How do you keep an astronaut happy and healthy throughout months, or even years, aboard a tin can hurtling through space? The answer to this question isn’t simple. Through years of effort, NASA and its international and commercial partners have evolved a network of support structures that maintain astronauts’ mental and physical health throughout their months of hard work in an isolated, extreme environment.
Yet precisely because astronauts’ health and safety are paramount in human spaceflight, it is often difficult to test new techniques or technologies that could improve their lives in space. The adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” carries a lot of weight when it comes to astronauts’ mental health – once a “good” plan is in place, messing with it could cause unwanted disruptions in the astronauts’ lives. Avoiding burdening the astronauts with troubleshooting, though, makes it difficult to continually improve the support structure for astronauts’ lives.
Yet NASA constantly strives to make life better for crews as they push the frontiers of human knowledge in the exciting, yet isolated and dangerous, arena of space. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn some of these lessons without the risk of disrupting the astronauts’ lives?
NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (or HERA) offers the opportunity to do exactly that. HERA is a simulated spacecraft in which crews of “astronaut-like” volunteers live for weeks, allowing scientists to examine the physical and psychological effects of long-term isolation in a stressful environment. Living within the habitat is about as close as you can get to a real spaceflight without actually strapping into a rocketship. For me and three crewmates, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to live like astronauts while helping advance the cause of human spaceflight.
Our mission, the 11th in HERA history, began on July 11th after two weeks of training at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. My crewmates and I had all been to JSC several weeks before to undergo a comprehensive medical and psychological screening similar to what astronaut hopefuls go through. Having been deemed appropriately “astronaut-like” in mental and physical health, we were selected from a pool of applicants to be the crew of HERA XI. Our crew consisted of myself (a geologist and engineer), an Air Force Reserve officer, a medical doctor, and an image scientist.
Together we would fly a simulated mission to the asteroid Geographos. An actual mission to Geographos would take about 715 days – we compressed the mission into 30. Before “launch,” though, we became very familiar with an astronaut’s down-to-Earth job: training. Over the course of two weeks prior to the mission, we took classes on the systems of our spacecraft and the science experiments we would conduct onboard. This crash course in spaceflight prepared us to seal ourselves into the HERA habitat for an entire month!
Finally, “Ingress Day” arrived. Dressed in our team flight suits – black, with our mission patch standing out proudly on our right sleeves – we were issued a warm sendoff by a crowd of onlookers within JSC’s Building 220. We shared our last cake for a month, our mission Commander spoke a few words, and “Final Countdown” blared over the speakers as a large countdown clock spiraled down to zero. A few handshakes, a few steps up into the ‘Hab’… and the door closed behind us. We wouldn’t see the other side of it for 30 days!
“Well.” We stood for a moment, gazes shifting between each other and the closed door. It stared back, shimmering silver insulation muting any sound of the celebration just beyond. “Here we go!” We climbed the ladder to Level 2 and set to work.
The HERA habitat, callsign “Graphos” during radio conversations with Mission Control, is an upright cylinder 2.5 stories tall. The first level is the “workshop,” with a workbench, medical station, science glovebox, piloting station, and the controls for a robotic arm that we would “fly” during the mission. A small airlock protrudes from one side, while our “hygiene module” (the bathroom) extends from a hatch opposite. In the center of the module, a ladder leads up to Level 2.
Level 2 is the living area of the spacecraft. There we could sit comfortably around the galley table, adjacent to our small kitchen, and enjoy a movie in the evenings. Much of our food was stored on L2, in Space Shuttle-style storage lockers adjacent to our exercise area. The space was just large enough for an exercise bike and a clever set of weights, which nested together and allowed us to adjust their mass for varying levels of exertion.
Finally, two short ladders in opposing corners of L2 led up to our sleep stations. Roughly the size of a 2-man tent, the crew quarters were sheathed in thick, padded fabric to mute outside noises. Combined with a memory foam mattress and a pillow brought from home, they were very cozy!
If you want to see it yourself, check out this video tour filmed for students by yours truly.
Each morning we awoke to a “wakeup song” played over the Hab’s speakers by Mission Control (MCC). Each of us had selected a few of these, which MCC played at random as the mission went along – it was always fun to wake up to a song you recognized as one of your own! These songs turned out to have a surprising influence on our mood each day, though, as this entry from my in-flight journal describes:
“The choice of song has a strong effect on our collective mood each day. Yesterday was a Bob Dylan song, which had a lot of promise, but the version was awful. Started out with screeching electric-acoustic guitars and never improved. [MCC] obviously realized it was killing us, because they abruptly killed it only about 30 seconds in. It was too late, though – we were all grumpy all morning!”
