If you’re fascinated by the idea of humans traveling through space and curious about how that all works, you’ve come to the right place.
“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Texas, home for NASA’s astronauts and Mission Control Center. Listen to the brightest minds of America’s space agency – astronauts, engineers, scientists and program leaders – discuss exciting topics in engineering, science and technology, sharing their personal stories and expertise on every aspect of human spaceflight. Learn more about how the work being done will help send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars in the Artemis program.
On Episode 170, astronaut Serena Aunon-Chancellor and Johnson Space Center scientists Sharmila Watkins and Jennifer Fogarty share what it takes for humans to live on a multi-year journey to, on, and from Mars on this seventh episode of our Mars Monthly series, where we drop a new episode about a human mission to Mars on the first Friday of every month. This episode was recorded on August 14, 2020.
Check out the Houston, We Have a Podcast Mars Page for more Mars Monthly episodes.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 170, “Live Like a Martian.” I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. We are continuing our “Mars Monthly” series on first Fridays. Last month, we chatted with Dr. Grace Douglas to discuss how we might address food and nutrition, not only on our way to the red planet but once we get there. And how we’re going to have meal storage and prep and maybe even grow our own food, all on the table, pun intended. While planning for this kind of trip. Which leads us into our episode this month. If you think about it, a multi-year journey to and from Mars, as we are discovering in this series, will differ quite a bit from our trips to low-Earth orbit. But the same human needs apply for a crew headed to the surface of Mars. Transportation, supplies, sleep, food, staying mentally and physically healthy, like connecting with family and friends and getting exercise among other things. We have learned a lot to prepare us for living on Mars. From research on Earth and on long duration missions aboard the International Space Station. And we continue to learn how to keep our spacefarers safe and health every day. As humans explore further from Earth, medical systems and counter measures and planning for the overall health and wellness of our brave explorers headed to and living on Mars are some major topics. Dr. Sharmila Watkins, medical officer in the Human Health and Performance Directorate, Dr. Jennifer Fogarty, chief scientist of the Human Research Program, and NASA astronaut and medical doctor Serena Aunon-Chancellor are tackling this topic here at NASA Johnson Space Center. So here we go. How humans from Earth will live like Martians with Sharmi, Jenn, and Serena. Enjoy.
Host: Sharmi, Jenn, and Serena, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast today. What a wonderful trio of guests that we have to tackle this topic. I think it’s one of the more exciting in our series of this Mars Monthly series that we’re doing, “Living Like a Martian.” And who better to talk about living like a Martian than folks who are so engrained in some of the exploration research here and know more about the human body and how — what happens to it in space than a lot of other people. So, I’m very happy to have you on. We have three very special guests. So, we’re going to go through each of your backgrounds. It seems like, just talking to you a little bit beforehand, you’ve all known each other a long time, you all have very similar backgrounds. So, having your perspective and your joint knowledge is going to be very interesting. Sharmi Watkins, let’s start with a little bit about yourself.
Sharmi Watkins:Sure. Thanks for having us. So, I have known I was interested in space medicine since I was about 15 years old. I grew up watching my dad, who is a family physician, and my uncle, who’s an aerospace engineer, and I was interested in aspects of both of their jobs. And then in high school, I found out that there was this career path that was the intersection of aerospace engineering and medicine. And I knew that was the path for me. And so, from there, I went on to get my bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT. From there, I got my Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Texas medical branch and my Master of Public Health degree. And then like Serena, I did residencies in combined aerospace and internal medicine. So, after residency, I was hired by NASA as a contractor. And I started in the exploration medical capability element of the Human Research Program working with Jenn. And what we did there was plan for exploration missions developing the medical capabilities that we’ll need to be successful on those missions. I did that for about five years and then I decided I wanted to be an operational flight surgeon. And so, I trained to become an ISS certified surgeon. I worked with the Human Research Program for a few years as their program clinician. And then later, I worked with SpaceX as a Subject Matter Expert. And then I started working within the Human Health and Performance Directorate as the lead integrator for exploration activities. But the most exciting job I had lately is I was the surgeon for Christina Koch’s 11-month mission to the ISS, which she launched in March of 2019 and she returned in February of this year. And since she’s been back, I have been back in my job doing integration for the Human Health and Performance Directorate, as it regards all of our exploration activities from the Moon to Mars.
Host:How about that? And we’re already alluding to the fact, how intertwined, and how you’re all in the same circles. This is wonderful. And it seems like you spent a lot of time at NASA and your career was sort of the foundation of it was you already had an idea that this was something you were passionate about. And just from some of the things you talked about, your career and what you’ve done and what you’ve been a part of, it seems like there’s really no way to get bored. It seems like, you know, you wanted to do something, you were passionate about it, and look at your career so far. You’re exploring all of these different pathways and angles on how to look at what happens to human bodies in space. Why do you love it so much?
Sharmi Watkins: I think for exactly the reason you just said. There is never a dull day, there is no way to get bored with the job that I have. I am able to explore different programs within NASA’s wide array of programs. So, I’ve had the fortune of supporting the International Space Station, I’ve gotten to see Soyuz launches, I’ve gotten to play with design and development with my colleagues at SpaceX testing the boundaries on what we can do with new vehicles. And now of course, we’re looking forward to the Moon and Mars. So never a dull day, always something engaging to do.
Host:Wonderful and welcome to Houston We Have a Podcast. I’m glad we can have you on.
Sharmi Watkins: Thank you.
