May 21, 2024
Space UAE

NASA Begins 45-Day Simulated Mars Mission

With 4 Volunteer Crew Members

A new crew of four volunteers has begun a 45-day simulated mission to Mars within a sealed habitat at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.

The crew, comprising Jason Lee, Stephanie Navarro, Shareef Al Romaithi, and Piyumi Wijesekara, entered the Human Exploration Research Analogue (HERA) facility at 2am (UAE time) on May 11, 2024.

Over the next 45 days, the four-member crew will live and work like astronauts. They will conclude their mission and exit the HERA facility on June 24, 2024. Jose Baca and Brandon Kent are alternate crew members for the analogue mission.

HERA is a 650-square-foot habitat split among two floors and a loft, designed to serve as an analogue facility for isolation, confinement, and remote conditions in exploration scenarios. HERA simulates conditions similar to those experienced during long-duration space missions and enables scientists to study how humans adapt to isolation, confinement, and remote situations.

HERA crew members engage in scientific research and operational tasks, including virtual reality simulations of walking on the surface of Mars and managing communication delays with a mission control centre back on Earth.

Second Group

This crew marks the second group of volunteers to participate in a simulated Mars mission in HERA this year. Following this mission, two additional missions are scheduled for 2024, with the final HERA crew slated to wrap up in December 2024.

In a groundbreaking development, Shareef Al Romaithi, a pilot with extensive experience in the airline industry, hails from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and is participating in the HERA mission through a partnership between NASA and the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).

The 4 volunteer crew members entered the HERA facility on May 11, 2024. Credit: NASA/MBRSC

The analogue studies conducted in HERA are part of NASA’s broader efforts to prepare for future human missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

The agency’s Human Research Programme is conducting 18 human health studies during the mission to evaluate crew members’ physiological, behavioural, and psychological responses in conditions akin to those expected during space exploration missions.

Seven of these studies are collaborations with the MBRSC and the European Space Agency, further enhancing international cooperation in space exploration.

Primary Crew:

Jason Lee

Jason Lee is an associate professor-in-residence at the University of Connecticut’s School of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Manufacturing Engineering. He holds degrees from prestigious institutions and has conducted research in high-strength nanofibers. He has expertise in thermal fluids, manufacturing, and sports engineering.

Stephanie Navarro

Stephanie Navarro is a space operations officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and a senior systems engineer at Northrop Grumman. With a background in physics and extensive military service, she brings a wealth of experience to the mission.

Shareef Al Romaithi

Shareef Al Romaithi, a seasoned pilot from the UAE, commands Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft. He holds multiple degrees in aerospace engineering and aviation management and is recognised as the world’s youngest graduate to attain a doctorate in aviation.

Piyumi Wijesekara

Piyumi Wijesekara, a NASA Ames Research Centre postdoctoral research scientist, specialises in radiation biophysics and tissue engineering. Her research focuses on understanding the effects of spaceflight stressors on the human respiratory system.

Alternate Crew:

Jose Baca

Jose Baca, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, specialises in designing modular systems and coordinating multi-robot teams. He actively promotes STEM activities for students and is passionate about exploring new cultures and cuisines.

Brandon Kent

Brandon Kent, a medical director in the pharmaceutical industry, has expertise in oncology and biomedical research. He focuses on clinical trial data disclosure and medical education and brings a diverse skill set to the analogue mission.

In addition to HERA, NASA’s Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) simulates year-long stays on the surface of Mars. It complements HERA by assessing human health and performance in isolated and confined conditions. These missions contribute valuable data to NASA’s preparations for future human missions to deep space destinations.

UAE involvement

Shareef Al Romaithi’s participation in the latest NASA-led HERA crew analogue mission is part of the second analogue study under the UAE Analogue Programme, marking a significant milestone in the UAE’s space exploration endeavours.

Salem Humaid Al Marri, Director General of MBRSC, stated: “Through these detailed Earth-based simulations in collaboration with our partners at NASA, we are meticulously preparing our cadres for the vast challenges of deep space exploration, establishing the UAE and the broader Arab world as pivotal players in the international space community and inspiring generations to expand the horizons of human potential.”

Featured image: (L-R) Jason Lee, Stephanie Navarro, Shareef Al Romaithi, and Piyumi Wijesekara. Credit: NASA

    Arnold Pinto

    Arnold Pinto

    Arnold Pinto is an award-winning journalist with wide-ranging Middle East and Asia experience in the tech, aerospace, defence, luxury watchmaking, business, automotive, and fashion verticals. He is passionate about conserving endangered native wildlife globally. Arnold enjoys 4x4 off-roading, camping and exploring global destinations off the beaten track.
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