FORT WAYNE – It was the summer of 1966. For the first time, U.S. military planes bomb the North Vietnam capital of Hanoi. Ted Williams would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. On the radio, the Mamas and the Papas’ Monday, Monday seemed to be an hourly anthem.
Yet 12-year-old Ron Williams didn’t care about any of that, especially between July 18 and 21. Instead, he was fascinated with the goings on 470 miles above him, where American astronauts John Young and Michael Collins would eventually make 43 orbits around the Earth for the Gemini 10 NASA space mission.
He was a kid, living in Bloomington, blessed with endless time and imagination during that innocent summer. And he would spend those days with his best friends, some of whom pretended to be astronauts in a make-believe space capsule.
Today, he is Dr. Ron Williams. He has a doctorate as a clinical neuropsychologist. He is the director of the neuropsychology department with the Fort Wayne Neurological Center. And at age 60, his lifetime fascination with space will take him on another imaginative journey, this time to Mars.
Chosen to be part of a six-member international crew that will participate in a NASA-funded research project to simulate life on Mars, Williams will spend four months at an outpost on the lava fields on the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. The site – on the active volcano whose peak is 13,680 feet above sea level – was chosen by NASA because it, perhaps more than anywhere else on Earth, closely resembles the barren geological landscape of Mars.
Williams will leave Fort Wayne for Hawaii in the middle of next month, and the project will officially begin March 21 when he and his five colleagues will unite. To add further mystery to their adventure, they will be transported at night to their domed facility, where they will receive final instructions from NASA personnel. And for the next four months, they will work, eat, sleep, interact and communicate with the outside world as though they were on Mars.
I guess a couple weeks ago I got word that I was on the prime crew of six, Williams said. It was like, Oh (bleep)! Be careful of what you dream of.’
It was the boyhood friend whose Bloomington backyard was where the pretend Gemini capsule was constructed who tipped Williams off about the opportunity of a lifetime – that NASA was seeking civilian volunteers to participate in a simulated experiment of life and behavior on Mars.
Williams found the proper authorities, wrote a proposal and provided his credentials. There were over 800 applicants. The field was trimmed to 130, then 30, then the final six.
Suddenly, he was 12 years old again.
Back in the ’60s, I was obsessed with the space program as a little boy, Williams said. I knew every astronaut. I knew every mission. I knew what they were going to do on every mission. I worshipped astronauts like some boys worshiped baseball players and football players.
While his fascination with space could have been an added bonus to the NASA committee that selected him, Williams was picked for his extensive psychological background and education.
He will observe the day-to-day activities and interactions of the crew, the rest of which are in their mid-20s and 30s, and will include making notations on himself.
I’m anticipating that I will observe some anxiety; a little bit of mild depression, Williams said. It may be seen in the form of decreased concentration, decreased memory, decreased social interaction, slow thought process, withdrawal, excessive sleep, not enough sleep. Those would be traditional things that you would expect to see in someone who is suffering from some anxiety and depression.
I’m going to be looking for daily or weekly goals not being accomplished later on, and does that correlate with my observations of sleep disturbance or irritability or overt expression of feeling depressed or homesick or whatever?
Williams will record his observations and write a report. He will write a blog and a monthly article for national psychology publications. He’ll also send recorded messages to classrooms around the state, including Carroll Middle School, where a friend teaches, and South Side Elementary in Kendallville, where his brother-in-law is a teacher.
Because there is 10-minute radio signal delay from Earth to Mars, and back again, all communications will be delayed.
When you say, Mars, do you copy?’ they don’t hear it for 10 minutes, Williams said. And they say, Yes, we copy,’ you don’t hear back for another 10 minutes.
When not conducting experiments or simply living within the confines of the dome, Williams and other crew members will be asked to venture outside, onto the volcanic rock. There, they must wear spacesuits that include life-support systems.
The only reason to interrupt the simulation, Williams said, is for a family emergency.
It’s kind of scary, Williams said. As they said in The Right Stuff,’ I don’t want to screw the pooch.’ I want to do things right. I want to represent my profession of psychology right. I want to be helpful to the scientific missions. I want to be a great crew member with these young, very inspired, brilliant people that I’m going to be on this thing with.