The landing was smooth, but they never actually left the ground.

HOUSTON, TX, June 28, 2018 /24-7PressRelease/ — The landing was smooth, but they never actually left the ground. The 17th HERA (Human Exploration Research Analog) crew completed their simulated mission to the fictional asteroid Geographos and landed back at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston Monday evening, June 19. The welcoming crowd of spectators included JSC’s new Center Director Mark Geyer, who took his post on May 25.

HERA is one of several ground-based analogs used by NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) to research ways to help astronauts move from low-Earth orbit to deep space explorations. A spaceflight analog is a simulated environment on Earth that produces physical and mental effects on the body similar to those experienced in space. Participants are volunteers who must pass a physical and psychological assessment to qualify.

HERA XVII was a mission that was not originally planned. All previous HERA campaigns, each lasting approximately one calendar year, contained four missions. Unfortunately, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in late August 2017, HERA XIV ended on Day 23 for safety reasons. This most recent mission, which began May 4, was added to the campaign to complete research from the previously truncated mission.

The HERA XVII crewmembers are William Daniels, Eleanor Morgan, Michael Pecaut, and Chiemi Heil. They chose to participate in this mission because they wanted to contribute to the space program and support the science that will one day help astronauts go into deep space and return safely. But they also had personal reasons to participate.

“I’ve done a lot of challenging, athletic activities and I thought this would be a great combination of everything all together,” Heil said. “I have a hectic go-go-go life. This has been a nice time to decompress and focus all of my efforts and energy on one thing,” she said. Pecaut added he has been involved in several spaceflight experiments from the research side. He thought this would be a good way to “be on the other side and see what the astronauts have to do hands-on with the experiments.”

Spending 45 days in a habitat smaller than an average apartment with no windows and very little contact with the outside world would be challenging for anyone. The challenge was real for this crew, but they came up with creative ways to combat it.

“We had Sophisticated Saturday where we all dressed up for dinner and ate together downstairs,” Daniels said. “We played nice music, had plants on the table. It was a nice way to finish the week as a group,” he said. Heil added, “We also had Toga Night where we dressed in bedsheets and watched the movie Troy. One night we wore our flight suits to dinner and watched Top Gun. This kept things light-hearted and fun.” Morgan said, “We did a good job of insuring we had a daily dose of laughter. We played charades which is pretty fun, but playing Scrabble with two PhD scientists is pretty frustrating because of the words they come up with.” In keeping with the dress-up themes, Morgan wore her hair like Rey from Star Wars for Monday night’s egress.

Structure also helped. “We got into a routine,” Morgan said. “There are things I missed, but it gave me time to ponder life’s questions and future career paths. For me, it’s been positive,” she said. Daniels added, “Being cut off from the outside world has made me appreciate my life back home.”

But, aside from friends and family, what did they miss about the outside world? Surprisingly, web searches topped the list! There is no internet access from HERA, so they quickly realized they no longer had the world at their fingertips. “We wanted to talk about so many things, but then we couldn’t remember the name of a person or a movie or a fact,” Morgan said. “It was really annoying not to be able to look it up.” They all agreed, but they also missed their pets, pizza, milkshakes, their gardens, being able to run, and going outside and feeling the warmth of the sun on their face.

Ultimately, the HERA missions are about science, so what did this crew do for science and future space exploration? The move to 45-day missions with Campaign 4 allowed for more data points per research study. This campaign also incorporated a sleep reduction schedule; the crew was limited to five hours of sleep on weeknights with no naps and limited caffeine to test what could happen to a sleep deprived crew and to look for ways to combat mission fatigue. Team cohesion, performance, and interpersonal relationships were also tested under these conditions.

“We have done several experiments with plants,” Daniels said. “We’ve all enjoyed watching them grow and having some greenery in the habitat.”

“I differentiate between the science based on the subject,” Pecaut said. “We did plant studies and brine shrimp studies, but we also were the subjects of multiple experiments. We wore sensors that measure our activity and there was special lighting in HERA. Researchers will look at who we interacted with, and we also collected a lot of [biological] samples. They will look at our stress hormones, our nutrition, and our blood cell counts.”

Morgan added, “We also did virtual reality (VR) studies. We visited an asteroid on this mission. We simulated going to the surface and collecting rock samples, and deploying scientific instruments. That was pretty fascinating…some of the EVAs were in the dark. We found it challenging to find our way to the surface with minimal lighting. We really had to work together to make it work.”

Now that they are home, the crew has several immediate priorities: walk their dogs, work out hard, dance, eat an avocado, walk barefoot in the grass, and drive a car are at the top of their lists.

HERA Campaign 5 will begin in January 2019 with, again, four scheduled missions. The JSC Test Subject Screening group is accepting curriculum vitae (CV) for healthy, non-smoking volunteers, ages 30 to 55 for future missions. Volunteers will be compensated and must pass a physical and psychological assessment to qualify. Volunteers wishing to become test subjects should e-mail their CV to [email protected] or call 281-212-1492.

NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) is dedicated to discovering the best methods and technologies to support safe, productive human space travel. HRP enables space exploration by reducing the risks to astronaut health and performance using ground research facilities, the International Space Station, and analog environments. This leads to the development and delivery of an exploration biomedical program focused on: informing human health, performance, and habitability standards; the development of countermeasures and risk mitigation solutions; and advanced habitability and medical support technologies. HRP supports innovative, scientific human research by funding more than 300 research grants to respected universities, hospitals, and NASA centers to over 200 researchers in more than 30 states.

Monica Edwards
Laurie Abadie
NASA Human Research Strategic Communications

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