Host:Jenn Fogarty, welcome back. We last chatted when we started the series we did on the Human Research Program.
Jenn Fogarty: Yes, it was a great experience, I’ve really enjoyed the podcast and we’re back for more. Yeah, so I have a PhD in medical physiology. I trained in cardiovascular disease. Trying to understand how the human body both manifests disease and can overcome it, interestingly enough. And we can. And so, I’ve always been fascinated with the capability of the human body to adapt and overcome a lot of challenges and obstacles and understand how do you give the body the right resources. I followed a little bit of a circuitous path from bachelor’s degree in New Jersey at a small state school to PhD from Texas A&M at the medical college, really fascinated with extreme environments and human physiology, where I was doing the cardiovascular work, because I always incorporated exercise and challenging the body with different stimuli to see what you could induce it to do. And along came an opportunity to work on a NASA grant. And I became familiar with Human Health and Performance at NASA. And really started to see a path forward. So, I came to work at Johnson Space Center, was given some pretty exciting opportunities to see, as Sharmi said, like the intersection of disciplines. And applying skill sets, very unique in various ways. So was able to work both in the Human Research Program along the way and in space medicine. And kind of bridge the gap between medicine and research. Being a PhD, I didn’t, you know, dive into becoming a flight surgeon as much as I might have wanted to and admire those folks. But I was able to help understand what the research side needed to do to enable spaceflight and maybe where the challenges were that we were seeing. And then also working with the flight surgeon community to translate what that research meant. How do you interpret it and how do you apply it? And work with counter measures. So, I’ve played various different roles in the larger organization. And then I came back to the Human Research Program and became the deputy chief scientist. And along the way, the opportunity came up to become the chief scientist. Then it was a challenge I really relish. And it is quite humbling to receive such a large and diverse portfolio of work that’s trying to enable human space exploration. And a lot of the challenges we’re trying to understand don’t even exist yet. We haven’t even experienced them. And we don’t want the humans who are going to go on that first exploration mission to be the ones to experience it for the first time, right? We want to be able to simulate and to enable the concept of having confidence that we know how to mitigate risk. And Sharmi brought up a really important point, which was prevention. How do we engineer things out, how do we engineer out exposures or vulnerabilities, even at the physiological level? And so a lot of our work goes all the way down into very fundamental mechanistic understanding or all the way up to apply things such as how do we generate load on a, on the musculoskeletal system to keep it in shape, so when people land on Mars, they’re capable of getting out of that vehicle and doing their jobs? So, it’s really, it runs the gamut. It is applied research program and it’s full of a variety of challenges every day that keep us on our toes for sure.
Host:Yeah, and it seems like another one of those roles that you’re just never bored in. And your path has taken you through more research. And it makes me think in the research, you know, there’s a lot I think that we’ve uncovered about how the human body reacts, whether it’s through the research on the International Space Station or through ground analogous. But Jenn, what are some of those — what are some of those driving questions for really getting us to a point where we can start applying some knowledge for learning how to — how to live on Mars? What are some of those driving questions that you and your group are trying to research?
Jenn Fogarty: Yeah, so what we do is take the overarching mission destination, the overall goal, and break it up, kind of decompose it into the various elements of the mission. Because a lot of the challenges that the human body faces has to do with the transition between Earth’s gravity, a time period of microgravity, exposure to partial gravity on the surface, and then a return state in microgravity. While the body’s really good at adapting, it doesn’t necessarily — it’s not necessarily able to accommodate adapting super quickly on the order of hours when we move someone, you know, from a launch perspective from 1 g on Earth to microgravity. So what we try to understand and have tried to mitigate from the risks, go all the way from cardiovascular health and how the body responds and how the heart’s able to function and pump blood to all the organs that need it, and then also moving fluid through your vascular system to make sure that you know, it’s not causing too much of a pressure change in a certain area, we study a lot about the brain and the eye right now, because we do see some pretty unique changes there. And we’re trying to understand what they might mean in the long-term for crew members both during a mission and later on in life. But there’s also — in all aspects of the mission, there’s a performance expectation. Not only do these people have to stay healthy to do the mission, but there’s a level of physicality to it. And a level of cognitive demand. And when your body is being taxed in a variety of different ways, sometimes those systems may not function at a level that you would anticipate. Like even in everyday life, and I think you and I have talked about this during the last podcast. You know, the concept of well if I don’t get a good night’s sleep and I’m dehydrated, how well do I perform the next day? Well the same could be said for crew members on orbit, but then they also have all those additional stressors of being in microgravity, which is a very unique experience for a body that’s been evolved to live in 1 g. You know, and all of our body systems are regulated based on kind of that sensory system that says OK, I know what the push and pull of gravity is and I know how to manage it. Well suddenly, you no longer have that. It’s just a unique environment. And a lot of what we’ve done over the years is not to say that it’s all negative, but it is change. And then you’re trying to understand how does the evidence based around measuring that change indicate will we have a good outcome? Meaning will the crew member we provide adequate rest, nutrition, hydration, and exercise, you know, be able to function at the level the mission requires? The other element is really about the psychological element. Where you’re trying to understand when people are taken out of their normal everyday lives, which is not abnormal for crew members, it’s what they train on, but then put in very stressful circumstances and then are incredibly isolated. How does that weigh on them over time? So, we study a lot about the team composition. So we would use different environments such as Antarctic where people are sequestered in a place where they can’t easily leave in small teams under some pretty challenging circumstances for months at a time to say how does that weigh on the situation and what is the time course of change look like there? Because there is a relationship between the physiological and the psychological and vice versa. We know there’s a neurohumoral connection, your body is releasing various hormones and chemical factors that have an interplay between those two. And that’s part of what we do. And it’s this level of research where we say I don’t have an answer yet for people to apply in that area, but it’s very data hungry. You know? In order to interpret what those changes mean and there’s a lot of individual variability that we have to account for. Each person has kind of a unique way they handle it. Some of it could be at a genetic level, some of it at a physiological level, so we’re also trying to weigh those factors in.
