From artist to astronaut: a USC alum is on a mission to Mars

Richelle Gribble in spacesuit
USC Roski alum Richelle Gribble on her mission to Mars.

BY Chandrea Miller

A mission to Mars is just one of the many out of this world pitstops for USC Roski School of Art and Design alum Richelle Gribble.

“I am an expeditionary artist and my art is my passport,” Gribble said. “I travel to far-reaching and unassuming places to reflect where humanity, technology and the environment collide.”

Gribble was one a select group of people chosen to experience the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. HI-SEAS is an analog habitat for human spaceflight to Mars located in an isolated area near the Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii. The area has Mars-like features and resides at an elevation of approximately 8,200 feet (2,500 m) above sea level.

HI-SEAS analog habitat in Hawaii.

“As soon as the crew arrives at the Habitat and the airlock door is shut behind us, the Mars analog simulation begins,” Gribble said. “I was the Vice Commander and Creative Research Specialist on a crew with five other women.”

The first HI-SEAS study was in 2013 and NASA’s Human Research Program continues to fund and sponsor follow-up studies. The missions are of extended duration from four months to a year and replicate isolated and confined environments, such as Mars500, Concordia, and the International Space Station.

Richelle Gribble takes it all in atop the Mauna Loa volcano.

The purpose of the missions is to determine what is required to keep a space flight crew physically and mentally sound while on extended missions. The simulated Mars missions conduct research into food, crew dynamics, performance, and other aspects of space flight. In addition, the HI-SEAS researchers carry out studies through a variety of daily activities.

The HI-SEAS analog habitat location is surrounded by red rocky terrain much like the red iron-oxide dust and regolith of Mars and a network of caves where the crew can carry out research during their simulated spacewalks as seen here in a video diary by Gribble and her all-female crew.

Crew members (right to left): Richelle Gribble, Chelsea Gohd, Amanda Knutson and Michaela Musilova.

“Our days are quite busy, with packed schedules and a lot to be done in a short amount of time, mimicking the experience of astronauts in the International Space Station,” Gribble said. “We wear a full body spacesuit with a built-in communication system and oxygen machine. We cook with all dehydrated ingredients and track our food and water supply to correlate with the mission’s duration. We undergo daily exercise, sleep in small enclosures, have access to a science research laboratory, grow plants under grow lights, track daily medical reports, and pursue both individual and team research and projects.”

In addition, the HI-SEAS study by NASA is trying to understand crew dynamics such as morale, stress management and problem-solving. While working together as a group, each crew member is assigned a specific task to aid in the overall success of the mission.

Crew performing their daily simulated spacewalks.

“Together, we delegate tasks to maintain the health and wellbeing of each other as well as oversee the systems and operations of the Habitat,” Gribble said. “We each have daily activities and reports that are submitted each night complete with a 20-minute communications delay, like Mars to our Mission Control.”

Gribble said she wanted to join the HI-SEAS simulated mission to Mars as part of a multi-year artistic voyage to broaden her artistic perspective by witnessing different places first-hand.

“It led me to make art in unassuming yet far-reaching places,” Gribble said. “I’ve traveled atop glaciers near the North Pole, in a traditional Japanese paper mill in rural Japan, underwater and within the Amazon jungle, contained in the Biosphere 2 in Arizona, and inside a Habitat on an Analog Mars Mission with NASA Goddard.”

Gribble is currently developing an entire collection of artwork inspired by her journey to Mars. Artwork inspired during the HI-SEAS simulation, includes the following:

Animated paintings of Martian Rocks (AR)

  • Painting the landscape – like artifacts – to bring pieces of MArs home without physical extraction (like Darwin’s field notes)
  • Paintings made from the elements of the land and abundant materials that did not detract from our life support systems (saliva, martian regolith pigment, dehydrated spirulina algae pigment, iron oxide dust)
  • 3D scans of artworks then animated with AR, bringing paintings to life

Cave Paintings of the 21st Century

  • Telling the story of Earth and our evolution from it
  • Reflecting a wider worldview
  • Marveling at Earth’s biodiversity while acknowledging human imagination, progress and technology that got us to Mars
  • Our first settlements off-planet will be in Martian caves – what will those cave paintings look like?

Eco-Footprints

  • We’ve been told that our ecological footprint on Earth is tremendous, where we need multiple Earth’s to match our consumption rate (energy, timber, settlement, seafood, etc)
  • Moving off-planet enables us to consider what trail we leave behind
  • I laid out a trail of footprints alluding to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the Moon – to form a trail that referenced the many ways humans can impact – or imprint – a place, for better or for worse.
  • Footprints are made from plastic debris, steel/iron, grass, electrical cables, styrofoam, organic materials and more
  • The trail meanders into the red Martian terrain, causing us to question what path we choose to lead

To Space, From Earth – Space Art DNA Time Capsule

  • This project includes the art synthesized into DNA (referenced in your previous article you did with me)
  • It features hi-res artworks sequenced into DNA, carrying a visual message to space that reflects our planet Earth in the 21st Century
  • This DNA vile was placed inside of a time capsule and placed deep into a Martian cave at HI-SEAS to be uncovered by future citizens

Living Light

  • Prototype testing for a larger project to fly to space Spring 2021, co-created with Beyond Earth artist collective
  • When this artwork flies, it will be one of the largest artworks to fly to Stratosphere, measuring at over 16 ft tall

Crew members selected to take part in the HI-SEAS study are chosen based on the research projects proposed as well as the position for Habitat operations and systems.

“I encourage people from all backgrounds and disciplines to attend a space analog mission, especially as we extend our reach through commercial space travel,” Gribble said. “My hope is that analog missions can help accelerate our understanding of our social and environmental responsibilities on Earth and in the greater cosmos.”

Crew heads back to the Habitat at sunset.