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Students Become Analog Astronauts, Conduct Space Research

Podcast featuring Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.Faculty Member, School of Business and
Scott Van Hoy, Graduate Student, Space Studies

What is it like to be an astronaut living in space? Several APUS students got a taste of being an astronaut when they were selected to be analog astronauts as part of the APUS Analog Research Group. In this episode, Dr. Gary Deel talks to graduate student Scott Van Hoy about his experience as an analog astronaut and his research into space human factors including psychological and physiological impacts.

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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast, Exploring STEM. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about humans in space.

My guest today is Scott Van Hoy. Scott is a professional aviator working for the Department of Defense. He received his Master’s degree in technology management in 2016 from the University of Illinois, and here at APUS, he is a graduate student in Space Studies, concentrating in Aerospace Science, as well as a cofounder and the program manager of the APUS Analog Research Group, an APUS-affiliated organization focused on enabling student research using moon and Mars analog research stations.

His research is focused on space human factors, and he is interested in both the psychological and physiological impacts for astronauts and what they may experience during missions to the Moon and to Mars. Scott, welcome to Exploring STEM, and thank you for being our guest today.

Scott Van Hoy: Thank you so much for having me, Dr. Deel. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Dr. Gary Deel: Likewise. So there’s a lot to talk about, and I’ve done a few podcast episodes under different channels in the past involving human factors in space and some of the challenges that human astronauts will face, particularly as we hopefully in the near term go back to the Moon, and for the first time to Mars and perhaps the other celestial bodies in the solar system. Tell us a little bit about what you’re working on, specifically what projects you’ve been involved in and what you’re learning from those.

[Podcast: The Future of Space Exploration]

Scott Van Hoy: One of the big projects that we’ve been working on here at APUS is, we created an analog research group, which was in my bio before. And it was about a year and a half ago, to where a group of students and a couple professors came together, and we really wanted to see how we could maximize human space factors research at a fully online university.

So, we decided that the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah has an application program or process so that you can actually apply to go to conduct research at analog research facilities. So, that was kind of our initial look for like, “Hey, how can we actually become a part of this mission and part of space human factors research here at APUS?” So, we put in an application for that, and we were accepted.

[Related Article: Faculty and Students Participate in UND’s ILMAH X (Part 1)]

And we also looked at other means to conduct research, and we actually partnered with the University of North Dakota Human Spaceflight Laboratory to conduct missions at their inflatable lunar/Mars analog habitat.

So, what we started doing was just enabling the ability for students to become analog astronauts, which is what we call somebody who has participated in an analogs-based mission, while also enabling students to want to conduct and have the ability to conduct human space research.

And this goes past space human factors as well, to where we’ve had botany studies, we’ve had space architecture studies, and the list really just continues to grow. So, that’s kind of been our main effort recently, and we’ve conducted one mission so far, one’s in planning, and the application’s open for a third. So, it’s really been a cool opportunity so far.

Dr. Gary Deel: That’s great. Now, for some of our listeners who may not be familiar, can you explain in very practical terms, what is analog space for astronaut research? What kind of experiments or studies are being done at these places?

Scott Van Hoy: So, space analogs is really just short for something that is analogous to being in space, and analogous meaning similar to. So, what that means is that if we want to see what it’s like to go back, for example, to the moon, what we can do is we can figure out what is similar to going to the moon that we can recreate here on Earth?

And what’s great about this is that things can be analogous in so many ways. Because, for example, the McMurdo Station is analogous in the fact that it’s isolated. There’s a small number of people living there, you can’t just leave the base. Meanwhile you could have a laboratory study, to where you put somebody in a head-down position, and now they simulate fluid shifts. So, now this is like a laboratory that is analogous to fluid shifts in space.

You can have an entire habitat, which is what we work with, to where you can have a habitat that is made for four to six people that is just like living in, or I guess for the example, living on the moon.

So really, there are so many different examples of space analogs or things that are analogous to living in space, and they can really be gauged or kind of guided to the research that you want to conduct. So, you get the vast swath of different studies that you see at these, from technology to development, to how to conduct extravehicular activity such as space walks. How do people live together? What does the teamwork look like? What are the physiological changes that you might see? And all this is encompassed into space analogs, which are just things that are analogous to living in space.

Dr. Gary Deel: Excellent. Now, one of the things that some people may be familiar with is obviously the difference in gravitational forces on the places that we’re aiming to go back to, and to go to for the first time. The Moon has a gravitational pull that is somewhere on the order of 16%, 17% that of the earth, and on Mars it’s about 40%. So, the question becomes, with respect to gravity, specifically, how can analog research designs account for that? Because, of course, if you’re on the earth you can’t turn off the gravity. So, what kinds of technologies or designs are employed to try to simulate the differences in gravity that you might find on another planet or on a moon?