Host:I love your perspective, Jen. I love the breakdown there and then also just your inquisitive nature and all these questions that are just open and things that we have to understand. It’s a wonderful addition I think to this group and Sharmi’s experience in the operations side. Now of course, we do have Serena Aunon-Chancellor, two-time returnee. You’ve been on the podcast to talk about just before your launch to the International Space Station and we got to have a conversation with Gates McFadden too at Comicpalooza for another one of these episodes. So, Serena, welcome back. I’m happy to have you on.
Serena Aunon-Chancellor:Hey, thanks, Gary. I almost forget about that conversation with Beverly Crusher from the Starship Enterprise, but yeah, that was fun.
Host:Good. So, tell me about your perspective. You have the unique perspective of not only being a medical doctor and being in the same circles as Sharmi and Jenn, but a lot of these questions that Jenn was just bringing up about what’s happening to the human body, and especially in space and what we know on the International Space Station, you got to experience that yourself.
Serena Aunon-Chancellor:Yeah, absolutely. And I will say that that question you asked Jenn was probably a question that deserves five days of discussion and she definitely did it in about 6.2 minutes, so I am impressed. Yeah, you know, I think after being up there for 197 days you learn what’s important. And as Jenn said, there’s so much individual variability, not only with the physiologic changes we see with the body, but what’s important behaviorally. And I think what was driven home for me during that long time away, I began to think about hey, if I were on Mars and not on station, what would I be missing? And I’d be missing looking at the Earth. I’d be missing that direct contact with my family or with my friends where I can call them, and it sounded like a cell phone call. Those resupply missions, we get very easily where we got a little bit of fresh fruit and variety in food and — and then I translate that to Mars and I think, oh goodness, are we only going to be eating potatoes? Because if it’s all potatoes, Gary, I don’t know that that’s going to work right now. So, you know, it’s — what I — and Jenn also mentioned the analog environments, which was fantastic. Because I got the chance to take part in a couple of those. One being Antarctica and then one living under the sea. So, it’s sort of these extreme environments where your body is put in situations where you’re extremely isolated and just having to go through harsh conditions. And I did find a tremendous crossover with what I experienced during those sorts of missions and what I needed during station. And for example, you know, how important was exercise? How important was it to be in touch with family? How well did I sleep? And I found that I slept very well during Antarctic missions, which might surprise people. But on station, I slept equally as well. So, I found that my body reacted the same, and so they’re tremendous training environments. But again, thanks for having me on. I’m excited to get through these topics today.
Host:Yeah, me too, absolutely. And I think going back to Jenn’s point, based on what you were saying, Serena, I think what’s fascinating about this conversation is you know, especially from your perspective, Serena, you know, having this personal experience on sleeping and how the body reacts in space station and Antarctica, it’s important to consider, you know, as Jenn was saying, this individual aspect, you know, when it comes to a successful mission on what would be Mars, you know, factoring in this — your data point as one of many data points with a lot of other folks who have done the same thing that you have, Serena.
Serena Aunon-Chancellor: Yeah, absolutely. And I think probably one of the toughest things to do, a lot of engineers and folks want to know exactly how the human body is going to respond to a variety of situations. And that could be to increase temperature inside the cabin after landing or for a two-year mission onboard ISS, and the first thing we ask back is well which human? Because there’s so much individual variability. And that’s the best part about spaceflight and the hardest thing to deal with. You have to make sure that all of those humans, those special humans, are, you know, they’re part of that human system that have to fit into the overall system. And not just survive but thrive. And how do we do that? That’s, again, one of those most challenging things we’re looking at right now in every part as we head back to Mars. Or head to Mars, I should say. We haven’t been there yet.
Host:A very big question. We’ve been talking a lot about the International Space Station. We’ve even brought in some of these ground analogs, Antarctica being one of them. Kind of want to continue that discussion before we go onto Mars. Because it might set a really good foundation of what we know and what we’re continuing to research right now. And just some of that questions that we’re continuing to ask. Sharmi, I know you have a lot of experience as a flight surgeon. Operations, day-to-day aboard the International Space Station. Your perspective on some of the research, some of the things that we’re looking at, regarding the human body and in space. Things like physical health, things like mental health, the training, some of these counter measures that Jenn was previously mentioning. Some of those things that we’re looking at aboard the International Space Station.
