Alumni, Students Play Role in Long-Duration Space Exploration Research

Students and faculty wear space suits and train for Mars exploration

As human exploration of Mars becomes a reality, Embry-Riddle students and alumni are part of groundbreaking research to prepare for the mental and physical effects of long-duration space exploration.

Because it would take roughly six months for humans to travel to Mars, NASA’s projected mission to Mars by the 2030s would take two and a half years. A mission to Mars will come with extreme psychological conditions due to the long duration of isolation and confinement.

NASA HI-SEAS Mission patch

By living in a 1,000-foot dome for eight months, Embry-Riddle alumna Jocelyn Dunn served as chief scientist for NASA’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission last year. During her mission with a crew of six, Dunn helped facilitate research studies of biological samples, social interactions and psychological and cognitive testing with the goal of learning how health and performance change over time in a confined and extreme environment.

While majoring in Aerospace Engineering at Embry-Riddle, Dunn said she became interested in the challenges that astronauts face while living and working in space such as the loss of bone and muscle mass from lack of gravity and the effects of radiation from being outside Earth’s atmosphere. Several research projects she was involved in at Embry-Riddle led her to pursue a doctorate in Biomedical Engineering. Dunn’s dream of becoming an astronaut became one step closer when she was accepted to the third HI-SEAS mission. Located on the Mauna Loa volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, the crew lived in total isolation with a limited water supply and a 20-minute delay when communicating with the outside world.

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During a presentation at Embry-Riddle in January, Dunn discussed her experience at HI-SEAS.

As chief scientist, Dunn monitored habitat systems data and developed analytics for optimizing crew schedules and mission performance through the use of wearable devices and surveys. Dunn also collected samples of hair and urine to measure cortisol levels, hormones and metabolites. She is also collecting samples from the year-long HI-SEAS mission currently taking place.

Q&A with Jocelyn Dunn

How did ERAU prepare you for this mission?

"Being part of a program that enabled me to explore beyond the limits of the curriculum helped me. With my degree I was able to combine my interests, and the research I took part in prepared me for graduate education."

How closely did your experiences resemble scenes from the movie “The Martian”?

"The Martian,” in general, shies away from interpersonal components and didn’t really get into how the crew members felt when they left Watney behind. The fact that he was supporting systems alone that were meant for an entire crew was pretty unrealistic. But the technical components of the mission were very much in line with what NASA wants to develop and the technology used was accurate."

Can you see yourself going to Mars?

"I thought a three-year mission to Mars would be too much of a sacrifice, but the eight months I spent at HI-SEAS went by quickly. The mission ignited in me more passion for exploration. I felt so alive—it’s both a physical and a mental challenge. The spacesuit is hot and requires mindful breathing. At the same time, you’re charting and making notes about the environment."

“This research is a personalized approach to health monitoring, by analyzing the health and stress levels of crewmembers. By analyzing individual trajectories over time, this research is identifying what is impacting the health and performance of each person,” Dunn said.

Dunn added that by researching stress as a phenomenon that emerges in human-integrated systems, she hopes to learn more about how choices about food, sleep, exercise, social interactions, environmental changes, mental processes and other factors work together to contribute to health outcomes and performance levels. 

She plans to publish her research later this year. Dunn, 29, has also applied to be in NASA’s astronaut program. The agency is expected to announce its final candidate selections in 2017.

Dunn said that the eight-month mission went by faster than she had anticipated. Each day was filled with a rigorous schedule of research and duties to maintain a sustainable habitat. Dunn even found time to hit a few golf balls that were made from a 3-D printer. A video she posted on her blog of her playing golf in her space suit went viral and was featured on ESPN. 

“I knew we were getting a lot of media attention from the news but I never expected it to get on ESPN. As an athlete it’s a dream to get on ESPN, so to get on there and be able to relate it to science was awesome,” she said. 

Human Factors students at Embry-Riddle are also involved in research that will help prepare humans for missions to Mars. This summer a group of students is partnering with NASA's Extreme Environment Mission Operations in Key Largo to train at an underwater research station. The enclosed environment is deployed 60 feet beneath the surface and resembles the isolation and confinement astronauts experience during missions.   

A group of students is also preparing for a mission to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. Similar to HI-SEAS, the Research Station is a prototype of a habitat that astronauts would live in during a mission to Mars. 

Cassandra Vella was one of a six crew members from ERAU who went on a mission to the Research Station for 16 days last year. She used the opportunity to study memory and recall in the participants as their time in isolation and confinement went on. 

While it was a much shorter mission than HI-SEAS, Vella said she could relate to Dunn’s experiences. Students at the Research Station also lived on a limited supply of water, limited internet and faced a 20-minute delay when communicating with mission control. 

“It really gave me a new mindset for research and development in different areas that we might need for putting people in space,” said Vella, who is majoring in Human Factors. “Experiencing it firsthand really demonstrated the challenges and possibilities of going to Mars.”

— Lacey McLaughlin, Web Writer