The Habitat: a compelling imitation of life on Mars
Podcast: What happened when Nasa put six people in a small dome for a year on a Mars mission? Conflict, claustrophobia – and romance
Lynn Levey, formerly of Radiolab, hosts and produces this nonfiction podcast – which feels like excellent fiction. When I initially started to listen to this podcast, I assumed that it was fiction: delicately performed and soundscaped with a truly authentic script. On further research, I discovered that it is far from fiction: it is in fact a seven-part documentary series about six test subjects who, between 2015 and 2016, agreed to spend a year in a specifically designed Habitat in remote Hawaii that mirrors exactly what it would be like for astronauts to live on Mars. The last time I experienced this fiction/nonfiction dissonance in podcasting was with S-Town – so the crossed wires must signify that there is something truly special about this as a listening experience. There are certain podcasts that live in a liminal and surreal space that no other medium really can. Because we’re relying on only audio to illustrate environments and characters for us, it can be hard to tell if the footage is constructed, or documentary. Habitat is a striking example of this weird magic.
The core of the Nasa experiment that is being documented here is how humans can get along in space – if the rockets work and the equipment works, that’s just fine, but if a team of humans can’t get along, or perform their duties, that’s just as big a failure as a piece of technical equipment malfunctioning. So, in comes the Habitat, a dome 33 footsteps across, smaller than a tennis court, which houses six test subjects, each experts in their own fields, some of whom hold dreams of becoming astronauts someday. The tour of the inside of the Habitat is the most audibly claustrophobic few minutes I’ve ever listened to – the six volunteers sleep in “dignified closets”.
Each episode focuses on a different crux of human experience within this environment. The first episode takes a hard look at an argument that takes place between the crew before they even enter the Habitat. The third examines what happens when a French member of the crew receives news of the terrorist attacks in Paris, his home city. The fourth is especially fascinating, looking at what happens when two of the inhabitants of this tiny, tiny space begin to fall in love. I found this astounding: listening to two people change so completely in each other’s company, with such delight – unable to stop laughing at each other or talking to each other. All of this underscored by the fact that they are two of six in a tiny, tiny tent makes for a really compelling and unusual listen – and Nasa have no plans to study how sex or romance works in space.
This podcast is a deeply rare one – and every episode ends with a cover of Space Oddity by David Bowie, too. A truly intimate binge listen that may not take us quite to Mars, but takes us somewhere much, much closer to home instead.