[Podcast: Next Manned Space Mission: Moon, Mars or Venus?]

Scott Van Hoy: So, the research that we do at APUS Analog Research Group, unfortunately, cannot account for that. We are kind of stuck in the 1-g environment here on Earth. However, this is where it gets a little bit weird, to where space can be an analog for space. So, the International Space Station is actually analogous or an analog for living on the moon in one-sixth gravity.

So, by studying what the human body and how it reacts in a zero G environment is going to be close, or maybe somewhere kind of in the center of zero G and the Earth for that one-sixth gravity environment. So, we can definitely think outside the box on what an analog is, and how we use those to prepare for future missions.

Dr. Gary Deel: Sure, and there’s a few things that can be done here on Earth just for sort of full scope of design, not to necessarily say that the analog research studies that you’re involved in are doing this, but at NASA if they’re testing astronaut capabilities in space suits, sometimes they’ll do that in a pool, where the buoyancy of water will allow for reduced weight essentially, or the feeling of reduced weight, that might simulate something like being on the moon or being on another planet.

You also have the “vomit comet,” this is essentially, I think it’s a Boeing, it’s a big airplane with the entire fuselage hollowed out. They use it for tourist purposes just to, it’s like a rollercoaster in the air. But essentially, this is a plane that just does a big parabolic arc up and down and up and down. And during the dives, you experience that full weightlessness inside the fuselage, because you’re just in free fall while the plane is falling, before it reverts and heads back into an ascension.

And then, finally, you have mechanical gravity offload that can be done in some of these environments, particularly when you’re testing rovers and things like traction. I work with the Exolith Lab at UCF, and one of the things we’re building is a testing station for using simulants, Exolith simulants like what we can make here on Earth to simulate Moon dirt, and then we’ll test for example wheels of different rovers for designs to see what kind of traction is involved.

[Related: Making Dirt to Advance the Success of Space Exploration]

But you’ve got to offload the gravity so you’ve got proper weight, and you can do that with things like spring-loaded sort of tethers that hold the rover in a certain position so that it offsets all but the amount of weight that you actually want to be applied to that.

So, there’s interesting ways of sort of getting around the problem, although to your point, you can’t turn off gravity here on earth, so you’ve got to get creative if you want to do that.

Now outside of gravity, which obviously has its implications for health and wellness and the feasibility of life long-term, what are some of the other challenges that the analog research groups you’re involved with are studying in terms of the things that we as human beings have to overcome or innovate around if we’re going to travel back to space, whether that be to the Moon or to Mars or anywhere else?

Scott Van Hoy: So, things that we’re currently looking at is, or the studies that we currently have, are space architecture, so what is the best way to actually design a habitat, and how would that look for maybe a long duration mission versus a short duration, or a colonization versus an exploration.

And we were also looking at several psychology studies. So, how can we best take care of the psychological aspects of the astronauts, especially when we start getting into multiyear missions. And what’s kind of hard is, in that aspect is, we’re doing two-week missions right now, which means we’re not going to see every psychological indicator we may see for a three year mission- However, we’re starting to find things and starting to study things specifically that can be noticed in small durations of time.

So, for example, one study that I’ve been working on is with emotion recognition. And, during the head down bedrest studies, which is called space cot, they noticed that one of the biggest cognitive changes on day one of a head-down bed rest type of scenario, which is an analog for microgravity, was the changes in the way we perceive emotions by looking at the faces of, in this case, would be other astronauts. So, we’re really trying to dial in on things that we can test in a short duration study that could affect long-duration spaceflight.

Dr. Gary Deel: I think the psychological implications of spaceflight are definitely difficult, and it’s a challenge, because,  and in full disclosure, I’m finishing a Master’s in psychology here at APUS as well, so I’m a student like you in addition to being an instructor. But one of the things that we wrestle with is the desire to want to test the in-situ real experiences that astronauts will undergo on these long space flights. As you had noted, we’re talking probably months or years, particularly as we’re dealing with missions that might go to Mars. That’s not the kind of thing you’re going to return to Earth from in a few days, or even a few weeks. So with current technology, I mean the best we might hope for is maybe a two-year mission duration, accounting for the orbital alignments of Earth and Mars, and when you can make the trip back and forth.

