The imitation of Space. An interview with three members from analog missions.

The featured image was created through the Artificial Intelligence “NightCafe”. The keywords were: Crowd Analog Mission Ethics Space Station Astronauts.

When we talk about Space, we are not talking about Space. We talk, more generally, about a certain idea of Space. It’s for this reason that in the course of time every actor (social, political, historical) has asserted rights over Space. This tells us how ruling a domain of such magnitude satisfies a certain desire for perfection, only then subjected to contemporary laws (a certain nation’s economy, its politics, its history).

Here, however, is the paradox of Space. Nothing can domesticate it, neither attempts at civilization, nor non-terrestrial architectures, nor the growth of edible organisms in space stations. Space, to be such, must be at least somewhat inhospitable. This stated inhospitality of Space is what allows a careful study of its systems. But its systems are also the systems of the astronauts that make space a destination for investigation.

Analog Missions, in this sense, reproduce that hostility from the perspective of the science experiment.  As reported by the NASA page devoted to Analog Missions, they include a whole plethora of models. Without Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, for example, we are exposed to more subtle radiation. Exposure to radiation can increase the risk of cancer and also damage the central nervous system. New gravity models encountered when on a mission to Mars can affect spatial orientation, head-eye coordination, balance, rotation and may cause motion sickness.

But there are also ethical issues. Behavioral problems between groups of people living in small spaces for long periods of time, no matter how well planned, are inevitable. This can cause mood reduction, cognitive, psychological or social, sleep problems, depression, fatigue. The more close and isolated people are, the more likely they are to have behavioral or cognitive issues.

The environment inside spacecraft plays an important role in the daily life of astronauts. Germs can change the quality of space, and microorganisms that live on your body are easily transmitted from person to person in a closed environment such as an airport. Every inch of living space should be carefully designed to ensure adequate heat, light, noise levels and space. Simulation and analogy in this case return a spectrum of ultra-terrestrial laboratory experiences, at the end of which is deriving some knowledge for the non-analog mission.

From a practical standpoint, analog missions are multi-disciplinary activities that take place in environments representative of the actual mission, allowing space agencies and private entities to test a whole clutch of new technologies, from robotics prototypes to communications systems. Not only NASA, in fact. We ourselves are partnering with Asclepios, an association to develop Analog Mission for students.

But more importantly, analog missions allow those entities to test the human, to say a certain ethical life that is always balanced between a crew-like hierarchy and a well-executed contractualism. In this sense, Analog Missions come in the form of an imitation of life. If all feelings are authentic, if all emergencies (however artificial) are authentic, and if the ethics are authentic, only then can the mission be said to be accomplished.

Precisely because an Analog Mission is not only about tests and experiments, we interviewed analog astronauts about their experiences.

Here are the profiles of the astronauts.

Dr. Nadia Maarouf (NM) from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. She is a crew Medical Officer for an upcoming mission at the Mars Desert Research Station, the biggest Mars surface simulation of the Planet.

Benjamin Pothier (BP) is a French Photographer, an Analog Astronaut and a nominated expert in Isolated Confined and Extreme (I.C.E) Environments for the Human Space Flight Committee of the International Astronautical Federation (2020-2023).

Mr. Mounir Alafrangy (MA) is the Commercial Innovation Manager & Technology Lead for the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory. He has a MS in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from The George Washington University.

What is the sensation of being in an analog mission in a few, topical, words?

NM: Exploration, extreme environment, extravehicular activity (EVA). Habitat: Lunar or Martian. Space suit, science, experimentation, and discovery, isolation. Limited recourses: food, water, power, etc. Survival, crew cohesion, collaboration, and camaraderie, mission control.

BP: Group, group cohesion, isolation, safety, simulation, EVA, spacesuit.

MA: Human factors, compartmentalizing tasks, stress mitigation, regimented sleep/awareness cycles, metal, alert, team cohesion tasks, limited supplies, Mission Control Center (MCC), family, self-awareness, science.

Could you explain to us how you conducted your day?

NM: As a medical scientist on my Lunar mission, I served as the mission co-commander (Blue Team Lead). This required managing my team, making sure mission objectives are met, ensuring crew safety and wellness, and managing recourses, and habitat maintenance. We had a very strict, predetermined schedule that we had to adhere to.

BP: We usually have daily tasks, today I will have to take care of the dinner, or preparing the EVA suits, and clean the toilet. As an expedition documentarian, I tend to wake up early to prepare for my filming (set up time-lapse cameras to catch the sunrise or sunset, etc…). Then generally we have at least one EVA during the day (morning or afternoon). I am usually here to help the researcher to conduct their field research. I also take notes that I anonymize, for my own research about the behavior of my crewmates, and finally, we have socializing times during lunch and dinners that are quite important for the crew bounding and overall psychological wellbeing of the crew.

