Personal Narrative

Ground Control to Dr. Mike: a first-hand account of life inside a space journey analog

Would I do a real mission to the moon or Mars or an asteroid? Yes. Of course. And now, I’m pretty sure I can do it despite the difficulties.

by Dr. Michael Pecaut

Official crew photos for HERA Campaign 4 Mission 5. Photo Date: May 4, 2018. Location: Building 220 - HERA module. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

Official crew photos for HERA Campaign 4 Mission 5. Photo Date: May 4, 2018. Location: Building 220 – HERA module. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

NASA says we’re going to the Moon. Or Mars. Or some random asteroid out there in space. The destination seems to change every few years, depending on the whim of whomever is sitting in the White House at the time. But one thing in common about all of these destinations is the fact a very small number of people will be locked inside of a space ship the size of a Winnebago for a long, long time, a long, long way from home. To prepare, the various space agencies around the world, including NASA, are using a number of different spaceflight analogs to study the effects of prolonged isolation and mission related stress on human behavior and performance.

You may have heard of some of these. Biosphere2 started a couple of decades ago. Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) have the Mars-500 experiments as well. NASA has been using Antarctic, desert and undersea analogs. HiSEAS is on the side of a volcano in Hawaii and has been the focus of both a podcast series and a recent article in The Atlantic.

I recently participated in one of the shorter NASA-based analog missions known as the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA), which runs out of Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. Specifically, I was part of Campaign 4, Mission 5 (C4M5), aka HERA XVII. Although the ingress and egress were streamed live on Facebook, and there have already been a number of articles (including Scientific America Online) and Tumblr posts written about this (and more seem to be coming out every week or so), I’d like to use this opportunity to give more personal detail and context.

My background

Dr. Michael Pecaut

Dr. Michael Pecaut

The first thing you need to know is that I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since I was in elementary school in Hawaii. I’ve written about this before for S&R, back at the end of the shuttle era. The short version is that virtually everything I’ve done, career-wise, has been a direct consequence of this drive, up to and including getting a PhD in Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder and working at BioServe Space Technologies. Indeed, I’ve been participating in NASA-related research for over two decades.

But I’ve always been on the research scientist side of the table, designing and organizing experiments that fly on the shuttle or the International Space Station (ISS) so that astronauts can actually perform the work for us. Analogs like HERA give me the opportunity to see how things work from the perspective of the astronauts themselves.

How it began

While I’ve always known about these analogs, it wasn’t until a good friend of mine, Nina Nishiyama, expressed a similar interest in spaceflight and considered applying to be part of a HiSEAS mission that I began looking at it seriously. While she ultimately decided that she wasn’t ready for an 8-month isolation study on the side of a volcano, I actually applied. I did not get in, but I got as far as being an alternate for a mission about two years ago. Undaunted, I explored my options. Through another colleague, I discovered NASA’s HERA project and decided to apply. That was a little less than a year ago and I’ve been on a roller coaster ride ever since.

“The waiting is the hardest part.” – Tom Petty

After applying, I was asked to do an in-person interview at JSC in October, 2017. While there, I met the project scientists and went through a series of psychological and medical examinations over about 36 hours. Although I left feeling pretty good about my chances, as with HiSEAS, I quickly found out that I didn’t make the cut for the main crew and was asked to be an alternate. Considering that I was applying for what might have been the final mission of the series, I thought that this was the end of the story.

But then, in late February, I received another email from the HERA project lead telling me that they had received funding for a “make-up mission” to redo the experiment that had been cut short due to Hurricane Harvey. They were wanting to know if I would be willing to throw my hat into the ring again. Excited, I of course said yes, without thinking of the consequences.

In early March, two days after my birthday, I received yet another email from NASA telling me I’d been selected and they wanted to start in April. Yay! That very same day, I got another email from a completely different part of NASA telling me that my flight experiment had been manifested to fly on ISS in early 2019, as well. I’d been waiting for over six years for that email (which is another long and arduous story).