Days aboard Graphos were very similar to those of astronauts aboard ISS. After waking up and crawling down from our sleep stations, our days began with breakfast and time to prepare ourselves for the day ahead. We lived on a timeline, just like “real” astronauts, following a daily schedule determined by MCC. Our daily activities varied and ran the gamut of maintenance, scientific experiments, and adventure that you might expect!
Just as if we were on a real spacecraft, we had to keep Graphos healthy. We performed various tasks to keep the spacecraft running smoothly during our trip to Geographos and back. As long as the spacecraft was healthy, we had time to perform scientific experiments – both on ourselves, to better understand how human bodies and minds respond to long-term stress and isolation, and with a few fun experiments to keep ourselves busy! During the course of the mission we raised brine shrimp, grew plants in a hydroponics unit, and analyzed geologic samples “returned” from Geographos. (Obviously, we didn’t have real asteroid samples… and the science team in MCC were worried that as a geologist I would harshly judge our geology tasks. But the tests we performed on the samples were real geologic analyses, even if the samples themselves didn’t actually come from Geographos!) One of our crew’s favorite tasks was “flying” the Canadarm (the robotic arm on the ISS) using a simulator on L1.
Not surprisingly, one of the primary means of studying our health during the mission involved drawing blood. Though one of our crewmates was a medical doctor, he was not yet licensed to practice in the State of Texas and was therefore not allowed to help with this! To keep us from having to train to do this ourselves (a proposition I would NOT have relished), the HERA program employs the skills of highly skilled phlebotomists already working at JSC. To keep from “breaking isolation” (in other words, to keep from ruining the study by exposing us to other people), we employed a crafty solution – a curtain through which we stuck our arms! To keep ourselves in the mindset of being in space, we referred to this as the “phlebotomy robot,” or just the “phlobot” for short. This was just one aspect of the many medical and psychological tests conducted throughout the mission.
Though the true purpose of each HERA mission is to understand the medical and psychological effects of prolonged isolation on the crew, we had a simulated mission to accomplish: exploring Geographos! We arrived at the asteroid halfway through the mission. It was awesome! We conducted several expeditions down to the asteroid’s surface over a three-day-long rendezvous, collecting geologic samples to return to Earth. These “extravehicular activities,” or spacewalks, were done via virtual reality. We flew a small pod, called the “Multi-Mission Surface Exploration Vehicle” (or MMSEV), from Graphos to the surface of the asteroid. Once there we released two of our crew to spacewalk on the surface! Much of our mission was devoted to training for those three excursions. As a result, we were very happy about how they turned out!
The mission wasn’t all work, though. We actually had weekends in “space!” Saturdays were half-days and Sundays were completely off. Fortunately, we had all brought several things to entertain ourselves during the mission: a large collection of DVDs (each crewmember had brought their favorites, and a few were contributed by the MCC personnel) and books (again, a few contributed by each crewmember made for a sizeable library!) kept us entertained on weekends. Our library included several astronaut biographies and books about the space program, as well as sci fi and fantasy novels. We even had some philosophy, including a book called “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” and Steven Hawking’s “The Universe in a Nutshell.” In addition, MCC sent us two newspapers every weekday morning, so we had plenty of reading to keep up with the outside world! We also had a collection of board games, and even a coloring book and colored pencils.
On Sundays we would have only meals and exercise on our timelines. Exercise aboard Graphos was scheduled for about a half hour each day, though we could go longer if we had enough time. As I mentioned earlier, we had an exercise bike and a set of weights, as well as a couple of yoga mats and some instructions on calisthenics. Weekends were a great time to get in an extra half hour (or more!) of exercise. Combined with the healthy diet designed by JSC nutritionists, this regular exercise actually allowed me to lose a little bit of weight during the mission. I think I came back from Graphos much healthier than I was going in!
“We’re scheduled for 25 minutes, but since we have tons of time I decided to go for an hour on the bike. Why not? Plus, it helps get me in shape in case the astronaut office is calling my references while I’m in here!”
Meals on Graphos were a treat. We were supplied with food that had been packaged to go to the ISS – in fact, it was food that was too close to its expiration date to fly in space, but was perfectly good for a month-long Earth analog mission! So we were eating exactly the same foods that the astronauts eat. The food was packaged for a long shelf life, and included many of the dehydrated meals you might imagine astronauts eating… those were delicious! Using a special water dispenser, we would inject the specified amount of either hot or cold water into the pouch. A brief “massage” spreads the water out within the package. Let it sit for a few minutes to soak in, and voila! Space food! A crew favorite in this department was the shrimp cocktail (a known astronaut favorite because the horseradish opens up sinuses clogged in zero-g), though my personal favorite was beef stroganoff. Wild rice salad was a close second!
