Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth

Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth

by Kate Greene


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When it comes to Mars, the focus is often on how to get there: the rockets, the engines, the fuel. But upon arrival, what will it actually be like?

In 2013, Kate Greene moved to Mars. That is, along with five fellow crew members, she embarked on NASA’s first HI-SEAS mission, a simulated Martian environment located on the slopes of Mauna Loa in Hawai'i. For four months she lived, worked, and slept in an isolated geodesic dome, conducting a sleep study on her crew mates and gaining incredible insight into human behavior in tight quarters, as well as the nature of boredom, dreams, and isolation that arise amidst the promise of scientific progress and glory.

In Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars, Greene draws on her experience to contemplate humanity’s broader impulse to explore. The result is a twined story of space and life, of the standard, able-bodied astronaut and Greene’s brother’s disability, of the lag time of interplanetary correspondences and the challenges of a long-distance marriage, of freeze-dried egg powder and fresh pineapple, of departure and return.

By asking what kind of wisdom humanity might take to Mars and elsewhere in the Universe, Greene has written a remarkable, wide-ranging examination of our time in space right now, as a pre-Mars species, poised on the edge, readying for launch.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly


Poet and science journalist Greene writes of isolation, deprivation, and boredom in this enlightening account of her sojourn in a habitat mimicking the conditions of a future Mars mission. A dozen essays cover her four-month stay in a geodesic dome, where, as she describes in the introduction, she was sequestered in a dome “with five other not really astronauts” on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano as part of a NASA-funded research project on “space food systems for Mars and... the food’s impact on crew psychology.” Greene reports the study participants “lived and breathed survey questions for four months.... No sunshine on our skin, no fresh air in our lungs.” In “The Standard Astronaut,” a systems analyst determined that “a crew of smaller astronauts would launch for half the payload cost” due to lesser weight and food requirements, concluding, “The logical thing... is to fly small women.” In “Guinea-Pigging,” Greene contrasts her own agency and project transparency with the abuse of the hundreds of black men with untreated syphilis in the Tuskegee Study. Tidbits on space travel and how outer space expands Greene’s inner self are filled with wonderment and awe. By project’s end, the unexpected outcome for Greene is gratitude: “though I never left Earth... I didn’t truly appreciate this planet until I couldn’t access it at will.” Greene’s eloquent memoir is equal parts escape and comfort. (July)

Library Journal


Imagine a desolate red landscape, spending months in a confined habitat with a small crew. Venturing outside that habitat requires a spacesuit. This was the day-to-day experience for essayist and former laser physicist Greene, as she was one of the first crew to study and be studied in a Mars analog mission on the slopes of Mauna Loa in Hawai'i. The NASA-funded HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) habitat was an eight-month project, completed in 2013, allowing would-be astronauts to test the possibilities of life on Mars. Green effectively recounts the range of situations she faced, including adjusting to living with limited electricity and water, and exercising with a limited amount of carbon dioxide. She combines these scientific details, such as the history of the first spacecraft and space suit, with personal anecdotes about her life, including how having a brother who lived with disability led her to become interested in science. Green is a talented writer, and her words shine throughout, whether discussing science or its influence on her. VERDICT This engaging account will interest sf lovers, scientists, and dreamers who see the red planet in the night sky and wonder, what if.—Dawn Lowe-Wincentsen, Oregon Inst. of Technology, Portland

Kirkus Reviews

A set of loosely connected personal essays written during one of NASA’s simulated missions to Mars.

In her first book, laser physicist–turned-writer Greene sets out to use the wisdom of “human explorers on Mars [to] inspire new ways to sustain our lives and ecosystems back on Earth.” It’s a laudable goal, but the resulting collection mostly falls flat. Writing from her own experience as second-in-command of the 4-month-long 2013 Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission, the author chronicles her life’s changes refracted through the prism of living in tight quarters with other crew members, who all “brought their own projects to the mission.” Over the course of the narrative, we learn about Greene’s failing marriage and the importance of retaining a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco; the death of her brother; her parents’ house in Kansas, where they have lived for decades; and the fact that because of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Greene had to sign forms consenting to be a research subject. In going from “writing like [a] science journalist...to someone who was writing herself into a story,” however, the author drops the more interesting threads involving space exploration. Greene helpfully coins the term “technoschmerz” to describe the anguish caused by the disconnection between what we expect from technology—e.g., moonshots and Mars missions—and the confusion, emotional rifts, and anxiety it produces as it separates us from one another. Recalling Frank Borman, commander of the 1968 Apollo 8 mission that produced the iconic Earthrise photograph, Greene claims that only poets could capture the grandeur of Earth viewed from space. Technoschmerz en route to Mars also may be the domain of poets, but that poem has yet to be written.

Living on “Mars” may have changed Greene, but her journey of self-exploration is unlikely to change many readers.

From the Publisher

"Enlightening...Greene’s eloquent memoir is equal parts escape and comfort." —Publishers Weekly

"[Greene] addresses [the issues] with wit, insight, compassion, and, ultimately, hope." —Booklist

"Greene is a talented writer, and her words shine throughout, whether discussing science or its influence on her. This engaging account will interest sf lovers, scientists, and dreamers who see the red planet in the night sky and wonder, what if." —Library Journal

"In her thoughtful, well-written account of the mission, Greene not only discusses what it was like to spend several months cooped up indoors with five strangers and limited resources but also reflects on what this and other space missions can teach us about ourselves and life on Earth." —Physics Today

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250159472
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/14/2020
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 342,217
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

Customer Reviews