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MSU doctoral student completes 45-day space simulation

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BOZEMAN – After 45 days near the surface of Phobos, one of two Martian moons, Madelyne Willis and her crew mates couldn’t stop dreaming of what they would eat when they returned to Earth.

Nachos, jalapenos on the side, was the food of choice when they were Earth-side.

But Willis and her three crew mates never actually left the pull of Earth’s gravity. They were participants in one of NASA’s experiments that models what a space mission would be like, complete with communication delays and dehydrated food.

The Human Exploration Research Analog, or HERA, is one of a handful of NASA projects that study team cohesion and isolation to better understand how astronauts might fare on potential space missions.

With a couple weeks of training beforehand, the group completed their time in the capsule the last week in November 2021.

Willis, who is a doctoral candidate in MSU’s ecology and environmental science program, said she first heard of the project from a friend who had participated in a similar project a few years ago.

“Overall, the chance to contribute to space exploration, it was a cool opportunity to do that. On a personal level, it tested my own limits and was a fun, new challenge,” Willis told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Willis is no stranger to testing her own limits either. In the past, she’s been a part of small teams conducting research and fieldwork in Greenland and Antarctica.

Willis credits her previous experiences with not only helping her get accepted into the NASA experiment but to also preparing her with the skills to navigate a new situation like that.

“There was not a direct overlap in the research but my past research experience did prove to be helpful when I was inside HERA,” she said.

The space capsule the group lived in was used to “simulate isolation, confinement and distance from earth that future astronauts on space exploration missions might experience,” Willis said.

Life in the capsule in Texas was on a fairly well defined schedule, Willis said. The group would wake up at the same time each morning, have maintenance tasks to complete, eat breakfast together and either do strength training or cardio on a bicycle six days out of the week.

The crew would also need to accomplish a handful of assigned mission tasks each day.

Willis said while she never really forgot she was still on Earth, there were moments where they would get caught up in the simulation.

“We tried as much as we could to get absorbed into that belief,” she said. “We tried to be ourselves thinking that we really are on this mission to one of the moons of Mars.”

In some ways, Willis said her experience in the simulation was the opposite of what many experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite any similarities in isolation.

“We had a lot of quality time face-to-face with a small group of people as opposed to a lot of distanced communication with a lot of people,” Willis said.

Willis and her other three crew members all got along, too.

“Our sense of humor was really similar and it was something that we bonded over. Even in moments of stress or if we were feeling down, there were ways to be supportive of each other and cheer each other up,” Willis said.

Each member of the experiment had a set amount of luggage they could bring inside the capsule. Many of the members brought items that could be shared with each other, including a set of watercolor paints, movies, books and games to help pass the time.

Willis said she was glad she brought photos of her family and friends, too.

Once a week, crew members would be able to make personal calls to family and friends. But to simulate what it would be like on a real mission to Phobos, communications were on a delay, increasing the further away the capsule theoretically got from Earth.

At the conclusion of the 45-day experience, Willis said there were a lot of mixed emotions. While she was relieved to have access to fresh food, communicate with her friends and family and go wherever she wanted, it was hard to leave the other three crew members.

“When you spend that much time with a small group of people, it takes some adjusting when they’re not around,” she said. “It was strange to get back to a hotel room and have a room to myself.”

Next on Willis’ horizon is completing her doctorate at MSU and hopefully pursing new experiences like the one with NASA.

“I feel like following these cool opportunities lead to more opportunities to do this,” she said.

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