Sharmi Watkins: Sure, and I think ISS is one of our very best analogs. Especially as we talk about the transit to and from Mars. So, we have had you know, 20 years of experience. We’ve started to understand more and more about how the human body adapts to microgravity and how it really can thrive in microgravity. As Serena was pointing out, we don’t just want to make this a survivable experience, we want to make it an enjoyable experience where humans can really be as creative as they need to be to learn about Mars and to enjoy the missions. For us, I would say, you know, on ISS, some of the things we have learned about are those first few days in flight and what the human body does to adjust. And I bet Jenn can get into this a bit more. But you know, one of the big things that we deal with immediately in flight is this shift of fluid from the feet toward the head, as we don’t have that gravitational gradient acting on the body fluid. And so those shifts in fluids can cause some you know, maybe less than ideal situations in those first few days. You can be a little stuffy, maybe have a headache. And I bet Serena can tell us a little bit about that as well. But what’s incredible is within a few days, most of our crew members are kind of back to being at a baseline, you know, they don’t have headaches, they’re not as stuffy. They can work and live, you know, just like they would on Earth. And so, I think that’s incredible to know how quickly the body adapts. And there’s lots of things happening behind the scenes in terms of blood volume and changes to immunology that we have had the chance to learn about on the research side. The other things that we learned about are kind of longer term. We’ve learned about how psychosocially our teams adjust and adapt. And we pick some pretty amazing people, like Serena. And so, these folks are not, you know, just individuals up there, they’re a team. And so, we’ve learned how to select people who have really great attitudes toward learning and changing environments and the unpredictability of life on the station. Because you may have one plan for a day, and then you know, maybe there’s a different activity that gets put on your schedule. And you just have to roll with it. So, I’m always amazed by our crew members’ ability to adapt or to go out on extravehicular activities in their spacesuits to do maintenance activities or something unplanned. That ability to adjust and adapt and bring your best game is something that we have learned about over time and we do that by not only understanding how to pick great people, but also how to train them and how to work in that environment. And then I would say counter measures are the other thing. We’ve learned how to deal with the problems that we have detected. So, we’ve learned that you know, in the absence of this gravitational gradient, that bone and muscle might suffer. But we’ve also learned exactly the technologies that we need to maintain the bone strengths and the muscle strengths and the frequency with which we need to do that exercise. And so that is something incredibly powerful that we will take in the future missions is just understanding what we have, what resources we have and technologies we have available to us to deal with those things. And I think Jenn would be able to help us tremendously on this topic, so I’ll ask her what she has to add.
Jenn Fogarty: Yeah, I’m — I think Sharmi you covered it really well. You know, from a research perspective, thinking about how we’re going to apply it, I think you enumerated all the things that we really try to understand, characterize, and you know, the other element was understanding the change over time. You talked about the importance of identifying how the individual might adapt. And it can be a bit disruptive at first. But they come back to a new baseline. We actually have a bunch of different characterization phrases for it where you know, space normal, you know, and people are like what does that look like? And it’s like well, it’s you, it’s just the new version of you. And to relate and give people context. You know, when you go, we live at sea level here near the Johnson Space Center. Sometimes below sea level. And any given day. And then — so you put your flight to go skiing, you go to altitude, that’s a pretty abrupt change for the human body. And some people struggle more than others. And Serena brought up the individual, you know, variability of it. And you have folks who are quick adapters, folks who are slow adapters, and there’s pros and cons to both aspects. It’s not good or bad. It’s just different. And really our job is to understand how to help the people who need the help and when they need it, in terms of the crew members. The other aspect that we focus on to unable living like a Martian during the transit is to be able to translate the counter measures, the testing, and make it doable for the type of constraints we’re going to have when we do the Mars mission. So, Serena brought up, you know, the lack of resupply. And that is really the reality that the mission from Mars is much more autonomous, the most extreme version of autonomy that will exist because of the logistics around orbital mechanics, you know? Well the physics we’re not going to break or bend. And trying to say OK, well if we can’t do exactly what we did on station, how do we make it doable and still achieve the outcomes we desire for the Mars mission? And that’s really where a lot of our current work is. Because we have to artificially create that problem here in low-Earth orbit or on Earth to some degree to really drive that sense of urgency and need. And I often, you know, try to describe to give people kind of the mental image that when you’re going to do a Mars mission, that’s the ultimate in living off the grid. That the concept that that vehicle is not really a vehicle anymore. Because I think it conjures up the idea of you know, a plane or a car and you can stop and get resupply, you can’t. Yeah, this is an exoplanet. It’s on the outbound trip, it’s going to have to have everything those crew members need to enable the best mission possible from a health and performance perspective. And I think Serena mentioned the other phrase is human system. That it’s one of many systems like guidance navigation control, or propulsion, that have to work seamlessly with the vehicle. They’re dependent on each other. So, when you talk about OK, well if you’re going to do exercise, you’re going to consume more oxygen, you’re going to produce more carbon dioxide, by design. We’re going to make you work hard because living in microgravity isn’t very demanding on your body and your body’s going to detrain and when you get to the Mars surface, you need to be fit enough to do the job in a partial gravity field. So, we have to make sure you stay more robust than the microgravity environment needs you to be. So, in the process, we’re going to make you use resources and we’re going to have you produce something in excess that now the vehicle has to consume. It has to clean the air. Well what’s interesting is different technologies allow you to remove the carbon dioxide and they allow you to then make water from it. It takes a process, but we got to work with the engineering community. So now only do we do human research, but our human research intersects with the vehicle and engineering community to say well how do we do this whole life cycle? And then the other aspect is some of the more harsh exposures that we don’t have here on Earth, like the space radiation. It’s a completely different type of exposure. It’s not like the radiation here, we’re trying to understand what that means biologically. And again, a lot of times it’s scary because it’s unknown. But we got to learn a lot more about it. So, we’ve been doing a lot of work to fill in those gaps. But really try to help people understand OK, well now not only do we fill in the gaps and understand from low-Earth orbit, but we have a whole new paradigm we have to accommodate. So, how do we do these stretch goals? How do we enable autonomy still safely and allow the crew to be performance ready?
