By LIZ WEBER, Bozeman Daily Chronicle
BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) – After 45 days near the surface of Phobos, one of the two Martian moons, Madelyne Willis and her teammates couldn’t help but dream of what they would eat when they returned to Earth.
Nachos, jalapenos on the side, were the food of choice when they were Land side.
But Willis and his three teammates never really left the pull of Earth’s gravity. They took part in one of NASA’s experiments that models what a space mission would look like, complete with communication delays and dehydrated food.
The Human Exploration Research Analogue, or HERA, is one of the few NASA projects studying team cohesion and isolation to better understand how astronauts might fare on potential space missions. .
With a few weeks of training beforehand, the group completed their stay in the capsule the last week of November 2021.
Willis, a doctoral candidate in MSU’s ecology and environmental science program, said she first heard about the project from a friend who had been on a similar project a few years ago. .
“Overall, the chance to contribute to space exploration, it was a great opportunity to do so. On a personal level, it tested my own limits and was a fun new challenge,” Willis told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Willis is also no stranger to testing her own limits. In the past, she has been part of small teams conducting research and fieldwork in Greenland and Antarctica.
Willis credits her previous experiences with not only helping her get accepted into the NASA experience, but also preparing her with the skills to navigate a new situation like this.
“There was no direct overlap in research, but my past research experience came in handy when I was inside HERA,” she said.
The space capsule the group lived in was used to “simulate the isolation, confinement and distance from Earth that future astronauts on space exploration missions might encounter,” Willis said.
Life in the capsule in Texas followed a fairly well-defined schedule, Willis said. The group woke up at the same time every morning, had maintenance chores to do, ate breakfast together, and did strength training or cardio on a bike six days a week.
The crew should also complete a handful of assigned mission tasks each day.
Willis said that while she never really forgot she was still on Earth, there were times when they would get caught up in the simulation.
“We tried as much as possible to be absorbed in this belief,” she said. “We tried to be ourselves thinking that we are really on a mission to one of the moons of Mars.”
In some ways, Willis said his experience in the simulation was the opposite of what many have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite any isolated similarities.
“We spent a lot of quality face-to-face time with a small group of people, as opposed to a lot of long-distance communication with a lot of people,” Willis said.
Willis and his three other crew members got along well too.
“Our sense of humor was really similar and it was something that bound us together. Even in times of stress or if we were feeling down, there were ways to support each other and cheer each other up,” Willis said.
Each member of the experiment had a set amount of luggage they could bring inside the capsule. Many members brought items that could be shared with each other, including a set of watercolor paints, movies, books, and games to pass the time.
Willis said she was glad she also brought photos of her family and friends.
Once a week, crew members could make personal calls to family and friends. But to simulate what it would look like on a real mission to Phobos, communications were lagging, increasing as the capsule theoretically moved away from Earth.
At the end of the 45-day experience, Willis said there were a lot of mixed emotions. While she was relieved to have access to fresh food, communicate with friends and family, and go where she wanted, it was hard to leave the other three crew members.
“When you’re spending so much time with a small group of people, you have to accommodate when they’re not there,” she said. “It was weird going back to a hotel room and having a room all to myself.”
Next on Willis’ horizon is to complete his doctorate at MSU and hopefully pursue new experiments like the one with NASA.
“I feel like following these exciting opportunities leads to more opportunities to do that,” she said.
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