Living In A Box [Podcast Review: The Habitat]

For those fed up with the antics of I’m A Big Brother Survivor, Get Me Out Of Celebrity Love Island With Bear Grylls and seeking a more cerebral reality show, you could do worse than checking out The Habitat podcast.

The Habitat is an 8-episode podcast about the real Hi-SEAS IV mission, a research project in which six NASA scientists spent a year isolated in a dome in the mountains of Hawaii, simulating a manned mission to Mars. Water was rationed and recycled, food was dehydrated, communication was limited to e-mail and Internet with a built-in 20-minute delay, and apart from brief spacesuited excursions the team were unable to leave the dome – to do so would have implied death of the crew and led to the end of the experiment. The mission lasted from August 2015 to August 2016, and was successful in that the team survived a year in each other’s company and did not break role at any time. It’s an impressive achievement and hopefully the psychology research conducted during the period will genuinely help in preparing for future space missions.

The podcast is presented by Lynn Levy and is mostly based on clips from recordings sent to Levy by the astronauts in response to her questions, together with her own thoughts and observations, and some background info about the history of space exploration. There are 8 episodes and the pace and structure feels about right. It’s not quite a linear account of the mission, instead each episode takes you a bit further with the timeline but also covers a particular aspect of the mission.

This is a non-fiction podcast – or is it? It’s the story of a fictional Mars mission, and in a way it's more like a live-action RPG, a historical re-enactment (futuristic pre-enactment?) or an Alternate Reality Game. At times it definitely has the flavour of a reality TV show – including one episode gently speculating about will-they-won’t-they romances amongst the crew, although for the most part they seem to have been more interested in playing ukulele and harmonica duets. The concept reminded me indirectly of The Adventure Game, a show from my childhood in which three B-list celebrities were sent to the planet Arg to defeat logic puzzles set by shape-changing dragons and a very angry aspidistra (obviously), and more recently the cruellest reality TV show of all time, Space Cadets, in which astronauts selected for gullibility were fooled into thinking they were actually on a Space Shuttle mission. Worth mentioning that the Mars One project is based on the idea of a reality TV show providing the funding for an actual Mars mission. Whether that project gets off the ground literally or otherwise is a question for another day…

The Habitat is a Gimlet Media podcast. You can listen to it on your favourite podcast app or via the website. You can also read about the Hi-SEAS missions here.


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