Spartan Discusses Simulated Deep-Space Mission for NASA
Osama Alian is a doctoral candidate in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics who studies the origins of life from the depths of the ocean to deep space. Recently, he and three other crew members participated in a simulated isolation exercise as part of NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog, or Project HERA. Their experience inside a windowless capsule at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, provided vital data that will help NASA prepare crews for future missions to Mars.
Could you describe how you came to be part of the simulated mission?
I’ve been in the NASA ecosystem through my work and heard about Project HERA for some time. I was in the middle of writing a proposal while also traveling, so I put in an application on a whim and completely forgot about it. NASA then contacted me to be screened for participation around March 2019 and the process culminated in medical and psychiatric evaluations at Johnson Space Center in October 2019. I found out the week before Thanksgiving that I was selected to be on the prime crew for the first mission of 2020 and that it would require me reporting for duty at JSC Jan. 8-March 16, 2020. The actual mission itself was 45 days, with some additional days that allowed for training and data collection pre- and post-isolation. The entirety of the mission took place in an analog spacecraft within a hangar at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
What was the main goal of the program?
The main goal of HERA is to study the effects of isolation on astronaut/astronaut-like crews during what would be a deep-space mission. The entire program also provides a proving ground to test stress mitigation strategies as well as different equipment and procedures that would be deployed on a deep-space mission to Mars, which would be a three-year round trip. As a result, the program selects folks who meet the professional and medical criteria set by NASA, generally referred to as “astronaut-like,” and then simulates a deep-space mission with all the bells and whistles that would occur on a real mission. A large group of scientists then collects a wide range of data from and on the crew throughout.
How did you prepare mentally and physically?
I’m pretty familiar with these kinds of isolated environments by virtue of my work (going to sea, deserts, etc.) so I had a baseline preparedness for the experience. On a long-duration spaceflight, there will be a lot of monotony. We called it “white space” since in our schedules that was the absence of tasks. I decided to develop a set of personal goals to accomplish. This is a completely isolated environment, so no Wi-Fi, internet, Bluetooth, anything of the sort or anything that can connect with the outside world was allowed. I made sure to pack lots of books and a set of exercise cards that I could use within the mission. We were required to do exercise daily, so this allowed me to prepare for both the physical and mental experience to take place. I also started adjusting my workout routine and sleep/wake cycles to closely resemble the mission structure, so that it wouldn’t be such a shock to my body once everything started.
What was daily life like? Your schedule and tasks?
Daily life was lived by a schedule. The day started at precisely 7 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. Generally, we worked normal hours on weekdays and had a lighter load on the weekends. It was actually the same schedule International Space Station crews more or less had, including the much-anticipated wake-up alarm of very loud music. It was pretty standard, with scheduled mealtimes as well as free time outside unexpected events or scheduled tasks, which varied in their theme.
We started our days generally catching up on news that was delivered to our laptops in the form of PDF copies of a print newspaper, and a briefing with mission control. Similarly, we ended our day with a briefing with mission control and dinner, which was our crew’s social time. The biggest thing was what to do when you didn’t have anything to do, and that was fun to adapt to without access to the typical distractions we have, like phones, internet or social media. We also didn’t have any windows inside, so the passage of time was different and unique, besides knowing the actual time from a watch or clock. The movie “Groundhog Day” comes to mind as a perfect analogy to this.
What surprised you about the experience?
I was actually really surprised at how quickly time became very abstract. Rather than a clock, I was judging time by what I was doing and how much I got done, which actually leads to my second surprise: how efficient I got at accomplishing what I wanted to, either mission-related or not. I had set a reading goal of trying to finish a book every three or four days and was consistently hitting my reading target (and reading faster and faster). Finally, I think I was surprised at how much focus one has without all the constant digital connections. I think inadvertently, I had a philosophical shift from believing in multitasking to becoming a super-focused uni-tasker. It’s too hard to ignore the quality difference in hindsight.
What did you learn about yourself and your team?
I like to do new and challenging things, especially if my initial gut feeling is that it’s uncomfortable, so this fit the bill. This was a whole new level of isolation. Think: no fresh air, no windows, no privacy. So, it’s nice to know that I can cope and adapt to that environment.
In this environment, the composition of the team is highly critical. We were a crew of four doctoral-level folks, and we all got along remarkably well and adapted to each other very quickly. It’s the unspoken or not obvious things that became really interesting lessons: long silences are totally okay, you can be together and have private psychological space at the same time, you can gauge the mood of your team and liven up or tone down and, in general, be a cohesive and excellent functioning group of people. You just become a little better at reading your teammates and communicating with the goal of remaining on good terms.