We also had thermostabilized foods, similar to those found in MREs, and “natural form” foods that were purchased in shelf-stable packaging, such as granola bars. Of course, the nutritionists obligingly provided us with some “candy coated peanuts” for a snack every once in a while! Snacks were important, as this journal entry suggests:
“I did have a bit of an outburst about our “extra food” today. The guys were getting into their mountains of Clif bars… that I’ve actually been craving. So I started complaining about how good their extra food was, since mine is predominantly nuts, fruit, and baby food. Yes, baby food. So I was jealous and vented it. The guys were really nice about it, and Dan gave me one of his bars. It was one of the best things I’ve eaten yet!”
One of the more challenging aspects of our mission was the isolation itself. Just like astronauts going to deep space, we had limited contact with our families and were only able to speak with them for a half hour about once a week. We didn’t even have email! It was always a highlight of the week to hear my wife’s voice and to catch up on how things were going “back on Earth.” I missed her every day, and am deeply appreciative of her support in letting me go gallivanting off to “space” for several weeks!
I had a great team to spend time with while away from home, though. My crewmates and I share an abiding passion for human space exploration, which gave us common ground from which to form close bonds. We got along almost immediately and never stopped having fun! Because one of the primary means of entertainment was movie-watching, we ended up with scores of movie references as inside jokes which flew around the spacecraft cabin with alarming regularity. Not only did these jokes make us feel close as a team, they helped lighten the moment when things got stressful – and believe me, stress happens when you’re in “space!” The casual level of our onboard banter also made it clear that we could all be ourselves and speak our minds, which was critical to surviving a month in a small space with three other people. Although we naturally got along very well, we also tried to prepare ourselves by reading Reid Wiseman’s blog post on Expedition Behavior, which nicely sums up the mindset required to succeed in an endeavor such as a HERA mission.
“Our MMSEV flight went swimmingly – we blew through all of the EVA objectives… we managed to have a little fun, too, despite some pre-EVA tension; on his return to the MMSEV I asked EV Green what he had found on the asteroid today. It was his cue to recite the contents of the survival kit carried by the bomber crew in Dr. Strangelove, which we watched a couple of weeks ago…”
After a month onboard Graphos, it was time to come home. I was honestly amazed at how quickly the time passed! “Egress Day” had a surreal quality. I had to continuously remind myself that it was our last day aboard Graphos, and that soon the shiny silver door would be open once again. I felt calm, happy, and satisfied with a mission well-done, but a part of me already lamented the end of our month living the astronaut life. Though I didn’t feel at all worried about other people, I wondered how we would respond to the coming crowd. Would I be surprised to find myself overwhelmed by a sea of humanity? I’d find out soon enough. We “splashed down” at the end of a last, busy day.
As the door swung inward on August 10th, we could hear the applause of the gathered crowd over triumphant music carrying over speakers inside the Hab (to avoid spoiling it for future crews, I won’t say what song it was)! We stepped out onto the steps beyond the hatch, into the flash of cameras and cheers of congratulation, and ceremonially turned the Hab back over to the Flight Analogs Program.
After a few brief toasts (our first carbonated beverage in a month!) and conversations with a few of the visitors (including astronaut Mike Barratt, who had come by to congratulate us), we picked up our overnight bags and headed for our hotel. The first step outdoors was fantastic – it was late in the evening, so there was no blinding sunlight but the Texas heat and humidity were welcome as they soaked into my skin. After a month without weather, it felt great to experience different atmospheric conditions!
Thus began our week of debriefs during which we discussed each and every aspect of life in HERA, as well as the many scientific experiments we’d conducted, with the personnel who had made the mission possible. By going over the hardware and software we’d used with a fine-toothed comb, we helped make future HERA missions better and provided context to the scientific data we had generated. Though not as exciting as the flight itself, our final week in Houston was integral to the investigations we’d conducted. The last week of our mission flew by, and suddenly it was time to head home!
Our crew has now returned to their “normal” lives, dispersing to various cities across the U.S., but we will always share the bond of the challenging and rewarding experience that is HERA. They were a great crew, and I won’t be surprised if at least one of them someday implements the lessons learned on HERA XI during a flight to the Moon or Mars. We are honored to have played a role in building the future of human spaceflight!