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Professor spends 45 days in NASA simulated space mission

  • Tim Evans pictured with his fellow crewmembers inside HERA.
  • Tim Evans pictured with his fellow cremembers outside of HERA.T

Posted on August 04, 2017

In the deep trenches of space, the flight engineer of a NASA space ship opens an airlock door to reveal a giant asteroid floating in the void surrounded by stars. Tim Evans, associate professor of biology at Grand Valley, reports that, “All systems are nominal,” as he steps out of the ship and utilizes his spacesuit’s jet pack to pilot his way to the surface of the asteroid to collect rock and soil samples.

After completing his mission, Evans returns to the ship, and removes his virtual reality goggles.

This scenario was one of the many daily simulated missions Evans and his fellow crewmembers had to complete during their 45-day stay aboard NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) mock spaceship. HERA is located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

NASA is associated with at least 15 simulated space missions called "analogs" throughout the world where participants are placed in simulations that produce physical and mental affects similar to those experienced in space. These analogs are helping prepare NASA for possible future explorations to Mars, asteroids and the moon.

This year, NASA will facilitate four, 45-day missions with HERA that each have the same experiments to be performed by the participants. Evans’ experience was the first mission in the 2017 series of HERA simulations, and the first to span 45 days (previous campaigns lasted 30 days).

After passing multiple physical and psychological exams, Evans was officially accepted to the program and flew to Houston to begin two weeks of training on April 20. On May 6, Evans and his three fellow crewmembers entered HERA to begin the 45-day simulation.

"I was a little nervous about how well I had learned everything I needed to know during the training, but at the same time I could hardly wait to begin. We were ready to close the door and get the mission started," Evans said.

For the duration of the simulation, Evans said the crew worked 19-hour days and most days were a mixture of scheduled activities and open time, with extra personal time on the weekends.

Experiments the crew performed included testing hardware prototypes, creating equipment with a 3-D printer, testing a new concept for space food, flying a simulated exploration vehicle, and virtual reality missions to an asteroid.

Evans said what made these daily activities challenging was the lack of sleep the crew was intentionally receiving. A priority experiment for NASA researchers during this year’s series of missions is one of sleep deprivation, which involved limiting the crew to five hours of sleep each night for five nights each week, and eight hours on weekend nights, without the option to take naps.

“Over the course of 45 days, that’s a very significant sleep deficit you build up, and that was hard,” Evans explained. “I knew it would be uncomfortable, but I would basically hit a wall earlier in the evening than I normally would at home. I was tired in HERA all the time, and we were allotted a very limited amount of coffee and we couldn’t have any within 12 hours of bed time.”

Evans added that in addition to getting more sleep post-HERA, he was also eager to see his family, have control over his daily schedule, and have the ability to drive his car, work in his yard and feel the weather outside.

But, his morale was boosted by calls from home about every eight days and the virtual reality missions that occurred five-to-six days each week, sometimes multiple times per day.

“Those missions were physically exhausting, but also a real rush, too,” Evans said. “Going to that asteroid never got old — I was like a kid in a candy store.”

Aside from learning the value of sleep and gaining a new appreciation for the complexity of space missions, Evans said he walked away from HERA feeling good about contributing to a historic cause.

“This entire experience was like space camp on steroids, but I wouldn’t have done this just for fun,” he said. “What made it really worth it to me was that we were doing this to help humans get to Mars, and knowing that I’m contributing even a little bit to that is really cool.”

To see what life looks like inside HERA, watch the video in the above media gallery, courtesy of NASA.