Field Notes: Serving as 'capsule communicator' for a simulated moon mission

buildings on the surface of the moon

A view of the Space Analog for the Moon if it was actually located on the moon. Science writer Mikayla Mace Kelley served as capsule communicator for the mission.

Chris Richards/University Communications and Adobe Firefly AI

On the evening of March 14, I sat in my backyard with my laptop open, looking for the moon, seeking inspiration. 

Since it was a relatively new moon – only 4 days old – I knew I could find it near the sun. When I spotted the moon, it looked like a canoe crossing a sea of pink waves. I pictured four people living on the left-most tip of the thin crescent. 

Three people waving from behind glass

Three members of the Imagination 1 crew wave hello from inside the Space Analog from the Moon.

Chris Richards/University Communications

In actuality, a crew of four University of Arizona professional artists was entering the last 16 hours of their six-day, five-night mock moon mission, called Imagination 1. While holed up inside the Space Analog for the Moon and Mars, or SAM – a 1,100-square-foot pressurized and hermetically sealed facility located at Biosphere 2 – the crew members simulated living and creating art on the south pole of the lunar surface. 

The goal was to explore the value of art in space exploration and produce creative works inspired by the limitations and possibilities of life and culture beyond Earth.

The crew entered SAM on March 10, led by Christopher Cokinos, a nonfiction writer and professor emeritus of English. The others members were: Julie Swarstad Johnson, a poet and Poetry Center archivist and librarian; Elizabeth George, a dancer/choreographer and associate professor in the School of Dance; and Ivy Wahome, a textile artist and Master of Fine Arts candidate in costume design and production at the School of Theatre, Film and Television.

My job as the mission's "capsule communicator" was to check in with the crew twice a day. The director of research for SAM, Kai Staats, gave me the rundown on the position and explained the history.

The term CapCom, shorthand for capsule communicator, originates from an antiquated means of space travel. During Project Mercury – the first human spaceflight program in the U.S. – astronauts traversed the skies in capsules that were controlled mostly from Earth. CapCom was usually an astronaut who trained with the crew but remained on Earth during the mission. NASA reasoned that trained astronauts would be best able to communicate clearly and efficiently in emergency situations.  

I shadowed the crew members for only a few hours of their two-day training, which included short history lessons on spaceflight, Biosphere 2 and SAM. They also practiced how to don and doff spacesuits, how to use a rig that simulated the one-sixth gravity of the moon and much more.

Mikayla Mace Kelley

Mikayla Mace Kelley, science writer in University Communications

As CapCom for Imagination 1, I was expected to communicate in a tone that was formal but familiar. Staats suggested I send daily weather reports. And while the crew members had email access, they didn't have internet access, so they relied on me as their search engine. 

Luckily for all involved, I was not the first in line to communicate with the crew in an emergency.

My messages usually began with a greeting, followed by an update on how the moon would appear in our sky and how the Earth would appear from the moon. I then provided a weather update – from mission control, but relevant to them since they weren't actually on the moon. I signed off by offering to look up anything they needed. After that, I awaited their requests and tried to fill them as quickly as possible. 

The crew asked me to do things like track down online texts for reference in their writing, download and share 3D printing files and hunt down images of the lunar south pole for them to splash on SAM's walls for inspiration.

Their return messages always included data on SAM's pressure, carbon dioxide levels, water tank levels and hydroponics system. This was mostly for use by Staats and his team at mission control. The crew members also sent notes about their daily activities and morale. 

In addition to fulfilling their requests – as an aside, I often felt like artificial intelligence, helpfully responding to their messages – I tried as much as possible to speak to them like they were actually on the moon. We all understood that this was necessary for the mission's success. 

The crew of artists hoped to draw from this experience to inform their creative works: Cokinos will publish stories for Esquire and The Telegraph. George developed movements inspired by her time in the reduced-gravity simulator that she plans to share with her students. Wahome created a tapestry of images from the mission, while Johnson painted her experience in words. 

Staats and his team were adamant that the crew members not see other people lurking outside of SAM once they were inside. 

Within the facility, they covered some windows that would otherwise reveal the Sonoran Desert landscape, and they immersed themselves in lunar imagery with virtual reality headsets provided by the School of Information. At night, they projected photos of the lunar surface. The crew read poetry about space travel aloud and watched movies about the Apollo missions.

And while I wasn't locked inside with the crew, I looked up at the moon every night to check on the artists in the sky.

Read more about the mission and the communication between Earth and the "moon" on the SAM blog.

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