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Crew begins analog mission to asteroid

February 3, 2016

During a simulated mission to asteroid 1620 Geographos, four crew members will conduct a geological survey and use training systems aboard a modular three-story habitat to prepare for spacewalk excursions on the asteroid’s surface.  


Michelle Courtney, Leah Honey, LaShelle Spencer and Julielynn Wong initiated the Human Research Program’s third research campaign using the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) on Jan. 26. 


“It’s exciting to contribute to the research effort needed to ensure the health and well-being of future human space explorers,” said Courtney, an aerospace engineer at Virgin Galactic. “This particular crew brings together a diverse team of talented people: two engineers, a scientist and a medical doctor, originating from the United States, Canada and Australia, from within the NASA community and the wider aerospace industry. For me personally, it also represents an opportunity to experience a small slice of what astronaut candidates go through on their journeys into space.” 

The goal of the mission is to conduct scientific research across disciplines that are key components of the Human Research Program’s portfolio. The mission includes 19 individual investigations from Behavioral Health and Performance, Human Health and Countermeasures, Space Human Factors and Habitability and Exploration Medical Capability, as well as three studies sponsored by the German Aerospace Center.  

“For HERA Campaign 3, we have a very broad range of investigations going on,” said Lisa Spence, a NASA flight analogs project manager. “The majority of them address factors related to behavioral health and performance — factors such as the quality of sleep, mood states, stressors and stress reactions, task performance under different types of stress conditions, and behaviors associated with working together as a team versus working as an individual on certain types of tasks. We also have studies associated with a variety of wearable devices for measuring physiological variables, and studies on a new type of food system for long-duration missions. Ultimately, what we learn through these studies will help inform decisions about exploration spacecraft systems, technologies and supports for our crew members.” 

The HERA habitat at Johnson Space Center in Houston provides a platform as a ground-based flight and exploration analog in which to accomplish Human Research Program objectives. The habitat provides researchers with environments that emulate spaceflight conditions. Scientific studies conducted in the habitat will help researchers gain a better understanding of the negative impacts of spaceflight on the human body and find ways to develop countermeasures for them. 

“We are well aware that the human body is affected by the microgravity environment,” Spence said. “But spaceflight also has other effects on the physiological and psychological health of astronauts. The use of analog environments like the HERA allows us to study some of those impacts and evaluate different tools or protocols to help mitigate those effects. One of the benefits of the analog environment is that we can conduct a study on a larger number of people; a larger ‘n’ allows the researchers to determine whether an observation can be generalized to the whole population. Another benefit is that we can conduct a large number of research studies on our test subjects simultaneously. Although we’d love to conduct all of this research on our International Space Station astronauts, doing so would mean that they would have very little time to do any of the other critical experiments or operations aboard the station.”  


In addition to increasing the mission duration from 14 to 30 days, new capabilities have been added to HERA for Campaign 3, including a virtual reality interface to enable two crew members to conduct spacewalks. With improved HERA system avionics, simulated life support systems, as well as a robust suite of science experiments, more dependable results are achieved on simulated mission elements. 

After the current mission concludes Feb. 24, Campaign 3 will continue with an additional three 30-day asteroid exploration missions throughout 2016. 


The Human Research Program developed as a result of NASA’s refocus of the space program on exploration in early 2004. The program uses research findings to develop countermeasures to lessen the effects of the space environment on the health and performance of humans working in that setting. With the goal of traveling to Mars and beyond, the program is using ground research facilities, the International Space Station, and analog environments to develop these countermeasures and to further research areas that are unique to deep space. 

For more on the HERA, click here.

For more on NASA’s Human Research Program, click here.


The HERA Campaign 3 crew standing outside the habitat that will be their home for 30 days. Image Credit: NASA


Bill Jeffs

NASA Johnson Space Center