Simulating life on a deep space mission

Thirty years ago, the world was glued to televisions, witnessing the Space Shuttle Challenger blast off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Then, just 73 seconds into flight, it burst apart, killing all seven members of the crew.

One of those witnesses was Julielynn Wong. Then a fifth-grader, now a physician and engineer, she is one of four women who set foot in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) module at the Johnson Space Center for 30 days.

The experiment is designed to simulate a manned mission into deep space and has been going since 2014, with rotating crews of four people living in isolation for 30 days at a time. 

The crew members only have contact with each other and mission control  not even access to the internet. 

The current crew of four women took up residence in the habitat 30 years to the day after the Challenger disaster.

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The Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) habitat. – NASA

The crew may be confined to a two-storey habitat not much bigger than a one-bedroom apartment but that doesn’t mean there’s much standing still.

The HERA crew works 16 hours a day, five days a week, each jam-packed with a busy schedule of meals, exercise, meetings, research and housekeeping.

And in space, things don’t always go as planned – simulated crisis drills test the crew’s ability to act fast under pressure.

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The HERA interior and the crew workspace – not much bigger than a garden shed. – Nasa

The 148.1 cubic metre, cylindrical habitat houses the flight deck, a research station and maintenance workstation on its bottom level, and connects to a simulated airlock and hygiene module.

Upstairs are the crew’s sleeping quarters, exercise equipment and desks. A surveillance system record the crew’s every move, tracking their health, performance and communication.

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Besides Wong (far left), the crew includes (from left) NASA scientist LaShelle Spencer, Virgin Galactic aerospace engineer Michelle Courtney, and mechanical engineer Leah Honey who works as flight controller.

They hold the mission badge, inspired by the eye of a peacock feather – a symbol for the Greek goddess of women, Hera.

The NASA video below takes a tour of the mission module.

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