But the problem becomes if you wanted to test the implications of say, two years in isolation here on Earth, you could feasibly do it. You could lock somebody in a room that simulates what it would be like to be alone on Mars for two years, but we have research ethics laws here in the United States and abroad that prohibit the kind of research that would potentially bring a negative impact on somebody. And if it’s likely that someone in that kind of environment would experience stress, anxiety, and perhaps even permanent damaging effects from that kind of isolation, generally we don’t allow that kind of research. Because as much as we’d like to know the answers, we also don’t want to hurt people.

So, it’s a very difficult thing to kind of balance that, between wanting to understand the implications of things like isolation on the human mind, and how long can we go before we crack under the weight of loneliness and solitude. But also the desire not to cause harm to the volunteers and the study subjects that we want to examine under those conditions.

Scott Van Hoy: Yeah, it’s definitely a balance for what is ethical versus what we want to figure out. And all of our studies go through an ethics review board just to make sure that we’re on point with making sure that all of our studies are safe to do on the participants and the analog astronauts that go on our missions.

And this is where also it gets a little bit creative, for going back to the question, what is a space analog? And even though we might not be able to, in a perfect lab environment, put somebody in a room or a small habitat for two years, there are already systems in place out there that do that already. So, talking more about Navy vessels and cargo ships, really anything maritime. I’m talking submarines, talking Antarctica.

So, all these things that are research stations or military platforms that are based around the world that are already doing these things. They’re already out for long periods of time. And so, those are really good ways to kind of tap in to do some research and see how that’s affecting sailors or the researchers that are at these locations, so that way you can take advantage of the environments that are already in place that are analogous to spaceflight without having to really open that new lab environment to figure out what your research question is.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yes, definitely a difficult problem to solve, because as we said we don’t want to hurt people with research experiments here on Earth. But at the same time, we also don’t want to send people off into deep space without any kind of predicate of research and foundational knowledge where they’re likely to suffer harm because we just don’t know what to expect because we haven’t done that homework ahead of time.

So, either way, it seems like there’s probably a likelihood of some type of harm, whether it’s physical or psychological. Perhaps that’s just an unavoidable challenge of exploration in general; it’s the unknown but difficult problems to solve.

So, we’ve talked about Mars and the Moon. Do you have a preference on, based on your research in terms of habitability and the kinds of things we’re talking about, because of course one is a much shorter trip than the other, but one arguably is much more conducive to long-term habitation than the other. So I’m wondering what your thoughts are on those comparatively, as NASA and other space agencies, and even private-sector companies at this point are looking at exploration of both in the near term.

[Podcast: Colonizing Planets or Moons for Human Habitation]

Scott Van Hoy: So, I wouldn’t say I have any strong opinions on kind of the difference of the two, but the first thing that comes to mind is the exploration aspect versus the colonization aspect. Which I think as we go to the moon, it’ll be a lot easier to have larger facilities, to get more gear there, to really establish something as maybe a little bit more upscale.

However, when you start looking at Mars habitat designs, it really gets into very limited space, which can affect the mission in different ways that we may not even know at this point, especially on the psychological side.

So, I think the moon will be a testing ground for Mars, and I think that’ll be a good way to see what is going to be feasible on Mars. But I do think initial Mars missions will be very exploratory in nature, a little bit more primitive. And that’s going to be really just due to the cost and the weight associated with getting gear out there. However, commercial spaceflight programs may prove me wrong on that in the future, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, that’s interesting. There are a number of obviously big obstacles on Mars. That’s not to say that because Mars is arguably more favorable to human life in terms of conditions, that it’s in any way favorable or even comparable to what we have here on Earth. You’ve got issues with a lack of atmosphere, with extremely low temperatures, with the reduced gravity which can result in muscle and bone atrophy, you’ve got issues with radiation and a lack of magnetic field, so there’s a number of problems that have to be solved to make anything viable for even temporary habitation.

But you had mentioned something which is sort of the predicate assumption that we bring everything with us, and I’m sure you’ve seen at different points, there have been proposals and ideas for, hey, what if we send machines to Mars that could dig subterranean to provide a level of insulation against radiation and even the cold of the surface? But also, to potentially make habitats underground, which wouldn’t limit us to bringing those habitats with us. And I’ve even seen ideas behind the possibility of taking Martian dirt and compressing it, probably heating it up, and turning it into bricks. Which is something we do similarly here on Earth, I mean we turn dirt into bricks, so could the same thing be done on Mars?

I’m curious to know what if anything have your analog groups discussed in terms of how might we build a habitat that could provide for the level of insulation and safety, and, of course, we’d have to find a way to make it hermetically sealed so that we can provide an atmosphere that people can breathe, otherwise they’re going to be confined to their space suits for the entirety of the mission duration. So, any research on that in the world that you’ve been occupying?