Host:I love that. There’s so many human health elements to this. And so much that we learned just in your short description, Jenn, of all the different considerations and what we have to think about for a Mars mission. There’s one that Sharmi said that I found interesting and that was the — that was the psychosocial aspect of this. And Serena, this is something that you have personal experience with. It’s the idea of you know, I guess there’s this mental health component but that also, the fact that you’re stuck on this vehicle with the same people for a long period of time. And I think what’s interesting is for the International Space Station, you spend I think somewhere maybe upwards of six months on station. But on a Mars mission, that would be just the beginning. You’re going to be stuck with those people for a lot longer than that. So, some of the things we’ve learned about group dynamics and the mental health of keeping up your performance for that long. For a mission to Mars.
Serena Aunon-Chancellor: Yeah, absolutely. I think what you just talked about was key. And actually, when my crew came back and we usually come up with recommendations about what we thought was important, why we thought we had a successful mission. And one of the — one of our top three was something we called self-care and team care. And these are very basic concepts. Expeditionary teams look at these all the time. But what it breaks down to is you know, you have to understand how your behavior impacts others. And how it can impact the team itself. So in a sense, when you’re on a expeditionary class mission or on station for 200 days, you need to be aware that the things you do, whether it’s you leave your toothbrush floating and you don’t attach it down properly, you don’t take out the trash, because believe me, someone’s got to take out the trash on ISS. It’s not the same way we do it here, but we’ve got to package it up and put it in a special bag. If someone’s not taking care of those small things, then things deteriorate very quickly. And so, we have a lot of — we had a very interesting mission when we were up there. We had a hole in one of our Soyuz vehicles. We had another launch vehicle that aborted on its way up. There were a lot of very stressful events that occurred. And when my crew and I sat and talked about it and said “hey, even with all these stressful things happening, why do we think we’re having such a successful mission?” And a lot of it was the interaction we had between each other. And then we put time in daily to make sure we nurtured ourselves and nurtured each other. And that could be something as simple as hey, I see Drew or Ricky working really late tonight on a project, they seem behind. And even though I am tired, I’m going to go over to them, float over, not walk over, and say “hey, can I put your tools up for you? Can I help you?” Gary, it’s little things like that, it’s please’ s and thank you’ s, it is the small things that keep everybody even keel on a long mission like that. It may sound very simple and very small, but they are highly, highly effective. And they will become even more important as you’re headed towards Mars. Because like you said, it’s going to be a much longer period of time and we’re not going to have the luxury of all this space that we have onboard ISS. Because I think people still think we’re going on this little camping mission on ISS, but man, ISS is big. I did not want for any more space. I didn’t feel claustrophobic or trapped. I could have hung out in the gym for hours and nobody knew where I was. So, it’s one of these things where the game is going to change as we head towards Mars. Just because we are limited by technology.
Host:You know, it’s funny. These things that we’re learning about Mars and how to have a successful Mars mission. It seems like that’s one of those things is those team dynamics, Serena, about just, you know, it’s almost like the training is be a good person and be a team player one-on-one. But it’s that thing that’s so important to living over such a long period of time. And Serena, your comment about how big the space station was and having plenty of space. I think there is a human component to that. Having enough room on your journey. And thinking about that, Sharmi, over to you, for what a transit habitat may look like, a vehicle that’s on its way to Mars. I know just from some of the other episodes we’ve done in this series of our Mars Monthly series, we’ve had chats with some of the folks that are thinking about what that’s going to look like. And it’s not going to be as big as the International Space Station, it’s going to be tight quarters. So, you know, my initial thought is some of these team dynamics that Serena was just talking about is going to be that much more important on the ride to Mars.
Sharmi Watkins: Absolutely. Yeah, we don’t have a really clear idea right now about exactly what this Mars vehicle is going to look like, but we do know what the key components will be. And so, from a health and medical perspective, there are a few things that we definitely need to see on this transit vehicle. And we talked about exercise counter measures being so important. We expect to see exercise capabilities. Now it may not be what we have right now on the International Space Station where we have, you know, essentially advanced resistive exercise device that is a fancy weight machine that functions in the station and that has its own vibration isolation. And it may not involve something like the treadmill that we have. But something that can give a full body workout, both cardiovascular and resistive workout, we expect to see in that transit vehicle. We also, for the reasons that we talked about, this long transit where you need to be a team, but you also need your individual space, we expect to see private crew quarters, and they may be something like we have right now on ISS. And for those who may have seen those, they look something like, you know, phone booth sized. And Serena can maybe talk about what it’s like to live in a space like that, but it’s your space. And I think that’s one of the key things we want to see for the transit vehicles. We need private space where you can get away from the crowd when you need to, send an email privately, possibly talk with your family privately either in real time or record something to send forward. I also know that one of the most important parts of the day is mealtime. And whether or not the food is potatoes or something else, and Grace will kill me because I know Grace did a podcast where you talked extensively about what we’re doing for our food —
Sharmi Watkins: So, it will be good, I think. [Laughter]
Serena Aunon-Chancellor: Thank goodness. [Laughter]
Sharmi Watkins: I got you, Serena, we’re working it. Shared meals is hugely important. And I bet Serena can talk about that. But we try right now in the International Space Station if at all possible, to schedule folks so that they can have their meals together. Because that’s such a part of team building. Sharing your day, talking about what’s going on back home. So, we expect to see a place for folks to share meals. And then medical. You know, we expect to have routine check-ups. As we start planning for Mars, we expect even things like your routine dental visit might happen in that transit vehicle. So, there needs to be a space for us to do those routine exams. And then, in the event that something unexpected happens, we need a space where we can do urgent care level care for patients as well. So those are just some of the parts of what we anticipate seeing. I think a few of the things that are maybe still open are whether or not we’ll do any extravehicular activity in transit. If so, then we also need an air lock. And we’ll need power and logistics and other key components. But I would say from the health and medical perspective, the few things that I just mentioned are the ones that we are most interested in seeing as the designs come to fruition.