Yay team! Things seemed great! Then, of course, we hit yet another snag.

The fourth potential crew member had to back out at the last minute. They had sent out a record number of invitations for this run, but for one reason or another, there were no other viable and willing candidates. For a while there, we were in limbo, not knowing what was going to happen. We were down to three and NASA wouldn’t move forward without a fourth. Still, they continued to scramble to find a replacement.

The Patch


Official crew patch for the C4M5 HERA XVII mission. Designed by James Bushong.

While we waited, I exchanged a few emails with the other confirmed crew members and we went about the business of designing a mission patch. Mission patches are usually full of symbolism and ours was no different. We knew that we wanted to pay homage to the mission that had been cancelled due to Harvey. We also knew that we wanted something to do with main focus of the mission: to explore and collect samples from a distant asteroid. That’s about it.

I recruited my brother, James Bushong, to help with designing the patch. Although it isn’t his day job, he dabbles in graphic art and we’ve been discussing ideas for my ISS experiment patch for years. We gave him our ideas and he went to work.

But then something new happened. NASA finally found a fourth crew member and we found out that our start date for the mission would be May 4th, aka Star Wars Day. So after many fast and furious emails and much debate, we decided on a Star Wars theme for the patch and gave those ideas to James. He took all of our ideas and created several versions of the patch. After much more debate (and many, many more emails and text messages) we settled on a final design.

The hurricane and asteroid ideas were still there. The four gold stars represented both the number of the crew and the fact that we were the fourth campaign. The five white stars represented the 5th mission of the campaign, with the 5th star sitting at the center of the hurricane to remind everyone that we were redoing that mission. Of course, we included both the Rebel Alliance and Empire symbols as well as “Star Wars” font. Finally, the Latin at the bottom of the patch means, “May the Force be with you.”

Training & Preparation

Fast forward a couple of weeks and we were in Houston. I had found people willing to take care of my dog Hina and my house. My bosses were ok with me disappearing for a couple of months (most of them are space geeks, too). My tech and collaborators were willing to cover for me in the lab and handle many of my administrative duties. I tied up as many loose strings as I could with work and had to accept that whatever remained would still be waiting for me when I got out.

For the next two weeks, we went through countless hours of briefings, testing and training. More psychological evaluations and team building activities. Leaning to use and maintain the systems within the hab, including the various computer simulations and simulated ecological life support systems. We were poked and prodded. We carried coolers everywhere we went for 48 hours to collect various biosamples (you can imagine what they were). We weighed and recorded everything we ate and drank. We measured resting metabolism and VO2-max, brain activity via both EEG and fMRI, heart activity via ECG and heart rate monitors.

We spent what little time we had left getting to know each other. Background details. Likes and dislikes. Hopes and fears. Expectations and concerns. Figuring out as many of the behavioral and social boundaries as we could before we moved into the habitat for good. We only had two weeks to do it and, for the most part, most of us managed to do a decent job of it, I think.

As you might expect, some of this happened while we trained. But a lot of it happened at restaurants over lunch or dinner, or at poolside after the long days in training. One evening we took a tour of JSC, including the various mission control rooms for the space shuttle and ISS missions, until we finally ended up in the mission control used for the Apollo missions, where we and a bunch of NASA interns watched Apollo 13.

Luckily, as it turned out, we seemed to get along relatively well and seemed to be on the same page, expectations-wise.

My last day on Earth

Finally, the day of Ingress arrived. We were given most of the day to say our last goodbyes to friends and family and to make sure we had everything we needed (from books to personal hygiene items). For the most part, we went our separate ways, attending to our individual needs.

I spent an hour or so trying to get the word out that the ingress ceremony was going to be streamed live on Facebook. I didn’t have anyone coming to see me off (the others did), but a few people expressed interest in seeing “lift off.” We didn’t know if NASA was going to approve it or not until the last minute, so we didn’t have a lot of time to get the word out.

