Like many aspiring spacefarers, I finally received a long anticipated email this past Thursday. Paradoxically, the anticipation resulted from already knowing the news the email would contain. Given that NASA had announced the new Class of 2017 of astronaut candidates the week before, it was no surprise to me and about 17,000 others to get an email from the astronaut selection office which effectively said “thanks, better luck next time.”

As a young engineer with only one degree and less than a decade of experience, my application was a longshot, and will continue to be until I expand my experience base significantly. It is hard to compete with military pilots, doctors, and scientists that have traveled to Antarctica! My role in humanity’s exploration of outer space continues to be from a desk in mission control – only the second best job I can imagine.

And if you don’t work in mission control, there are still ways you can help. At the end of Thursday’s email were some helpful links about how to stay involved. However, I was a little disappointed that the email blast to thousands of motivated Americans wasn’t better utilized to plug some important volunteer opportunities to directly help with preparations for future missions.

Firstly, there are the various analog missions. NASA conducts their HERA missions in a small pressurized facility on-site at Johnson Space Center. The campaign is currently doing 45-day missions and they are always looking for interested “astronauts”. NASA also participates in the HI-SEAS project in Hawaii, which simulates deep space missions in a habitat on Mauna Loa. But, if you don’t have enough time to commit to the more lengthy analog missions, you can do what I’ve done, and volunteer with NASA to be a human test subject.

Last year I participated in two interesting experiments to help with NASA’s data-gathering on astronauts who return from the ISS. The first study – the easy one – involved driving a Mars rover simulator (the fun part) after 30 hours of sleep deprivation (the not so fun part).

Driving the martian rover simulator

Driving the martian rover simulator

In addition to the Mars rover, I did a few other cognitive and tactile tests on an iPad. Some of the tests are the same ones given to astronauts before, during, and after their flight. The idea is to see how ISS missions affect crew performance, especially if they are sleeping less up there.

The second study (called exMOD) was much more challenging. In the exMOD study, NASA was investigating the apparent changes to eyesight experienced by ISS astronauts. One of the hypotheses is that microgravity affects the intraocular pressure. In order to see what affect strenuous exercise has on the eyes – since we ask the crew to exercise many hours a day while onboard the ISS – I was fitted with a strain gauge in a contact lens (see picture below) and then asked to do strenuous exercise in an inverted position… oh yeah and did I mention the swimming goggles they added to make sure there was extra pressure on the eye?IMG_0521

After a tough few minutes of cycling during exMOD

After a tough few minutes of cycling during exMOD

The eye study was strenuous and exhausting. It wasn’t “fun” in the sense that I enjoyed it while it was happening. But every day that I reported in for the study, I felt a sense of excitement knowing I was helping NASA scientists and doctors better understand the specific and strange effects that the human body experiences during spaceflight. It is a unique opportunity that is available here at the Johnson Space Center, and the good news is that it is not just for people like me who are already on the “in crowd”. Anyone can apply to be a human test subject (see link below) and they are still looking for about a dozen more people for this year’s Fitness for Mission Tasks (FMT) study.

FMT is more exciting for me than exMOD was (and I’m promised that it is not as exhausting). The idea behind FMT is to try to gather a baseline of data across a variety of demographics on the level of strength required to complete certain mission tasks (walk around a Mars base, rescue a fellow crew member, escape a capsule after splashdown). They do this by first putting me through various tests and measuring things like my deadlift, bench press, VO2 max, etc. Then I do timed trials of all of the planned tasks. The fun part then takes place in the last 4 sessions, where I am timed completing the same tasks with a weight suit weighing from 20% up to 80% of my own body weight. The idea is to approximate the weakness or muscle atrophy caused by months of interplanetary travel without having to do a lengthy bedrest study.

So, you don’t have to get a callback from the astronaut selection office to play astronaut. There are plenty of practical opportunities to directly contribute to our ability to send humans into space. Of course, for the FMT study, you need to be able to report to JSC for the study. Check out the links below and check back in here where I will try to post pictures of my FMT time trials in the coming weeks!

NASA Human Test Subject program:

Apply for HERA:


June 18, 2017 3:49 pm

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