Serena Aunon-Chancellor: Hey, Gary. Can I put in a plug for sleep?
Host:Oh, yes. Please do. Sleep is important.
Serena Aunon-Chancellor: Oh, thank goodness. OK. I could probably use a nap right now. But I — because Sharmi did a great job with all those, and I — I can’t believe I’d say I’ve forgotten this, I haven’t forgotten, but sleep on orbit, especially when you have constant operations all the time, is so important. We really try to get all the sleep we could each night. And amazingly, for example, here on Earth, even on the weekends, I’m up at a reasonable hour, 7 am, let’s say. On ISS though, when we would sleep in on Saturday and Sunday, very often we’d sleep in until 11 or noon. And I haven’t done that since I was in college. So, I felt like we were catching up. What I did notice is that when the crew did not have adequate sleep, you know, adequate sleep times or adequate time off, on the weekend, productivity declined. Moods declined. It was that much harder to get work done on a Monday when you didn’t have that Saturday and Sunday off. And you could have been doing something really super cool, but if you weren’t rested, it impacts you. So, I think that’s going to be one of our most difficult challenges, certainly on the way out. Surface stay itself, because you’re trying to get so much done in a really crunched time period, and then finally on your way back. But again, it sounds like something really simple. Sleep is absolutely critical.
Host:You know, I — just from talking to some folks on this podcast and talking about this very thing. Sleep. I know I’ve tried to incorporate getting the right amount of sleep in my own life. I think what’s interesting about this sleep thing is you know, we’ve — like I said, we’ve done a few of these Mars Monthly episodes and we’ve talked about some of the considerations for sleep. And some of those activities that will need to be done in transit to Mars. Serena, I think what’s interesting about your comment is it’s — you know I think one thing, and I think this is pretty common for a lot of long duration astronauts on station, is you guys are so busy. All the time. You have so much work to do. Utilization is at a — it seems to be at a peak right now. Where there’s so much research, so much work to be done, and not enough people to do it. So, you guys are working long hours and doing a lot of things. It begs the question, you know, in transit to Mars, will it be the same? And I know we’ve had some conversations in the past. And some of these past episodes about you know, maybe that transit vehicle will not look like a fully utilized International Space Station, which now is focused completely on research. You know, how do you use your time, how do we use astronauts’ time on the way to Mars? Perhaps instead of it being research, which will still be a part of it, but maybe not as much time, perhaps it will be at the system level where instead of a quick disconnect or a plug and play of a system, there might be a little bit more time to design systems to not have these quick disconnects components and just get into the nitty gritty of these systems. Is that one of those considerations for in transit, Serena? Just some of the things that you’ll be doing and the time that you’ll be working, so that you don’t get in a position where on the weekends, you’re catching up on sleep because you’re working so hard?
Serena Aunon-Chancellor: Yeah. Gary, that’s a great point. I think it’s going to be a work in progress. I don’t think in transit to Mars is going to be exactly like how we do daily ops onboard ISS. People need to realize we have gotten really good and really efficient at getting things done onboard the ISS. Our timeline is marked out to five-minute increments. That’s how good procedures have gotten. That’s how good preventive maintenance tasks have gotten. Communication with the ground. It is real time. We get so much done. So, I think in transit to Mars, it’s going to be a little bit of discovery. I think the crew may take a little bit more of a key role in planning out their daily tasks, along with [Mission Control Center] MCC. Because remember, that time delay is going to be creeping in. So, it’s not going to be as easy to talk with mission control. And with that comes a sense of autonomy. And a sense of you control your schedule. Which I think the crew will appreciate. And besides sleep, Gary, I should have mentioned coffee. Coffee is critical. Do not run out of coffee, do not drink 75% of the coffee on the way to Mars and have nothing on the way back. I will say that was one of the other very highly talked about topics onboard ISS was the types of coffee we had onboard and when was the next shipment coming up.
Host:Wow, how about that. And I know that was — I actually had a conversation about that. We got into it with Grace Douglas just on one of the things, you know, not only nutrition that we got into talking about. But we were talking about variety. And just how important that was. And this seems like Serena, for you, it was quantity, seems to be a consideration. You needed to have enough coffee.
Serena Aunon-Chancellor: Quantity, variety, but what Sharmi said was true, that we really do try and eat together a lot of the time. Mostly, we love each other’s company, but also because we all have different types of food. And so, we’re sharing. And you do get tired of the beef steak that the Americans send up every now and then. So, we like to take advantage of all the different types of Russian food. That’s a big bonus up there.
Host:Very cool. Jenn, I know a little bit before you were talking about some ground analogs. We’re spending a lot of time talking about the International Space Station here, but a lot of the things we’re talking about are team dynamics. And these — the human element. And I know that some of this research extends beyond the International Space Station, we’ve already mentioned Antarctica. And there’s really places all over the world where we can get a better understanding of just what it takes to be a successful team on these long, long missions. Some of the work there, Jenn, for ground analogs?