After that, I spent a couple of hours just sitting alone at a picnic table in a small, local park, listening to the birds and insects. Inhaling the scent of late spring grass and trees. Mostly thinking of the woman I love, the unfulfilled wishes and lost opportunities. Wondering just what she thought about all this, wishing I could ask her, knowing that I couldn’t.

Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t think much about the coming isolation. I’d already been prepared for that and even after all the training we’d just been through, I still didn’t see anything ahead that I hadn’t already anticipated. I spent most of my adult life isolated and I really didn’t expect this to be any different. I was ready.

Finally, I got up and wandered off to find something to eat. I ate the last ice cream I’d have for 45 days. Ate the last hamburger. Drank the last beer. And headed for the Habitat.

In the habitat

I won’t describe the Ingress ceremony. As I mentioned, it was streamed live on Facebook and you can watch it here.

First off, let me just say that while HERA was very interesting to go through, the entire experience was mostly boring – there was a lot of just trying to stay awake. They did their best to keep us busy, though. I can’t really talk too much about the tests since they are already recruiting for the next run. But…

There were three computer simulations of various things to do on ISS or at a landing site (using the Canada arm to capture a satellite, land on the moon, etc.) as well as the mission to the asteroid (this one was the virtual reality sim … kinda low fidelity, not terribly high resolution graphics, but it involved the oculus goggles so at least it “felt” like we were leaving the ship). Some of these we did daily, some a few times a week.

We grew some plants with hydroponics and tried to grow some brine shrimp. In theory, these were for some elementary school kids, but we were never really sure if the kids were real or not. I suspect they were not. Which was a good thing because the brine shrimp never lived more than about a week. We were never able to get a picture of a live shrimp under the microscope because they moved around too much and the video capture/microscope sucked. I did, however, have to write reports up for both of them. So maybe?

Official crew photos for HERA Campaign 4 Mission 5. Photo Date: May 4, 2018. Location: Building 220 - HERA module. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

Official crew photos for HERA Campaign 4 Mission 5. Photo Date: May 4, 2018. Location: Building 220 – HERA module. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

We did a bunch of cognitive function assays. Memory, learning, problem solving, vigilance…that kind of thing. All of this was related to the isolation and sleep deprivation parts of the environment (five hours in the sleeping quarters five nights a week, eight hours two nights a week). The pre- and post- mission MRIs were related to some of this. They did just the basic scans, but they also did functional MRI where they measured brain activity while we did some memory/learning tasks. I was surprised by how friggin’ loud the MRI was, but we all still had to struggle to stay awake during the 45-60 minutes each time we went into the machine.

Most of the rest was behavior/psych/emotion surveys. We did what felt like an enormous number of surveys. Mostly right after waking up or just before going to bed (which made it very difficult), but not always. I quickly began to loathe surveys, especially when some of the questions were identical across surveys…

We did a lot of “group activities” where we had to discuss ethical dilemmas or survivor scenarios, etc. One of these activities involved answering a series of questions designed to influence others feelings for you. Google it. I recognized the questions as soon as they started asking them. We went through 8-10 of the questions every week or so. Sometimes, crying was involved. No one fell in love with me.

We had sensors we had to wear daily. Mostly activity sensors, but they also picked up habitat light levels and heart rate. We also exercised for 30 minuts every other day. Half of the days were on a stationary bike, the other half was “resistance” exercise using a very limited set of barbells. I recorded the latter as “Resistance is futile” because we had very limited space and weight so it felt less effective to me. A couple of times while in there, they also measured metabolic rates on the cycle using breathing masks & other sensors.

As we did before entering the habitat, for a period of 24-48 hours about once a week, we had to collect various biosamples…saliva, urine, feces, blood. No need to go into detail. Let’s just say we went through a lot of sample bottles and almost ran out of them for urine. Pretty sure we beat the all-time record on that one.

