Shabbat On Mars
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Shabbat On Mars

Dr. Sheyna Gifford — a Jewish medical doctor, science journalist, astrophysics researcher and space enthusiast — is preparing to live on Mars.

Gifford, 36, will join five other crewmembers in the NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) habitat for a simulated space mission to Mars, which launched last week. For the next 365 days, she and the others will be isolated inside a geodesic dome that’s 36 feet in diameter.

Perched on a slope 8,000 feet above sea level on the Big Island of Hawaii, the two-story habitat simulates space missions, to help identify risks associated with long-term human space exploration.

Last week, Gifford was at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco to film training videos for non-medical crew on how to treat injuries. A Los Angeles native who attended the University of California, Berkeley and now lives in St. Louis, Gifford will serve as a medical doctor, neuroscientist and habitat journalist for the mission, her second, having completed a stint at NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog in the spring.

This HI-SEAS mission to Mars — longer than any of the previous three — has several purposes.

“It’s about psychology, logistics, science and maintenance,” Gifford said. “We’re looking at what you need to feed and water people for a year, how much science you can get done and how the crew manages” in about 1,700 square feet of living space.

The crew includes a field biologist, a fluid physicist, an astrobiologist, a spacecraft engineer and a space architect. HI-SEAS researchers are working to develop effective team composition and support strategies for traveling to Mars and back, which is estimated to be a three-year journey.

The dome’s 993-square-foot ground floor includes a kitchen, dining area, bathroom, lab and exercise area. The 424-square-foot second floor includes six small sleeping quarters and a half bath. In addition, a 160-square-foot workshop, made from a converted shipping container, is attached to the habitat.

As the only Jew on the crew, Gifford said she faces several specific challenges. “Being a Jew is a community activity, a group effort. Any individual work you do, such as being a thoughtful, contemplative and helpful person, you do in the context of the whole world,” she said. “Also, there will be no other Jews to celebrate [Jewish] holidays with.”

In post on her blog titled “A Shtick by Any Other Name: Being Jewish on Mars,” Gifford explored being the only Jew on the mission and having to tackle questions such as, “When you’re in a space station that circles the Earth every 90 minutes, experiencing multiple sundowns daily, when, precisely, do you get your Jew on?”

“Probably I will light the candles — or turn on the electric candles, as I am not going to make fire in space — on Hawaii time, the same time as our ground control,” Gifford said. “Though of course at that time I might be in the middle of a space walk or doing surgery or cleaning the composting toilet.”

Fortunately, Gifford looks forward to sharing some Jewish rituals and history. “None of my roommates at Berkeley were Jewish, and I managed to bring others there into the fold,” she said.

Whether or not Gifford actually gets to Mars, she is not at all worried about being confined for a year during the simulation.

“Mentally, physically and socially, I have no concerns,” she said. “Only curiosity.”

Patricia Corrigan/j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California/San Francisco

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