Jenn Fogarty: Yeah, sure, and yeah, you mentioned a key one. And they’re all very complementary to each other, right. They’re all trying to fill in those very unique niche characteristics that we will not really come together until you do the actual Mars mission and so you use them kind of systematically. We say like, say some of the element, particularly of ISS and the Antarctic is field research. Right, there’s a lot of aspects of the variables you don’t control. There’s a lot of noise coming in when you’re trying to measure something really sensitive. And there’s been all really great examples throughout your conversation with Serena and Sharmi about what real life is. And how it happens operationally. And then when you’re trying to do science, like how do I isolate when I’m trying to understand? And whether it be physiological or psychological or team dynamic, like how do I understand what contributed to the good outcomes and maybe what contributed to the not-good outcomes? And how do we tease them out. So, then we take things into analogs that are a little bit more laboratory like. So, we have a human exploration research analog there at Johnson Space Center. Which runs 45-day missions right now. And we’re increasing that capability, that duration of isolation at the very operationally designed facility. It has, we can manipulate, say, the habitable volume, which you were talking about recently. Like how much room do people need? And if you don’t have adequate space, or if you don’t have adequate privacy at times across a mission of different durations, how does that really impact the individual and then of course the team? Meaning they’re not mutually exclusive. Right? So if someone is — has poor sleep because the noise isn’t properly controlled or they don’t feel comfortable or whatever’s going on with them, well then when they got to go to work and be part of the team, you know, their stress and anxiety will probably get pushed off onto the rest of the team. So, we try to understand those and push and pull of individual versus team and leadership and followership as we know it. Because again, this mission has — as they’ve theorized, has a lot of diversity along the way. The other one is a facility in Europe at the German Aerospace Corp. Known as DLR. And that’s in Cologne, Germany. And that is Envihab and that’s quite an extensive facility that can do isolation confinement. And also, can do environmental chambers while we’re manipulating people posturally to mimic microgravity. So, it has a lot of capability to do what is called head-down bed rest. It also has a short on centrifuge, so we can test other counter measures like artificial gravity. Which is not completely off the table. It comes and it goes. [laughter]—sorry for the pun—but, uh, you know, what you’re trying to do with a lot of the work we do and the evidence we try to develop and listening to Serena and Sharmi, we’re in the background collecting data on what they know works and doesn’t work because we have to be able to go to the table with numbers. Because now it goes down to how do you trade off what is needed more? You know, when we talked about really constrained resources, like well if I take a resistive exercise device, will I have enough capability to have as much food? You know, because really those are the hard decisions that have to be made when you only have so much, you know, launch mass capability. So, it’s an interesting dynamic to take what you, what we take for granted essentially. Access to your refrigerator and your water faucet, and turn them into, we have to know exactly how much water has to be taken on the mission, whether it to be just to hydrate somebody or to rehydrate food, because the other aspect, I’m sure you got to this when you talked to Grace, is how palatable the food is. It isn’t just about enough calories per day, and Serena was pushing on this with a variety of food. Was there has to be an element of I enjoyed it. You know? That I’m not, you know, and I think they’ve portrayed it really well in “The Martian,” like yeah, it’s good to have the potato because you have nothing else. But after a while, choking down that potato is not a trivial task. And we do know whether it be from the Department of Defense or people who have been on exploration missions, if you don’t have the right food, you can completely undermine a mission. You can end it. And you can end people’s lives. So, it becomes a very serious application of saying well, what is the right combination of variety and caloric intake and nutritional composition? And how do we bring it all together, you know, under the conditions of the logistics management that you mentioned? Like we’re not going to resupply. If you forgot something, it’s not going to happen. It won’t be there. You don’t get a second chance. So, we’re very cognizant of using the depths of analogs to tease out all those special vulnerabilities and to start to quantify them. So, we can measure them against each other and have, you know, a cogent argument when you’ve got to make a decision between really two hard things to choose between. And the crew needs to know these things. Like part of it is a sense of being, beings that are thinking and knowing about what’s happening, and playing an active role in the mission, it’s transparency. A lot of times you can deal with something even though it’s hard because you’ve been given information. Because you feel educated about the choice being made. It may not be fun, it may be really challenging, but you have a sense of control if you have the information. And that’s a lot of — when we talk about the psychosocial elements of it, how do you enable to crew to deal with really challenging things? There will be conflict. You can’t avoid it complete — it’s not healthy to try to do that. That’s usually just denial. But if the team runs into disagreement and runs into conflict, they have tools to arbitrate the situation. And they are — they’re not stressed by too much sleep deprivation or poor food, you know. In the background. Those are just stressors, you know, like being hangry is not a joke. You know, in every one of our lives, whether it’s, you know, even at work now, I said I’ve learned more about working at NASA having raised a child and had a toddler because I get it now. Like I was like oh, I don’t remember being raised and being a little kid, but now that I saw my son being raised and being a kid and saw these things happen, when I go to work, I’m like, oh you either need a nap or you need a snack, and then we can come back and do some productive work. But you know — but that’s, we’re all still there. You know, that is the human need. I mean if you don’t meet your basic functions, you’ve got a problem. In a constrained environment, if you’re not prepared to meet those basic needs that might be changing over time, you’re going to have a problem. And exploration in general has shown that over and over again. So, we’re very acutely aware of the specificity of need. But how do you accommodate that when I’ve got to plan ten years ahead of time or we have to plan ten years ahead of time? It’s a little bit of a daunting task. But that’s why you said in the very opening, that’s why we’re here. That’s that challenge that keeps us going. Like we can do this. I think it’s really important to continue to understand what those things are and how we do them. So, you know, the analogs here on Earth have been invaluable. We work with our Russian counterparts at a facility called NEK [a Russian experiment facility] that hosted the Mars520. That’s an unprecedented isolation analog. That really started out a lot of vulnerabilities of humans and a multicultural element, which is most likely the way we’re going to do exploration. So, it’s very, very informative.