We were allowed one 30-minute call to friends and family a week. Most of the crew had conference calls with a lot of people. My mom and brother called a few times and that was great. Nina surprised me and called once during a particularly difficult stretch in the hab (and after very little sleep). I nearly cried with joy when I heard her voice on the other end of the line. It was simply beautiful to hear at that moment. Those calls were a sort of lifeline. Especially when things got tense inside the hab and there was no outlet. I may not have sounded thankful while I was on the phone, but I can tell you that it kept me somewhat stable and I was happy when they occurred.

Other than the scheduled work, we did a lot to stay awake. Listening to music. Watching a lot of Netflix and movies together (Lost in Space, Europa Report, Moon, Top Gun, Abyss). I watched a lot of good and bad sci-fi on my own (Thor: Ragnorok, Anon). We created an art wall that we filled with doodles and bad haikus. We played a lot of games like Scrabble, Bananagrams, Rummy and Scattergories. We even played a combination of Taboo, Pictionary and Charades a couple of nights.

On Saturdays, we dressed up and had dinner together at the largest table in the habitat. We called it Sophisticated Saturdays. We dressed up as best as we could (nice ties or vests with button up shirts, dresses, traditional cultural attire…whatever we had that seemed “nice”) and pretended to be at a fancy restaurant, Chez HERA. Reservations for 4. Very exclusive. Best table in the house. We listened to music and had adult conversations. It was nice.

Finally, the 45 days was up. And to be honest, it didn’t feel like 45 days. It went by a lot faster than I’d expected. That’s not to say I wasn’t ready to get out of there. But it hadn’t felt like it had been terribly long. As with the ingress, the egress ceremony was also streamed live on Facebook, so I won’t go into that.

Closing thoughts

Would I do it again? Perhaps. Yes. But maybe not with the same crew. I got along with most of them for the most part, and I’d like to think the reverse was also mostly true. However, there were definitely some personality conflicts at times, as would be expected with any small group of people locked together in such tight quarters. There were no major blowouts. No major fights. But there was definitely some tension at times. Certainly, there were differences of opinion about mission priorities. It was a common and repeated theme throughout the 45 days. But we got along well enough to accomplish most of the major goals.

As an analog, HERA is a bit different from some others like HiSEAS. During the HERA mission, I was aware that mission control was close by. For HiSEAS, I suspect that being on the side of a volcano 2-3 hours away from civilization for 8-12 months would have just felt different. But at the same time, I’m pretty sure that HiSEAS doesn’t have the personnel support from JSC that HERA had. Of course, HiSEAS is also going through a review now since it appears that the last one resulted in someone possibly getting electrocuted so that may no longer be an option. Maybe the Russians…

Would I do a real mission to the moon or Mars or an asteroid? Yes. Of course. And now, I’m pretty sure I can do it despite the difficulties.

But in space, I wouldn’t have my dog. [sigh.]


Bio for Dr. Michael Pecaut

I am currently a Professor within the Division of Biomedical Engineering Sciences (BMES), Department of Basic Sciences at Loma Linda University (LLU) .

Over the course of my research career, I have evaluated the impact of various components of the spaceflight environment on the immune system. As a graduate student, I focused primarily on the gravitational load and physiological/psychological stress components of this environment. Later, as a post-doc and independent investigator, my focus broadened to include the low-dose/low-dose-rate radiation inherent to solar particle events and galactic cosmic rays.

My background as a biomedical engineer gives me a unique perspective in understanding how these physical phenomena can directly influence biological endpoints. All told, I have supported experiments flown on thirteen separate space shuttle missions (including immune studies flown on STS-77, -108, -118, and -135) and 1 ISS mission. During this period, I established strong working relationships with the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), the Ames Research Center (ARC), and the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

I believe an integrative, “immuno-physiological” approach is crucial in spaceflight biology. Given the complex and systemic nature of these responses, it should not be surprising that my work has moved toward transcriptomics, metabolomics and pathway analysis. 

My next ISS study focuses on the antibody response and immunological memory. This study is currently scheduled to fly in April of 2019.

2 replies »

    • Thanks. Not quite up to your journalism standards, I’m sure. 🙂 But it was an interesting experience and a few people wanted to know more about it.