Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth by Kate Greene
In 2013, science journalist Kate Greene, along with five others, spent four months on Mars. Well, OK, it was four months on the side of Mauna Loa in Hawaii as part of NASA’s Hi-SEAS, a Mars simulation designed to test various aspects of an actual Mars mission: the effects of long-term isolation on a small group, how interpersonal relations can be maintained, the role of food on morale, sleep habits, etc. In Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth (2020), Greene conveys her experiences during the simulation via a series of essays, all of which range well beyond her small geodesic dome.
Several strands run through the collection. One, obviously, is her time preparing for and then living through her simulation experience. Several other highly personal ones are the life and death of her brother Mark, the end of her marriage, the ways in which her own writing has changed since her experience, and its deeper impact on her. Greene ranges well beyond the merely personal here though, ruminating on larger scientific, societal, and metaphysical issues: why it would be more pragmatic to send an all-female crew to Mars (and conversely, why women weren’t part of the Apollo program), the role of big tech in our daily lives, the differing goals of private and public exploration of Mars and space in general, the Tuskegee Study scandal, and more. Specific moments in “Mars” act as triggers or jumping-off points, followed by, if I can use an oxymoronic phrase, “focused digressions,” all of which are tied back to her time in the dome.
Honestly, her time on “Mars” makes for the least interesting parts of the book, something one feels Greene herself realizes either consciously or sub-consciously. We spend a relatively brief amount of time there, and the prose is often at its flattest during that time. There is, perhaps, a reason a particular moment there becomes a jumping-off point for a meditation on and exploration of the concept of boredom, an idea she tells us is “distinctly boredom” and can lead to the same feeling she’d had of “living in a kind of haze.” That’s a real concern for anyone flying a crew on a months’ long journey in a confined space, and I wish Greene had spent a bit more time exploring NASA’s possible solutions, which include a periscope for Earth-gazing and a (obviously less-advanced) form of Star Trek’s holodeck. Not the only time I wished for a deeper dive into some of the specifics of a potential Mars mission.
Similarly, her relationship with her wife Jill also felt not fully mined and fell a bit flat in its conveyance. In contrast, both the prose and the passion seem to ratchet up whenever Greene writes about her brother; the book comes most alive in those moments even when discussing his death. These, and her musing on more abstract, broader humanistic concerns about connections, future human societies and the like were my favorite parts of the collection.
The prose moves between solid and smooth (those sections in the dome) to movingly lyrical. Greene has a poet’s touch in many a passage, both in the prose and in the use of metaphor and simile, and I simply wrote “Nice” in the margins of several lovely passages. As when she closes a chapter on isolation that brings together her brother’s death with an astronaut (Michael Collins) circling the Moon alone and the migration of Polynesians to the thousand-plus islands of the South Pacific and misfits as explorers and astronauts with how:
At night, inside that dome, when we looked out the window, we could see the lights from the telescopes on Mauna Kea, the volcano due east. And on a clear day we could see Maui. But because of perspective and the way the sky is blue the ocean is blue, to me Maui almost looked more like a spacecraft, or another world, hovering just above the horizon — a trick of the eye and brain that made the next island over feel not so very far away.
There are several equally good moments in Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars, but overall the collection felt as if the whole were less than its parts. Or maybe there just weren’t enough such moments where either the prose took flight or the essays bored deep. “Flat” is too all-encompassing a description for a book that was at times moving or offered up some compelling historical/scientific detail or displayed the mind of a poet at work, but “flatter than I would have preferred” works for me. It’s a solid collection with some excellent segments, which makes it certainly worth a read, but there’s a sense Greene missed an opportunity to reverse those descriptors into an excellent collection with some solid segments.