Home base report – HERA IX mission day 9

I don’t usually use this blog to post personal stuff. I’m actually quite happy with how not bloggy my blog is. However, there is something pretty cool going on in my personal life this month: my wife is locked up in a NASA simulation pretending to be an astronaut on her way to an asteroid. That’s pretty cool, so I’ll make an exception for some non-standard blogginess.

The HERA IX crew is still locked inside their habitat in Building 220 and JSC and hasn’t come out since they entered last Monday evening. Tonight will be their 10th night of 31 on their indoor camping trip. They are cut off not just physically but also virtually, with no outside communication besides mission control and a weekly family phone call. This is because one of the many experiments for this year’s HERA campaign has to do with the psychological and interpersonal aspects of being isolated with your fellow astronauts away from friends and family. If they were constantly connected via email, text message, or other forms of the internet, they could escape from that isolation and the data would not be the same.

Unfortunately, this means we can’t hear from Leah and the rest of the crew about how they are doing! The last private family call I had with Leah, or Mission Specialist 2, was last Friday. At the time, they were on mission day 4 and the crew was doing quite well. Leah said the food was very good and that everyone was getting along. The food they get to eat is the very same food that the ISS astronauts eat from the JSC food lab. In addition, they are testing out some new types of food that may get used for future Orion exploration missions because they are denser, thus saving weight.

Leah said that they had been so busy that they hadn’t had much time for down time like watching movies and reading books. Mission day 6, this past Sunday, was their first full day off so they may have got a little more relaxing in, unless mission control had some unplanned surprises for them like emergency drills! They are simulating as many aspects of spaceflight as possible including emergency drills, spacecraft maneuvers, spacewalks, and human experimentation. Just like the astronauts onboard ISS, they are doing experiments on themselves which involve saliva and blood samples, activity tracking, and all kinds of psychological and cognitive tests. Unlike the astronauts onboard ISS, they are wired up even more to get as much data s possible. Since Leah and her crew do not have real science to conduct like up on ISS, they are free to be encumbered by all kinds of trackers all over their body, including heart rate monitors, temperature sensors, and more.

Meanwhile, I’ve been left alone at home with the dog, trying to pretend my wife is really an astronaut in space. Honestly, it really doesn’t feel like that. It does feel like she’s far away – even though I can see building 220 from my desk. What it really feels like is that she’s on deployment with the military or on some other kind of dangerous job where I can’t talk to her much. I know she is quite safe, and could come home anytime if she wanted, but I at least have a small inkling now of both what it’s like to be an astronaut’s spouse and also a military spouse. You really have to respect families that have this kind of separation as a normal part of their life.

The meat of the mission is about to start. On mission day 11, this Friday, I get another private phone call with Leah (yay!) but then the HERA IX crew will go into radio silence for twelve days. The middle portion of the mission will involve a simulated communications delay with mission control as they are on “approach” to asteroid Geographos in deep space. In order to preserve the illusion, no private family calls will be allowed during the comm delay part of the mission. Their conversations with mission control will take at least several minutes round trip for every thing they say. That is going to feel like true isolation!

So while I’ll be at home feeling a bit lonely, Leah will be getting to some of the most exciting parts of the mission! When they get to Geographos, they get to do their simulated EVAs and pick up asteroid samples for scientific testing. Leah is designated as “EV1” and gets to use the virtual reality gear to do her “spacewalk”. Pretty cool!

I can’t help but be proud of my wife and the whole HERA IX crew. It’s one thing to sit at home reading spaceflight news and tweeting about it. Getting to work in mission control and monitor spacecraft health and status data is of course awesome… but all of that feels quite silly compared to putting oneself out there as a test subject and sacrificing personal comfort to help collect data that will be used to further exploration, which is exactly what the HERA IX crew is doing. I can’t wait for Leah to come home but at the moment, I wouldn’t rather her be anywhere else than where she is right now on the front lines of NASA’s Human Research Program. Go #HERAIX!

Update: Here’s an interview with HERA project manager Lesa Spence

February 3, 2016 11:07 pm

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