Scott Van Hoy: Nothing that we’ve specifically been occupying, but it’s definitely something we talk about. Because if you look at kind of space architecture and how space architecture has really come up as its own field, it’s really cool to see some of the ideas of how we’re taking bioastronautics and looking at the challenges there, and figuring out architecturally how we solve those.

So, there’s been two analog studies that we don’t partner with, however, we are familiar with, that are kind of looking at those challenges here on Earth to figure out how we may do that on Mars. One of them is a smaller study, to where, I wish I remembered the university, but I don’t remember who exactly it was. But they were actually got a plot of land that has a lava tube, and they’re looking at how astronauts from the surface could actually go and live inside the lava tube with a habitat environment, and how they might actually construct it on Mars, to where they could use the shielding by living underground inside a lava tube. This is more specific to the moon, but also potential for Mars, to where we could do subterranean habitats in order to shield radiation.

And then another big one is actually run by NASA. So, NASA has several analog habitat programs, but kind of two, I’d say two and a half habitats that they use. One of them is HERA, which is the Human Exploration Research Analog, and that is actually located essentially in a warehouse of the Johnson Space Center. And they actually just built a new habitat right next to it that is actually 3D printed. So, what they did is they got a large 3D printer, and they got a regolith kind of mix. I wish I knew exactly what it was, but I do not.

And they essentially 3D printed an entire habitat based on a Martian regolith, and they’re actually planning on doing their first mission on that pretty soon, and they’re recruiting analog astronauts for that. And that’s definitely an option, to where we can send a 3D printer to Mars ahead of time, and then the habitat is completely constructed out of Martian regolith before we even get there, and then that’s going to solve some of the issues as far as the construction, the pressurization, as well as the radiation shielding that you may have, so that way you don’t have to print individual bricks. You can just print the entire habitat before you even get there.

So, it’s kind of cool to see even NASA funding this research and trying to see, hey, how can we actually go do this without sending everything there such as raw materials, but sending the equipment to then build those raw materials.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, that presents a number of different ideas, but also challenges with respect to the current status of our knowledge in these areas. And it brings me back to my work with the Exolith Lab at the University of Central Florida. And people don’t necessarily think about this, but we have Moon dirt, actual Moon dirt that we went to the Moon during the Apollo missions and put in bags and brought back to Earth, so we have the real thing.

When you think about Mars, we don’t have any. We’ve never recovered a sample and returned it to Earth. There are plans to try to do so, but the best that we have at this point is something that would allow us to dig, and so the rovers there have effectively gone and analyzed and burned and cooked, and sort of done the spectroscopy readings to give us a sense of particle size and recovery of information there that would be useful to us.

But our knowledge of Martian soil samples and whatnot is much more limited by comparison because of the fact that we don’t have the kinds of access to that material that we had on the Moon when we were going with the Apollo missions, and that we hope to return with someday.

Scott Van Hoy: Yeah, and that goes to say that when I use the term Martian regolith, it’s definitely a simulant, and with the best information that we have. But it’s cool that we have that as a research kind of enabler, to where with that kind of simulated regolith, not only can we do architectural studies, but we’ve had students bring plants with them to the ILMAH Habitat at the University of North Dakota, and they were looking at mixtures of soil versus regolith to actually grow plants. So, that enables a lot of botany studies as well.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely, and it’s certainly not outside of the scope of our technological ability to return samples that might help us to get a better sense of things. We’ve done this, I want to say with Hayabusa if I’m remembering correctly. There were one or two missions that did this successfully with comets and asteroids that we had missions across various international space agencies actually make contact with an object in space, dig out a core sample or scoop up some dirt, for lack of a better term, and return it back to Earth. But something that’s pretty difficult to do, given the distances and the technologies involved, and everything that has to go right. So, it presents a complication for us.

What about some of the other obstacles that we may not have talked about already on this episode? So, one of the things we haven’t addressed yet is food and water. So, I’m wondering if any of the research you’ve been involved with or done yourself has looked into how we might go about providing that?

Scott Van Hoy: Yeah, so we’ve done some kind of informal pilot studies for the APUS Analog Research Group. So, we’re on our first mission to ILMAH, which is the Inflatable Lunar Mars Analog Habitat, which is the habitat funded by NASA and is at the University of North Dakota.

