Physics grad student discusses life after Mars

Physics grad student Ross Lockwood returns to Earth and talks about life after Mars.

Suzette Chan - 15 August 2014

(Edmonton) University of Alberta graduate student Ross Lockwood "returned" to Earth after participating in a four-month experiment that simulated the conditions of living on Mars as part of the HI-SEAS experiment.

"The researchers were studying the psychology of a crew in isolation and how it changes over the long duration of a surface mission," Lockwood said.

Lockwood is now back at the University of Alberta, where he is completing a doctorate degree in the field of condensed matter physics. We asked him about how the experience will affect his current work and future plans.

Q & A with Ross Lockwood

You wrote 100 pages of your dissertation while on sMars (simulated Mars). Did writing in that environment make a difference to how you would have written it here?

Writing at altitude (low pressure) was extremely difficult. The closest weather station to us reported pressures around 680 millibars (1,013.25 millibars is air pressure at sea level), so we were at about 67% normal oxygen concentrations. If a real mission didn't have a fully pressurized habitat, they would supplement the oxygen concentration so that the astronauts wouldn't feel the effects. Time was also extremely valuable in the habitat, which made scheduling long periods of time for dedicated thesis work nearly impossible. It was hard to find a spare hour to sit down and get to work on the thesis. With that being said, 100 pages is nothing to sneeze at! I arrived with about 50 pages written, and now have more than 150 pages written. I call that a win.

Do you feel that the experience will affect your research and career goals?

Yes, absolutely. Not only did I gain a tremendous amount of experience with real space-science and analog systems, but I developed a network of extremely intelligent people who I can now call friends. The network alone made the mission valuable to me. A four-month analog mission isn't short in the history of analog missions either, so there is a certain amount of expertise from my experience that I can contribute to people thinking of doing similar things and testing their equipment in those environments. Ultimately though, it's kept the door open for me if there's ever the chance for me to apply to be an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency.

Are you thinking of actively pursuing opportunities for real space travel?

I'm involved in a few projects that have a space travel flavour, but right now my main focus is finishing my PhD work. Academically speaking, I'm still more experienced in the nanotechnology side of things, so looking that direction makes sense right now. If I had to predict where future applications of nanotechnology would be, space would be at the top of the list, which means that I can stay focused on space travel while working on things that I'm passionate about.