter in place” order has been in effect for a couple of weeks, though most organisations, schools and small businesses have been working under “stay at home” conditions for a few weeks. This is particularly true on the Big Island of Hawaii where I live. People took their own initiative to perform social distancing a couple of weeks before the local government ordered them to do so. People are all generally behaving well and no one has been hospitalised yet on this island because of the virus. Hopefully, the situation will continue like this for as long as possible.
Watching the sunrise during a simulated Moon mission at HI-SEAS, in collaboration with the European Space Agency.
Sensorium: Habitat is probably the safest place to be right now. Is the HI-SEAS project affected by the pandemic at all?
Michaela Musilová: Even though the HI-SEAS habitat may indeed be one of the safest places on the planet from the COVID-19 disease, all of our staff live and work on the Big Island. Thus, we had to stop all of our activities and work from home like everyone else. We had a series of missions in collaboration with NASA that were meant to start now in April, but sadly they will have to be postponed for a few months until it will be safe to resume performing simulated missions to the Moon and Mars again. For now, we are just working on the data analysis of the results of our missions and we are preparing research experiments for the future missions.
Dr. Michaela Musilová operating a rover, in collaboration with the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES).
Sensorium: NASA has partnered with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. What are solutions/situations for dealing with diseases and infections outside of the Earth? How is research and development at NASA connected to biomedical research? Are you dealing with diseases and viruses in your projects and at HI-SEAS specifically?
Michaela Musilová: There is a lot of biochemical and medical research that is performed in space. Astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) perform various experiments to see how organisms, from microbes to plants and the human body, change under the effects of living outside of the Earth. The astronauts themselves are thoroughly monitored to see how their health changes during their missions in space and they are kept in quarantine before the mission starts in order to minimise the potential risk of transporting a disease to the ISS. If someone were to be sick on the ISS, it’s likely that the whole crew would get sick too. There are various protocols put in place to deal with such a situation. Some of them include having to evacuate the astronaut(s) back to Earth if there’s a risk that their condition may deteriorate significantly in space. At HI-SEAS, we also perform biomedical and psychological research, on top of other research and technological projects. We also screen our crew for diseases and put them into partial quarantine before the mission starts. That means that they are isolated from everyone else apart from the researchers and staff at HI-SEAS, who are also in isolation from the rest of the world before a mission starts.
Dr. Musilova and two of her crew members on an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) exploring a lava cave.
Sensorium: What has been the most interesting reaction to the pandemic that you have encountered?
Michaela Musilová: The most interesting thing for me has been following how different countries in the world are dealing with the pandemic and how the research community is progressing to find a vaccine. I have many colleagues in biomedical research, so I have been following their updates regularly. The biggest and most pleasant surprise was how most people have been willing to put aside normal regulations to help one another. This means that doctors and researchers are not as secretive with their research results as they normally have to be – as people could steal their ideas, publish papers before them and thus get more research funding, promotions, etc. Many people have decided to be very altruistic and help others in these times of need, which is very beautiful for me. Empathy is something crucial for the success of missions to the Moon and Mars, and in this case to end the COVID-19 pandemic as soon as possible with the least amount of victims.
Dr. Musilova researching cold-loving extremophiles (extreme organisms) at the University of Bristol.
Sensorium: In a way, the world is currently experiencing extreme living conditions, however most of us are not trained for it and might struggle with many aspects including intensive coexistence with others in a restricted space. So what exactly is the role of empathy in extreme living conditions that you are dealing with in your projects?
Michaela Musilová: Some people are more empathetic than others, but empathy is something that can be acquired with experience and with open-mindedness. In the space sector, astronauts are taught to be, in a way, empathetic soldiers. They have to follow orders for the success of the mission. However, the health and safety of the crew comes before the mission goals, which is why they are encouraged to take initiatives in situations where the crew may be in any kind of risk. The best astronauts are those that are empathetic, caring and even funny, while being serious scientists/engineers/doctors/pilots. Not everyone who is trained to be an astronaut gets to go to space. Those that are chosen to go into space are usually the best team players, leaders that can also be followers. In terms of getting better at being empathetic, the best thing to start with is to try and put yourself in the other person’s place: try to see their perspective, understand what they are going through and thus why they may be behaving the way that they are behaving. That is empathy - having compassion for others and putting yourself in other people’s shoes. The first step is to open your mind and heart to that. Then, keep practicing. The more you do it, the more empathetic you become and hence you’ll become a better person to live and work with. If the situation becomes difficult, then it’s important to talk through all of your problems openly, but kindly, while taking into consideration the feelings of others.
Sensorium: Some people say this pandemic will accelerate a wider paradigm shift in society. Do you agree? Can you describe how you see the importance and potential impact of this event on a larger scale?
Michaela Musilová: I definitely think that society will change after the pandemic is over. It opened the eyes of most of the world to the risks we are exposed to, to how the world can change dramatically and to all of the things we have to change for the better to avoid a similar situation again. While COVID-19 is a dangerous disease that has killed a great amount of people around the world, its mortality is fortunately not as high as that of some diseases that affected the world in the past. We need to be prepared for something even more dangerous spreading. This situation is in a way a learning lesson and humans need to learn as much as possible from this. We are likely to experience more pandemics, not to mention all of the effects of climate change that will likely start to get much worse shortly. If people can open their eyes to those risks, in part thanks to this pandemic, then we have a chance to change the world for the better.
Thank you very much Michaela for sharing your experience and taking the time to answer our questions.
Michaela Musilová online:
Writing: Lucia Dubačová
Interviewee: Dr. Michaela Musilová
Editing: Celia Bugniot
Publishing: Sensorium Festival
Pictures: Courtesy of Michaela Musilová