By Dr. Kristen Miller
Faculty Member, Space Studies
The APUS Analog Research Group (AARG) is a student-run, faculty-supported and multidisciplinary research program designed to prepare our students to serve as crews on terrestrial Lunar/Martian analog missions. Its intent is to support student education and perform meaningful research, which will be relevant in furthering NASA’s long-term space exploration and settlement initiatives.
AARG Completes Its Second Analog Mission in May
In May 2022, AARG completed its second analog mission, AARG-2I. The mission took place at the Inflatable Lunar/Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH) at the University of North Dakota (UND) campus.
The AARG-2I mission lasted 14 days, starting on May 16 and ending on May 29. The crew was comprised of four of our current students and alumni:
- Terry Trevino, Mission Commander
- Sarah Guthrie, Alexis Lojek and Keith Pierce, Mission Specialists
Several people supported the AARG-2I crew:
- Tyler Hines, Deputy Flight Director
- Scott Van Hoy, AARG Program Manager
- Dr. Kristen Miller, AARG Faculty Advisor
During the mission, the crew participated in outreach activities and research projects. These research projects spanned seven disciplines:
- Extravehicular activity (EVA) communications
- EVA rescue operations
- EVA suit design
ARG’s first mission, AARG-1I, conducted in October 2021, was basically a proof-of-concept mission. Its main goals were to complete the mission and return safely.
After the success of that first mission, the goals for AARG-2I shifted to other priorities:
- Increasing the range and depth of outreach and research activities
- Increasing the fidelity of the analog experience by limiting communications and food choices
- Applying lessons learned from the first mission to improve standard operating procedures including mission schedule, EVA protocols, and meal plan
Outreach Activities to Educate the Public
Outreach activities are important; they allow the crew to share their knowledge and experience while providing mentorship and inspiration. The AARG-2I crew completed a wide range of special activities during the mission, including educational outreach events and several live streams for the public.
Each of these events provided viewers with important opportunities to learn about the analog astronaut experience. The outreach events included a visit to a local middle school and a virtual visit with Girl Scout Troop 668. For both activities, crew answered questions about the astronaut experience, the ILMAH habitat and the EVA suits.
The crew also broadcast three live streaming events, published on our YouTube channel. Each live stream video featured a live EVA; two were daytime EVAs involving crew medical research and one was a twilight EVA surveying the habitat and surrounding area.
The live stream videos showcased the EVA suits as well as a new, internal communication system designed by the crew. This communication system uses cellular devices intended to simulate a mobile network.
The new system provided both audio and visual coverage of each crew member during the EVAs. It resulted in improved communication with the intra-vehicular activity (IVA) team at ILMAH, as well as an incredible experience for the audience.
The Research Projects of AARG-2I
The AARG-2I crew participated in an extremely wide range of research projects during the mission. In addition to continuing studies that were initiated during the first AARG-1I mission, the crew conducted additional research studies. For instance, they used the ILMAH lab to study the growth of microgreens, including radishes and arugula. Several variables were tested, including:
- The effects of different light wavelengths
- The amount of light the plants receive
- Growth rates in simulated Martian regolith-soil mixtures
- The use of spirulina and sphagnum moss as soil additives to aid in plant growth
The ability to grow food on-site is extremely important for long space exploration missions, including future off-world settlements. These plant growth studies will directly support those missions.
In addition to continuing the emotion recognition study begun in the first mission, the crew participated in a new study analyzing the effects of carbon dioxide on sleep quality. While carbon dioxide levels are carefully monitored in space habitats such as the International Space Station (ISS), localized pockets of carbon dioxide can form in enclosed areas such as sleep quarters. As a result, higher levels of carbon dioxide can affect astronaut sleep cycles, which in turn affects crew performance and interactions.
A primary research focus for second mission involved on EVA operations; the crew developed three separate studies designed to improve the EVAs. The first study focused on rescue techniques during an EVA; the crew tested their ability to maneuver and transport an incapacitated astronaut – a dummy named “Kurt” – while wearing ILMAH’s NDX-2AT EVA suits.
