While visiting the US Johnson Space Center for meetings with NASA last week, my brother James and I were given a private tour of their Human Exploration Research Analog (aka HERA).
HERA is where NASA tests “human factors” and studies how people work and interact with each other in a confined and isolated space. Some engineers at NASA think this is one of the most important topics to “get right” on a multi year mission to Mars. I tend to agree.
As HERA operates active missions and isn’t open to the public, I thought I’d share 3 of our top takeaways from the tour.
1. IT’S SMALL
At 636 square feet (or 148.6 m3), HERA is about the size of a small studio apartment in Hong Kong or Singapore. Don’t forget, you’d be sharing it with 3 other astronauts, continuously, for up to 45 days per mission.
This 2-storey structure looks quite close to what a habitat on Mars might look like – cylindrical, with air locks and an expandable fabric roof. However, it is not yet a fully “closed” system as it allows outside air and water to flow into and out of the habitat.
Downstairs, you’ll find a medical science station, flight deck (see pictures below), robotic trainer and maintenance workstation – really, just desks with equipment on it. There’s a door to the attached Hygiene Module, where everyone shares a sink, toilet and shower; a door to the simulated airlock; and a ladder/lift to the second floor.
Upstairs, you have the crew living area comprising the galley/kitchen, wardroom table (for dining and socialising), communication station, exercise device, and a small ‘attic’ where they sleep.
I'd say it was compact and functional. (See their 360-degree video tour.)
2. YOU HAVE A MISSION
Of course, every mission has a purpose. HERA’s is to simulate the isolation, confinement and remote conditions of space exploration. Our earlier blog, ‘Where to next: the Moon or Mars’ touched on the rationale for such studies.
As it were, we visited HERA just before Mission 12 commenced, where 4 ‘astronauts’ would spend 30 days inside the habitat with no physical contact with the outside world. Their simulation was to land on an asteroid and conduct many experiments.
For realism, virtual reality (VR) and other visual systems would be used to recreate work on an asteroid, including collecting and studying samples. Light/dark cycles and work schedules would be similar to that in the ISS (16 hours awake, 8 hours asleep), and through it all, the crew’s mental and physical health will be monitored closely.
Yes, there are cameras everywhere. And did I mention there’s be no access to the internet, phone, TV or radio…?
3. VOLUNTEERS ARE WELCOME
Walking around, I tried to imagine what it would be like to stay inside this tiny habitat for 30 days at a time. Can’t say it would be easy. Indeed, one of NASA’s goals is to figure out how small they can make a habitat for it to be still tolerable to the astronauts.
Still interested? NASA does take in civilian volunteers for HERA missions. However, you’d have to be a US citizen or permanent resident to apply (plus, other criteria). Or you could wait a year or so, as we plan to build our own Mars Habitat Test Lab at the Spaceflight Academy in the Gold Coast.
Certainly, there is much to be learned before mankind can 'live among the stars', but with common purpose and a spirit of cooperation, we will get there.
To the stars.