MA: The day started at 7 am with a song that one of the crew members picked. We all got to build this playlist before the mission. The music was loud enough that there was no sleeping in (not that MCC would allow it)! We then had a few minutes before we needed to do all the sensors on our bodies. Breakfast was next, then our Daily Planning Conference (DPC) where we contact MCC to talk about the day and tasks ahead.

Each of us would then conduct his tasks, sometimes two crew members worked together to fulfill an objective, and we also enjoyed some White Space(time to read, watch a video, draw, play the guitar, etc…). We would cook lunch and dinner together and clean up afterward, every day. Toward the end of the day, we would watch a movie or a show on the second level of the habitat before we call it a night at 11 pm. We would upload all the data from the devices and try to get some sleep.

Credits Dr. Nadia Maarouf.

How did you manage days of frustration and stress? 

NM: I grew up practicing martial arts and I competed at the international level. This sport equipped me with a strong psychological “immune system”. In stressful situations, I practice self-control and mindfulness. It is important to recognize and acknowledge the stress and frustration, dissect the cause, and construct a plan to prevent it moving forward. However, during a long mission, it is critical to communicate and bring awareness to such feelings to the crew as your only support system. In general, there is not much that a long run or an intense HIIT workout can’t fix: exercise helps me clear my mind and push through stressful situations!

BP: I don’t experience frustration and only very low stress level during those types of missions because I have participate to many of them in the past 10 years. I have practiced meditation for years and I also tend to de-escalate any possible conflicts with my crew mates due to my training.

MA: After the first 4 weeks, stress became noticeable in crew members’ actions and their faces. It didn’t take much additional stress to see signs of the isolation and confinement’s impact on humans. Again, our tasks were very regimented, e.g., we followed a specific workout routine for a specific timeframe, food consisted of more-or-less the same flavors, etc…, which removed the sense of creativity, control over one’s daily life, and identity.

One of the lessons I walked out with from this experience was to compartmentalize tasks, events, and conflict. It is easy for us to make mistakes at a task and have that frustration carry on to the next 3 tasks. This could easily create a snowball effect. I found it significantly more productive to make a mental note to revisit my actions that led to an error in a specific task for later in the evening when all the events had been completed

What technologies have you tested on the mission?

NM: MDRS (as a principal investigator)

1) Smart wearable garments for advanced quantitative monitoring of ambulatory vital signs.

2) Quantitative stress hormone kits.

BP: I have mainly experimented with a handheld 3D scanner, a kind of LIDAR, in order to produce a high-fidelity 3D model of our station for future research.

MA: SAFER, RoBOT, Lunar Lander, VR systems, and more.

Credits Benjamin Pothier.

The new great destination is Mars. What will be the main psychophysical criticalities during the journey and how can they be tested through an analog?

NM: On missions beyond low earth orbit, many health issues will arise regardless of the astronauts’ health. This includes cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, ocular, and oncological. These conditions will further exacerbate the already established neurobehavioral issues (anxiety, fatigue, sub-optimal performance, etc.). Genetic testing for the predisposition to certain diseases might become necessary for selection, although there are various ethical concerns associated with it. More advanced and extensive psychometric assessments to accurately determine and predict non-observable behavioral variables might also help, but this is not without limitations and challenges.

The bottom line is that the selection committee must pick the crew that will continue to work well together when conflict arises, and things will get inevitably hard.

What I learned from my experience so far as an analog astronaut (and in life): you can teach any keen person any technical skill, but you can never teach them sincere empathy, kindness, a decent sense of humor, and selflessness when nobody is watching.

BP: The main one which is quite challenging to simulate is the fact that the first crew will more or less lose sight of our planet, and space psychologists are still wondering how the team will react to this new normal. Other psychological criticalities like possible conflicts between crew members will be in fact probably avoided upstream through a careful crew selection. Of course, isolation will be tough, due also to the fact that Earth-to-Mars communication will be difficult ( there will be a delay between 5 to 20 minutes between questions from Earth and answer from Mars and back) and I think the main psychological criticalities will be the feeling of being so far away from home, possible boredom and maybe depression.

MA: Group dynamics can only be maximized after the crew has spent a significant amount of time training together, meeting each other’s families, seeing each other’s behaviors during stressful situations, and more. Team cohesion is only second to crew health, without it you can expect a mission failure. People change under stress which will lead to conflict. That is fine, it is human nature to argue and even snap at one another, but how quickly the team becomes a single unit again, is trainable.

This article is part of our project devoted to Human Performances in Space. It started with an interview with researcher Funmilola Oluwafemi.

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