You can imagine a scenario where you’re 30 days into a deep-space mission going 25,000 mph toward Mars with a crew of type-A personalities that suddenly don’t get along well at all. That’s the scenario you want to prevent. If human nature makes that scenario inevitable, then we want to figure out how to deal with it if not prevent it altogether. This becomes a risky situation when everyone has to work together in a high-stress, highly technical environment. Ultimately, that’s the objective of HERA and, with our crew, I’d like to think we had the magic sauce that might make that work. Hopefully, NASA will be able to quantify that data and use it moving forward not just in crew formulation, but in task scheduling and maybe even astronaut selection.
What was it like coming out of isolation just as the U.S. was grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Because of our limited news, we were aware of the pandemic. As a group of scientists, we could read the little bit of data we saw, but without editorializing or the constant commentary one would normally get in the news, we really didn’t have a gauge of how serious the situation was on the ground probably until the last couple days when pictures of empty shelves showed up in the newspaper.
Johnson Space Center is an interesting place because it’s the center of human spaceflight, so a good chunk of the processes that were in place were about protecting the health of astronaut crews as well as us. That meant there was very limited access to us and the facility in general, which we were informed of when we egressed. There was a small worry it was going to be even more restricted and we wouldn’t be able to see our families. Once we were out, the severity of the situation became very quickly apparent. Our post-mission period also ended up being truncated because NASA was winding down in-person operations across its facilities. It was then very surreal to go from quite possibly one of the safest places in the United States into the pandemic.
During this time, MSU also began switching to remote capabilities and suddenly it became such that I left a very physical isolation to another isolation. I’m probably lucky that I’m accidentally very prepared for staying and working from home. As it so happens, I’ve actually reverted back to my exact mission routine with the exception of no mission control to tell me what to do. I asked them to setup a schedule for me, but no reply yet. I’ve setup my own schedule in a similar manner and am very particular about keeping my daily workout regimen in there with adequate free time. It would have been very strange to plan every minute of my day like this before.
On the home front though, my family has some frontline health care professionals dealing with this head on in Detroit. Inadvertently, I think I’ve become the person helping them deal with the stress given they don’t have the normal resources available to them like going out or to the gym and whatnot. It is rather surreal though to now be witness to this after such a disconnect.
How will this experience impact your doctoral program or future plans?
My dissertation is focused on understanding how extreme microbial life functions in the deep sea. We use that information to understand where to look for life beyond Earth, particularly Mars and ocean worlds such as Europa, a moon of Jupiter, or Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. These places are chemically similar to those deep ocean habitats. While we send probes to do much of the exploring, sometime soon we will send astronauts, and this experience has impacted my perspective on how some of that science could be done.
Essentially our work lays the framework for the science that will happen in the hunt for life. Not all scientists can be astronauts, but all astronauts now have to be able to execute flawless science. It’s our job to make sure they can do that and have the proper tools and information, objectives and troubleshooting methods long before they’ve launched.
Alian’s tips for staying well while social distancing:
- Give structure to your day. This means having regular wake up and sleep times and regular mealtimes even if you’re bored. This will make sure that you have adequate rest, keeping your stress down.
- Even though it sounds like a good idea, do not binge on streaming services. They will become boring very quickly. Break things up — I enjoyed reading books for the first part of the day until lunch and then transition to screen time the second half of the day.
- Incorporate goal directed activities into your day and make them regular and structured like your own school day. Pick up a new skill, brush up on old ones, or even study a topic or field you’re interested in. But don’t overdo it so you don’t burn out.
- Sharing small spaces with other humans is a challenge — practice not only respecting physical space but psychological space as well. Interactions are great, but it’s also okay to have long periods of silence. It’s not personal when someone doesn’t necessarily want to talk.
- Mealtimes are great points of communal activity. Play a board game, pick a movie or show and share in the time. It balances out “me time” so that you’re not isolated from your house mates or family
- Exercise! You can do a lot of exercise in 30 mins or more… body weight exercises, yoga, cycling/running are all great and consistency will have awesome results. More importantly, you don’t necessarily need to go to a gym for it… right now, less is more.
- Regularly text/email/call friends and loved ones that you are distant from. Even just the acknowledgement of thinking of them will stave off the feelings of loneliness.
- Ration your news and social media intake: 95% is information repackaged and recycled. The news will not change drastically from one hour to the next. Once a day is enough to get caught up.
- Most importantly, take your precautions and take the social distancing seriously. If you’re healthy and not an at-risk demographic that’s awesome. However, you can be a carrier and harm those at risk. Let’s pull together and #FlattenTheCurve.
Meredith Mescher and Beth Brauer via MSU Today