A botanist, a geneticist, a physicist, and a Green Beret walk into a 636-square foot simulation space capsule. It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but it really happened to Tim Evans, an associate professor of biology and director of the herbarium at Grand Valley State University.
Tuesday night, Evans spoke at Hillsdale about his experience in National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Human Exploration Research Analog, HERA. He spent 45 days in the spring at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, living in an isolated, controlled building meant to simulate a mission to Mars.
“This is like a space camp on steroids,” Evans said. “The purpose is to get people to Mars and back safely.”
To do that, NASA tests individuals with an “astronaut phenotype” on Earth in a simulated space exploration environment in order to study the effects of sleep deprivation and develop countermeasures against it.
Evans applied to NASA’s astronaut candidate program twice in the 1990s but was rejected both times. After raising a family, he decided to give NASA one last try nearly two decades later and applied to HERA.
“I didn’t think I would get a phone call,” he said. “There were certain technical skills they were looking for.”
After a few more phone calls, questionings, health screenings, and lots of blood draws and psych evaluations, one thing led to another and Evans was accepted to the program.
He spent his time on the mission losing sleep, eating healthy foods, and getting minimal exercise.
“They wanted us under a microscope,” he said. Its purpose was to develop countermeasures to potential issues future astronauts would face on a trip to Mars and back. Everything was monitored, recorded, and measured. They took surveys as many as 30 to 40 times per day. The crew even had to take samples of their urine and fecal matter, which were then compared to those of astronauts in the International Space Station.
The HERA crew members were limited on the number of calories they could consume in a day and the number of hours they were allowed to sleep. Evans said there were no naps or caffeine allowed, and participants got only five hours of sleep per night.
“It’s not sustainable,” Evans said. “Sleep is huge. Traits are amplified with sleep deprivation.” For example, someone who is already sarcastic will become even more sarcastic, he said.
Evans said the effects of sleep deprivation bled into the team’s social dynamics. By the end of the trial, Evans said the crew was “still smiling, but some of those smiles were a little forced.”
The whole mission lasted 45 days. Those days were planned out intricately, and each crew member had their own schedule to follow, Evans said. Some of the crew’s activities included looking for damage on the ISS, landing a small plane at a docking station on Mars, and taking a flight to an asteroid, all through the lenses of virtual reality goggles.
Evans recounted a time when he was in a simulated flight and his objective was to take a measurement and test a sample of an asteroid. Something went wrong with his controller, similar to a video game controller, and he found himself hurtling into simulated outer space.
“It was disorienting,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Evans also recalled the food eaten during the mission. The crew ate the same food as the ISS astronauts. They were only allowed to consume the minimum calories they needed to survive based on their minimal metabolic rate. This, however, left Evans constantly hungry, and the food wasn’t always tasty.
“We got tired of cream spinach,” Evans said. “Cream spinach really gets old after a while.”
On the last day of the mission, he said he decided to disregard mission control’s planned meal and ate Turkish fish stew, his favorite food during the mission.
To escape boredom, the mission participants played card games, watched movies, and had Hawaiian-shirt Fridays. Evans even took up origami.
“That kept me busy for a couple afternoons,” he said.
He also got to use botany knowledge while on board when he grew petunias and sustained them for an entire lifecycle.
When the mission finally came to an end, Evans said he had learned a lot from his experience. Something especially striking was the “mind-numbing” quality of the simulated trip home from Mars — that’s going to be hard for real missions, he said.
Freshman Sara Gasey, who attended the talk, said Evans’s presentation was fascinating.
“I’d be interested in looking into it more,” she said. “It’s the best lead-up we’re going to get to actual space missions.”
Assistant Professor of Biology Silas Johnson said the talk piqued his interest in space camp.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Johnson said. “I’m sort of jealous.
I always wanted to go to space camp. I exceed the height requirement for this, though — my dreams have been dashed.”