New Space and Tech

NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog

By Keith Cowing
March 19, 2014
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NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog
Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA)

If two is company and three is a crowd, what is four – especially when you are living and working in close quarters and under stress for several days?
That is what NASA’s Flight Analogs Project, funded by NASA’s Human Research Program, set to find out when it sent four crew members on a simulated mission to the Geographos asteroid on February 27, 2014. This initiated the first of many missions that will take place inside the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“Flight analogs like HERA provide researchers with environments that emulate spaceflight conditions,” said Joe Neigut, project manager of NASA’s Flight Analog Project. “We use analogs to better understand the impacts of spaceflight on the human body.”

In this case, investigators conducted behavioral health, human factors and countermeasures experiments on the four crew members who were crowded into the 148-cubic-meter HERA to determine how confinement and isolation impacts cohabitation, teamwork, team cohesion, mood, performance and overall well-being.

Crew members were told that their asteroid exploration mission would validate the technologies and operational methodologies necessary to ensure the option for future asteroid mining. During their seven-day mission, they worked and lived in cramped quarters equipped with four bunks, a work area, a hygiene area and an airlock.

They were assigned operational tasks similar to those performed by astronauts on the International Space Station; however, the tasks were modified to emulate what might be required on a mission to an asteroid. They included general housekeeping, maintenance and systems tasks, education and outreach activities, daily planning conferences, and family and medical conferences. Crew members also conducted payload objectives (experiments) related to biology, geology and robotics; participated in onboard training; ate the same food as crew members aboard the space station; and exercised. “The first 48 hours were jam-packed with tasks,” said crew member Jared Daum.

According to crew members, the full schedule of tasks helped them completely immerse themselves in the mission. “We really felt like we were in space,” said crew member Jessica Vos. While crew members were busy with their daily tasks, researchers were gathering data about them for 10 investigations.

For one investigation, crew members wore electronic badges that recorded heart rate, distance, motion, sound intensity, proximity and interactions between crew members who were solving problems together. This data provided investigators with insight into team cohesion.

Researchers also studied well-being, interaction and reaction to stress by analyzing crew member language. They did this by recording interactions and analyzing them using special software. They also conducted crew member surveys and analyzed their written language.

“The use of some words can indicate things like early depression, anxiety and anger,” said Susi Zanello, Ph.D. and Flight Analogs Project deputy project scientist.

Another investigation studied mood using optical computer recognition, examining crew members’ facial expressions while they completed tasks in front of a camera. As with language, specific facial expressions can signal various attitudes, emotional states and even fatigue.

Researchers also looked for specific biomarkers in crew member saliva to determine if team performance and cooperation were correlated with specific hormone levels induced by demands such as extended work days, variable workloads, communication delays, vague procedures, and equipment malfunctions that were built into the mission to ensure it had the normal fluctuation of crew stress that one would expect in a real flight or exploration mission.

Implementing these types of tests in space can prove difficult because of limitations on the type of equipment that can be used, the cost to fly the equipment to space and the limited number of test subjects. Analog testing compensates for the limitations of these constraints.

“Conducting investigations like these in an analog setting versus in space is more efficient both in regard to cost and time,” said Neigut.

But what can scientists learn about how limiting elbow room affects mood and behavior in just seven days?

“These studies are all in exploratory mode,” explained Zanello. “While all of the approaches provide useful information about the characteristics of teams and good teamwork, this HERA mission is really a proof of concept for technologies that we may consider using in longer duration analog missions.” In fact, while three more seven-day HERA missions are planned, Flight Analogs Project personnel are already conceiving missions of up to 30 days in duration.

“We plan to increase the fidelity and duration of the missions over time,” said Neigut. Although future missions may be long on time one thing is certain, HERA crew members will continue to be short on space.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.