These suits weigh roughly 30 pounds and have both limited visibility and mobility, especially due to the protective gloves. Consequently, the suit’s design constraints the ability of an astronaut to maneuver and transport an injured crew member. Crew members tested two different transportation devices during a series of EVAs to evaluate possible rescue methods.
The second study involved the fit of the NDX-2AT space suits and the comfort of the astronauts. The crew introduced a backpacking style harness that can be easily customized to an individual astronaut.
The harness redistributes the weight of the suit and also allows the suit to fit a wider range of astronaut heights. The researchers tested the suit’s fit, comfort level and reduction in level of exertion while the harness was in use.
The third EVA research study tested the operational benefits of using a mobile network for EVA communications. By mounting cellular devices inside the suit’s helmet as well as on the front of the suit, the IVA team was able to closely monitor both the state of the astronauts on EVA and their surroundings.
Previously, EVA communications relied on radio communications only. The addition of visual data greatly increased the ability of the IVA team to monitor conditions during the EVA, increasing safety for the astronauts and made the live stream events possible.
Finally, AARG-2l crew members participated in a research project designed to determine the efficacy of focused breathing during analog missions. This research analyzed whether regular periods of focused breathing could relieve stress and reduce the effects of isolation for the crew. These studies will all be continued during upcoming missions.
Testing Mission Fidelity
The AARG-2I crew was the first mission to use the UND communications delay system to simulate a mission beyond the Moon. Thursday, T+11 (May 26th), was designated as the “Mars” day for the mission.
On this day, use of all personal communications devices was halted for 12 hours for the crew. All communications were maintained through the UND Time Delay Emulator App, which was monitored by mission control. The communications were subject to a 10-minute delay each way, which is similar to the delays that crews enroute to Mars will experience.
This delay resulted in a significant difference in both the quantity and content of communications. Details relating to the crew’s experience, anecdotal sharing of happenings within ILMAH and friendly banter between the crew and members of AARG ceased immediately.
Overall, communications that day were sparse, purposeful and brief. While this communication style was partly due to the autonomy the crew achieved at this point in their mission, the contrast between the “Mars” day and the days before and after it suggests that the new system contributed to an increase in a feeling of isolation as the camaraderie and connection with the outside world abruptly ceased.
The crew also utilized a carefully created food plan, consisting of dehydrated foods and pre-packaged prepared foods, based on the lessons learned from the first AARG mission. These food options realistically mimic astronaut diets.
The crew prepared a nightly meal using the dehydrated ingredients. After the mission, the crew reported dissatisfaction with the taste and the variety of their diet plan.
Three of the crew reported a weight loss over the 14-day mission; this change was likely due to a combination of the increase in caloric requirements due to the mission lifestyle, exercise requirements and meal palatability. The fourth crew member maintained a normal weight while eating a strictly regimented, mountaineering-style meal plan.
As nutrition is tied to crew morale and cohesion and there is a connection between weight and health for astronauts on long-term space missions, the crew’s experiences provide important insights and raise key questions relevant to the space community. Clearly, the balance between diet and exercise is an important part of mission planning and requires further study.
Lessons Learned from the Mission
Even in a highly qualified and united crew such as this one, the isolation and stress of such a mission often lead to personal tensions. The three-quarter phenomenon, a condition which occurs due to the negative feelings and conflicts that can arise approximately three-quarters of the way through a mission, is very real. It typically occurs after the initial excitement of starting a mission wears off and before the end is in sight.
The AARG-2I crew noted the mental effects of the mission, both individually and collectively. Strong leadership, good communications, and solid conflict resolution skills are necessary to overcome these challenges and allow for a successful, productive mission.
The AARG-2I mission highlighted the need to increase communications with mission control –especially during times when a communication delay was active – in order to alleviate feelings of isolation. In the future, the AARG team hopes to provide a means for family communication and access to world news updates even during simulated Mars missions.