Starting in 2015, six volunteers participated in an elaborate space mission simulation for an entire year, pretending to be the first astronauts to land on Mars. They lived in a cramped little dome on the rocky terrain of Mauna Loa, a volcano in Hawai’i, which mimics the surface of the red planet. There were two main rules for their roleplay: (1) Never step outside without a spacesuit, and (2) outside air will kill you without a spacesuit. As far-fetched as this concept sounds, this is not a blurb off of a sci-fi novel but an actual, ongoing study orchestrated by NASA to better prepare for future space exploration. In Gimlet Media’s recent podcast, “The Habitat,” the fourth mission in the HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) project takes center stage.
To tell the inside story of what life was like for the volunteers – Carmel Johnston, the commander; Andrzej Stewart, the engineer; Christiane Heinicke and Cyprien Verseux, the European scientists; Shey Gifford, the doctor; Tristan Bassingthwaighte, the architect – during their Mars simulation, science journalist Lynn Levy produced a podcast series called “The Habitat,” which examines human relationships under the strain of shared isolation in an amusingly novel way.
A significant portion of “The Habitat” takes the form of the narrative, and like any tale, it’s only as good as the storyteller, no matter how captivating the subject matter itself may be. In the first episode, “This is the Way Up,” Levy assumes the tone of a commentator in a nature documentary, enunciating words carefully and conveying little emotion. Her lack of genuine excitement makes the delivery of both personal anecdotes and supposed “fun” facts about the mission fall flat. Given that her narration is meant to introduce important figures and transition between audio clips, Levy’s low energy not only affects the listener’s reception of the project’s backstory, but also colors our perception of the volunteers and their dialogue with soporific dullness.
However, despite its shaky takeoff, “The Habitat” manages to launch out of this world with the second episode. “Every Day Goes by Faster and Faster” is exponentially more engaging, partly due to the introduction of vlog-sounding segments that peek into the daily life of the HI-SEAS crew, with audio recordings that range from precisely 30-second-long showers to the sound of munching on freeze-dried peaches. The quick switches between the different voices and personalities of the volunteers ensure that the flow of the podcast is never lagging. The conversational speech and ambient sounds (of breakfast sizzling in a pan or approaching footsteps) in the recordings from the dome are highly immersive, creating a fly-on-the-wall listening experience in contrast to the detached atmosphere of the first episode.
Another major contributor to the improvement of the second episode is Levy’s development of a quirky edge to her previously bland persona. At one point, she inserts a clip of her attempt to cook dehydrated turkey chunks just to satisfy her curiosity about the taste of astronaut food. Levy also shows off a new affinity for choosing interesting anecdotes from space missions and finding the perfect places to insert them. Case in point: Following Bassingthwaighte’s account of how he unclogged a composting toilet that failed to make neat blocks of fertilizer from the team’s waste, Levy details some mishaps from the Apollo program involving “an escaped poop nugget, freed from the bounds of gravity” with gleeful immaturity. Her more relaxed, lighthearted style of narration transforms the overall mood of the podcast from that of a droning professor’s lecture to that of a cool summer camp counselor.
By this point, “The Habitat” also effectively investigates its central question about how people react to living in prolonged isolation together in a way that simultaneously offers a reality-TV-like plot structure that maximizes audience investment. The audio clips in the second episode are organized to first insinuate strained relationships, using a series of soundbites about the challenging living conditions, then ending with narration about the new traditions shared across the dome after the volunteers overcame hardships together.
“The Habitat” is a program that is initially attractive for its crazy, futuristic premise, but soon becomes more enjoyable for the interpersonal dynamics of the HI-SEAS team and the reveal of surprisingly unglamorous parts of astronaut life. While the premiere of the podcast feels overly self-conscious and tedious due to a slow-moving plot and dull narration, stick around for at least the second episode. As Levy and the cast of volunteers settle more comfortably into their personalities, “The Habitat” becomes an impressive bridge between the best parts of reality TV (hearing the daily drama of very different people being forced to live together) and documentary (getting answers to your craziest questions about space that were too inappropriate to ask in class).