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Faculty and Students Participate in UND’s ILMAH X (Part 1)

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Image courtesy of author.

By Dr. Kristen Miller
Faculty Member, Space Studies

Note: This article is part 1 of a three-part series about four members of the University community taking part in an analog mission as a research project for the University’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Their experience, activities and research will be detailed in this series.

Every boy and girl dreams of one day becoming an astronaut, but very few ever have that opportunity. This fall, an adventurous team led by seasoned analog astronaut Bill O’Hara got to experience what astronaut life is really like.

From left to right: Faculty member Diallo Wallace, graduate student Rose Worku, faculty member Bill O’Hara and graduate student Terry Trevino. Image courtesy of author.

The Inflatable Lunar-Martian Analog Habitat (ILMAH) is a unique living space designed to simulate the conditions of an off-world human base. It is located on the University of North Dakota (UND) campus in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and it is a fully enclosed habitat capable of supporting four crew members for extended stays. ILMAH includes:

  • Living quarters
  • A command module
  • An exercise module
  • A green habitat (greenhab) module for plant growth and research
  • Realistic spacesuits for extravehicular activity (EVA) exercises 

The University’s Analog Research Group (ARG-1) crew lived and worked at ILMAH for an 11-day period in the fall of 2021. The crew consisted of two Space Studies graduate students – Terry Trevino and Rose Worku – and two Space Studies faculty members – Bill O’Hara and Diallo Wallace. Team commander Bill O’Hara had participated in several analog missions previously, but this was a new experience for the other members of the team.

“The reason we choose to be in these environments is for those who, in the future, will make these journeys.”  – Terry Trevino, ARG-1 Science Lead

Living and Working at ILMAH

Crew members at ILMAH live in a confined space, isolated from family and friends. Like astronauts, they must rely on each other to overcome challenges and resolve issues with the ultimate goal of ensuring mission success.

Bill O’Hara and his plan to remain entertained during his 11-day stay at ILMAH. Image courtesy of author.

Commander O’Hara described participation in an analog mission as a roller-coaster ride with ups and downs along the way, but the participants develop an overall feeling of excitement and gratitude for the experience. He loves everyone’s feeling of anticipation at the beginning of the mission.

He says, “There is a certain electricity in the air when everyone is excited to get settled and start the adventure that is the mission. I am always surprised at the beginning of a mission at how quickly you adjust, acclimate, and align with the mission activities and goals.” 

The beginning of the mission is full of hope and possibilities. It is a fresh start, and crew members are both anxious and excited to become a team and work together.

As the mission progresses, the element of teamwork becomes an even more essential key to success. Living in a closed environment, isolated from the outside world, bonds the team together.

Rose Worku also noted the supportive teamwork atmosphere. She says that there was a feeling of cohesion in the group, a sense of community where all goals and concerns became “ours” instead of “mine/hers/his.” 

“Being in the habitat with the rest of the crew, it felt like we were one family who cares and takes care of each other’s wellbeing. That is what made our experience and stay at the habitat great.” – Rose Worku, ARG-1 Science Specialist

For the crew members, this cohesion develops naturally into a rhythm where each member knows what needs to be done and where people help each other without needing to be asked. During the mission, a sense of responsibility develops as crew members try to help each other and look out for each other’s physical and emotional well-being. Friendships are formed from this shared experience that endure well past the mission’s end date.

ILMAH Life Is Also about Crew Dynamics

Life at ILMAH is not just about the work, but also about the crew dynamics – learning to become a team and function smoothly while one lives in tight quarters with a small group of people. Terry Trevino notes that the team quickly learned the importance of a shared nightly meal in maintaining a healthy atmosphere and positive working environment.

Also, Bill O’Hara initiated a tradition of storytelling after dinner each night, giving crew members the opportunity to share their life stories. Sharing deepens crew connections and leads to a more bonded, supportive group experience.

Related link: Diversity in STEAM: It’s Time for a Crucial Conversation

Challenges of the Analog Mission

So much of the analog experience is positive, but it is important to note that there were challenging aspects of the mission as well. Terry Trevino describes the sense of isolation as “very real.”

In spite of the knowledge that civilization is only a few feet away, the ILMAH crew feels completely isolated and alone in the habitat. Email and remote communications with mission control become lifelines for the individual crew members to the outside world, which felt much further away than it was in reality. The sense of togetherness within the team helped to ease stress as well. 

“The isolation is real, and even though we could hear the ‘space planes’ and the ‘space trains’ along with the superhighway of ‘satellites’ whistling by – as we jokingly referred to noise from outside the habitat, there was a sense of being alone with our only outside connections available via our devices or email.” – Terry Trevino, ARG-1 Science Lead

Another factor that contributed to the stress of living at ILMAH is that the crew is monitored by UND mission control team and ARG during the experience. As part of the mission’s research, crew cognitive reactions are actively recorded during EVAs, and their ability to recognize emotions is tested and recorded daily.

In addition, detailed daily reports of all habitat activities are required throughout the mission. These experiences both increase the realism of the simulated experience at ILMAH and also create real challenges for the crew.

At the end of the mission, the feelings of excitement and anticipation return. Bill O’Hara explains that at the end of a mission, the crew experiences an incredible sense of accomplishment. There is also a desire to tell the world about the analog experience and how it has changed you. 

“From end to end it can be a roller-coaster, but the beginning and end of a mission are always high notes!” – Bill O’Hara, ARG-1 Mission Commander

So, what is it like to be an analog astronaut? It is exciting, isolating, challenging, and life changing. It is an experience that develops lifelong friendships, that tests resolve, and that makes long term space exploration seem possible. Rose says, “Being an analog astronaut was the best experience. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat!”

About the Author

Dr. Kristen Miller is an associate professor of Space Studies. She holds a B.S. in physics from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in astronomy from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her thesis work studied turbulence in magnetic fields in the protostellar disks surrounding young stars using supercomputer simulations, investigating both the ways in which turbulence allows angular momentum transport within the disks and how coupling of the gas to the field influences the direction of the accretion flow onto the protostar.

Currently, Dr. Miller leads the Analog Research Group, which recruits and trains teams of students to participate in analog research missions. She also leads the Supernova Search Program, a program dedicated to detecting supernovae and other transient objects in nearby galaxies.

Dr. Miller is the faculty advisor of the student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). She also serves on a variety of committees at the university.

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