Space

What it Takes to Become an Astronaut

From August 14 to 27, Rahul Goel, a PhD student at the University of Houston, Texas, was part of a ‘space simulation’ program organised by NASA. Such programs are conducted to prepare astronauts as well as prospective space-faring instruments for an arduous journey in space in cramped environments. Eyeing a Rs.12,400-crore manned space mission in the early 2020s, ISRO will also be conducting such preparatory tests. NASA has different programmes to test different aspects of each mission; here, Goel describes his experience with one named HERA, which is currently a research analog but may be used for astronaut training in future.

The crew outside HERA. Source: Rahul Goel

The crew outside HERA. Rahul is sitting top-right. Source: Rahul Goel

The Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA), formerly known as the Deep Space Habitat, is a three storey structure (about 47 feet wide and 25 feet tall) at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. It provides a high-fidelity research venue for scientists to address risks and gaps associated with human performance during spaceflight. The habitat is operated by the Flights Analog Division of the Human Research Program at JSC. The primary goal of the studies conducted at HERA is to evaluate how people will respond to isolation and confinement during typical mission exploration scenarios.

C2M4 (Campaign 2 Mission 4) was a 14-day mission (the first campaign in 2014 had four 7-day missions) of HERA’s. During the third campaign next year, the mission duration will be extended to 45 days. NASA selected a crew of four (two males and two females) from among “astronaut-like” candidates from NASA’s test subject facility. In order to be eligible to participate, interested candidates had to pass the Air Force Class III equivalent physical exams and psychological tests. Each of the four crew members performed the same tasks during their study duration. However, each member was assigned a different position (commander, flight engineer, and mission specialist 1 and 2), as one would expect for a typical space mission. I was the flight engineer on this mission.

As the expedition unfolded, it was interesting to see how people take on new and unexpected roles over and above their primary duties. One becomes a cook, electrician, mechanic, botanist, geologist, biologist, robotics expert and other specialties as needed, all in a day. We were assigned to an MCC (Mission Control Center) that provided technical and logistical support via voice or text loops 24×7. Additionally, on four of those 14 days there was a communication delay (5 minutes one-way on two days, and 10 minutes on the other two days) to mimic the conditions of deep-space travel. There was no face-to-face communication with anyone outside the habitat, except when our family or friends could call or we had our private medical and psych conferences, once every week for about 30 minutes.

Level 1 inside HERA. Source: Rahul Goel

Level 1 inside HERA. Source: Rahul Goel

Level 2 inside HERA. Source: Rahul Goel

Level 2 inside HERA. Source: Rahul Goel

The HERA mission was simulating a possible future mission in which astronauts conduct a geological survey of an asteroid. An outbound transit that in reality could take some 370 days was simulated over the first six days. Asteroid proximity operations (about 20 days) were simulated over the next four days. Finally, the return transit was simulated over the last four days. The mission’s success depended on our ability to live and work with our crewmates during this long journey to achieve all mission objectives. During simulated-transit, we used on-board training systems to prepare for simulated excursions to the asteroid’s surface. We participated in scientific research in the areas of spaceflight psychology, physiology and human factors and habitability. We also performed multiple system maintenance tasks of our “vehicle” and worked on a few education and outreach payloads. During one of those nights, we were not allowed to sleep while a simulation of an encounter with a comet-debris field was run, requiring us to keep a continuous watch on the vehicle’s status.

Each activity of the mission was pre-planned and scheduled. We would wake up at 0700 and then spend the next 90 minutes on ‘post-sleep activities’, including breakfast. Then we had a morning daily planning conference with the MCC to review the activities of the day. Various operational activities, science experiments and other tests took nearly 6.5 hrs of a typical work day, while some 1.5 hours were set aside for exercise and personal hygiene. In the evening, we could have a downtime of around two hours – to have dinner and take part in recreational activities like watching movies or playing cards. Some of the surveys and tests were scheduled right before going to bed at 2300 to simulate a full and busy day. There were also some unplanned anomalies in systems’ statuses: for example, a sudden increase in radiation levels to mimic a possible solar storm.

HERA (Human Exploration Research Analog). Source: Rahul Goel

HERA (Human Exploration Research Analog). Source: Rahul Goel

On some of the days, we used a flight simulator to fly the multi-mission space exploration vehicle (MMSEV) to the asteroid’s surface, locating different sites of geological interest and to position the MMSEV to collect samples. We used a microscope to correctly identify and classify asteroid samples, assembled two robots and tested various proximity sensing technologies used in robotic spacecraft, performed shrimp-brining, seed and crystal growth experiments that are typical for an exploration class mission, collected biological samples from crew members and habitat surfaces for microbial analyses, and conducted drills to simulate the treatment of medical symptoms and response to vehicle emergencies.

Throughout the mission we carried out a variety of alertness and mental tests to assess behavioural health and performance. We used the realtime neuro-cognitive assessment toolkit for fatigue, optical computer recognition of stress and fatigue, audio and video recordings to dynamically monitor cognitive, emotional, and social mechanisms that influence performance. We monitored different parameters in response to stress like heart rate, blood pressure, and collected saliva and blood at different time during our mission. Apart from these, there were several tasks to measure, maintain and regulate team roles and cohesion.

When isolated from the rest of the world in a place that, even when simulated seemed surprisingly alien, preparing and eating food were the most communal and humanising of domestic rituals. It served to maintain group cohesiveness and foster teamwork. We ate freeze-dried, vacuum-sealed food from the same lab that prepares food for the astronauts. We had to rehydrate it and let it sit for a few minutes before it’d be ready to eat. There was always a surplus of food. We also had to track our food intake using an app that is being considered for use by astronauts on the ISS.

What the astronauts eat. Source: Rahul Goel

What the astronauts eat. Source: Rahul Goel

As our mission was approaching its end, the leisurely manners of the first days suddenly gave way to a rush. Two weeks seems like a long time but the days flew by. And if our own crew was at times frustrated, I can hardly imagine what it would be like to travel in such a small volume of space for one year. Be it on an asteroid or inside HERA, the takeaway was always that one must learn to adjust to situations and compromise, that the best ideas aren’t always partnered with the best resources. We learnt to adapt to anomalous situations and unexpected turns of events no matter how much we planned before starting out. It didn’t take long for luck to turn into memory, for one aberrant incident or unexpected element to turn a teacher into a student, or a triumphant crew into a crew that was dust in the wind. The simulation forced us to physically as well as psychologically confront these possibilities, and examine what personal qualities contributed to success and which ones could be detrimental.

I am glad to say that our crew strictly followed the simulation and I think that was the most satisfying fact of the whole mission. Rather than the end of a mission, it seemed like the beginning of an exciting journey. I hope that more people become aware of ground-analogs like HERA and that the knowledge gained from these missions will help to build a real vision of a new way of life that as we step into tomorrow.

Rahul Goel is pursuing a PhD in the life science at the University of Houston. He holds a masters degree in aerospace engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be reached at rahulg@alum.mit.edu.