So, what we did was, we wanted to figure out, out of three systems, the first system being a crew meal to where one person would prep, the crew would eat together, and then one person would clean, individually packaged meals similar to the International Space Station to where you can grab, heat it up, and go, more similar to a backpacking meal, or some combination. So, out of those three options, what the crew preferred. And this was informal, so not really something that we launched a full study on.

Well, during the mission we kind of tested all three options, and we decided that the crew preferred doing a breakfast and lunch that was more individualized, and then they liked the social aspect of a crew dinner, to where you actually had to have somebody cook, somebody clean, and the crew eats together. And really just builds the community of food and eating together, and similar to what might do as a family meal here on Earth. So, that was one informal study that we did as far as from a community aspect what they would prefer as far as food goes?

And actually, on the second mission, we’re looking at just one kind of pilot study, where what is the minimum food we may need? So, one of our analog astronauts is actually looking at what is the minimum sustainable food for a single person based on weight and metabolism, and what do those rations actually look like? To make sure that if we did have to ration food in an emergency type of situation, what is the minimum that we need? And that’s going to be just kind of an N=1, just kind of working on himself pilot study to start to figure that out.

So, both of these studies and both of the kind of food that we’re looking at are actually student-initiated studies, and that’s what’s great about our research group. Because the studies that we’re doing are not things that are necessarily sponsored by faculty or sponsored by the research group as a whole. What we do is we encourage students to come up with their own research projects to send to these facilities, and then they can kind of test that. And then if it works out well and they wanted to send it to multiple missions, then we have multiple missions for them to send it on.

So, we’re kind of in this balance of: How can we enable student research while also bringing kind of new ideas to the space studies community? So, those are the two food studies we’ve been working on, and hopefully there’s going to be more in the future. It’s been really kind of cool to see them kind of come forward.

Dr. Gary Deel: No, that’s great, and you touched on a number of concepts there that I think are really interesting, and they actually bring us back full circle to our original discussion on the psychological factors, because you mentioned astronaut preferences for food. And then you also talked about sort of minimum quantities of food for basic sustainability. And all of this makes me think about morale and psychological stability, because food is a big piece of that. We know that and the military knows it, just basic social science knows that how much food and sustenance, but not just basic food in terms of calories, but food that actually makes us happy and that we enjoy eating.

And so, I’m thinking about the movie “The Martian” with Matt Damon, where he had to eat like a third of a potato every day for like 400 days just to survive in this fictional story about an astronaut stranded on Mars. And could we survive on a third of a potato? I don’t know the science behind that dietetically, but I assume there’s some minimum level.

The problem is if you’re just thinking in terms of minimums, you might survive on half a potato a day, but you can imagine there might come a day where I’m going to stab my crew mates if I have to eat another half a potato, I just want a cheeseburger or something, because I’m losing my mind. And so, food serves that valuable purpose.

It makes me think about, I want to say it was Biosphere or something years ago, where we attempted an isolation study that kind of left a crew together in an isolated habitat. And the intention was to go a few weeks or a few months, I don’t remember the exact details of the fallout. But I want to say it was like 72 hours before people were literally threatening to eat each other and they had to cancel the experiment early. So, it kind of shows you how delicate that balance of psychological stability. If you’re not getting along with somebody, you just want to be able to go outside and take a walk rather than share a room with them for another minute, and how long can that persist until it becomes dangerous, psychologically, and frankly physically?

These are all really interesting implications as we move forward into the science of understanding long-term habitation in isolation. Well, I really appreciate you being here today, and this has been a great discussion. Before we conclude though, I wanted to ask if there was anything else you wanted to cover on the episode, and also wanted to make sure we include some information on how listeners might be able to learn more about the research you’re involved in, if there are any websites or other contact information we can look at.

Scott Van Hoy: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, first of all. This has been an awesome time, just kind of chatting about space habitability. And just what I wanted to share was that the APUS Analog Research Group is a student-led and faculty-advised program, which means that the students are the ones who do the management and the research development.

So, this is a really cool opportunity for any APUS student to get involved and come up with their own research projects or jump on somebody else’s or become an analog astronaut. So, if you want to get involved, email me at APUS.ARG@gmail.com, and just let me know that you’re interested and let me know what you’re excited about as far as space studies goes, and we can definitely get you set up for however you want to be involved. So, definitely students are more than welcome to come, and actually encouraged to come help us out.

Dr. Gary Deel: Well, that’s perfect Scott. Thank you very much for sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics today, and thank you for joining me today for this episode of Exploring STEM.

Scott Van Hoy: Thank you Dr. Deel for having me, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you today.

Dr. Gary Deel: And thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by visiting the various American Public University sponsored blogs. Be well and stay safe, everyone.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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