Host:You know —
Serena Aunon-Chancellor: Very well said.
Host:I think it’s so incredible just how much this is informing all of, you know, what it takes to live successfully together. And just how important, it really drives home just how important these team dynamics and the, you know, the psychological and the social elements of what makes — what will make a Mars mission successful, just how much that is. Jenn, I think I’m still at that phase where I need a nap and a snack before I go to a meeting. So, I know I still have a lot of growing to do myself.
Jenn Fogarty: No, I don’t think you ever outgrow it. I think that’s the fallacy. You know, like in Europe it’s not uncommon to have your mid-day, they have a huge meal, they get their nap, you know. I don’t think — I think we’ve expected us to grow out of it and that’s probably maybe an unrealistic expectation. So, we force the issue. But you know, the other thing that Serena brought up and I think you brought up was this trip and the way training and work — will be different. And you know, so utilization will be a completely different concept. In terms of you know, a lot of what we’re doing on station, especially for that spin back to Earth, it’s not that it’s not possible, but it’ll look completely different. And what we are worried about over time is making sure the crew has meaningful work. There could be long bouts of a lot of monotony, you know, when you’re talking about this mission, if we don’t plan it properly. And it — and between sensory deprivation from a cognitive standpoint of meaningful work, or the lack of the smell of the grass or the feel of the breeze and you know, the warmth of the sun, those are all important things that we are so accustomed to that we have to find a way to give someone some sense of those things that really were meaningful to them and rejuvenating. When Serena talked about adequate rest, number of minutes of sleep are incredibly important. I just heard a lecture from David Dinges, one of our premier sleep researchers. And no doubt, you know, less than seven hours is bad. Less than six starts to become on the order of catastrophic. We’ve seen that with industrial accidents, not just in spaceflight. But the idea is you also need other things that rejuvenate you. Things that aren’t that work thing. You know, just not being at work isn’t OK. And we’ve seen that actually in the COVID, you know, situation with people. Well yeah, I’m not here, but I’m also not rested. You know, so don’t mistake one for the other. You got to be really clear on what is helping people become restored and able to go back to work and work really hard. And you have to identify what it means for each individual, which we should be able to accommodate by the time we do Mars missions. But it’s such an interesting field that I think we learn a lot about ourselves. But we also learn maybe what we should stop expecting the human to do that’s just unrealistic.
Host:You know, I don’t think it’s — I don’t think it’s very fair that I only get an hour with you guys because I feel like I can go, I can go all day. This is just absolutely fascinating. And so, I’m trying to think about ways to bring it home. And we’ve been talking a lot about — we’ve been talking a lot about the team dynamics. And that’s just one element, really. I mean we’ve really gone through a huge number of topics here on what it takes to make a Mars mission successful. But I guess a good way to end maybe, and Sharmi, I’ll pass it over to you, is some of those things that we don’t know. That we need to spend more time trying to figure out. I know, you know, not to lead into it, but one of the things I know I get a lot of questions and I have a lot of questions myself is just about the radiation environment. It’s very different on the way to Mars, it’s very different on Mars, and then it’s a huge consideration is just how long you’re going to be out in the radiation environment. Just one of those things that’s just a big unknown. And then anything else you want to add about just things we need to learn.
Sharmi Watkins: Sure. So, as we get to Mars, there’s the trip out, and then there’s the surface of Mars, both of which I think are going to pose some challenges. So, we talked about the International Space Station being a really great analog where we have many years of experience. But there are still some things that are happening on the space station that we don’t fully understand. So, Jenn has a huge team within the Human Research Program, I say huge team, but an important team within the Human Research Program looking at something we call SANS, which is Space Adaptation Neuro-ocular Syndrome. Which is a thing that we have discovered, it’s a physiologic change to the structure of the eyes. That can come with some visual changes in flight. That is relatively new to us. And by relatively new, I would say you know, last five to ten years we’ve been starting to understand this process that’s going on with the eyes and what it might mean as we extend our missions beyond the typical six months to now about a year that we’ve seen. So that’s one of the open questions that we need to understand a little bit more about the mechanisms and tease apart why it’s happening. And then figure out whether or not that transit time to Mars would increase the risk of something happening or if it’s going to be similar or if possibly that period of time in partial gravity will mitigate the risk to some effects. So that is one of the things we’re looking at. You mentioned radiation. And we do know quite a bit about the radiation doses, et cetera, in low-Earth orbit, but as you well know, we have Earth’s magnetic field protecting us. And as we move out into the deep space environment, it’s a different type of radiation. And I’m certainly not a radiation expert, so I better be careful not to go too far out on a limb here. But we need to understand more about what that does to human physiology. The analog that we have available to us is we have you know, beams that we can use different electron types and radiation mixes to do small-scale studies. And so, we need to understand how that applies. And then we need to set limits appropriately so that we know how to protect the human from any effects we might see. And so that can be something like shielding in the spacecraft, creating safe havens, or potentially we use something like water as shielding, we often see that in sci-fi, and you know, it could work. Or we create habitats in areas where we might have some radiation protection. So, lots to talk about with radiation, not my area of specialty, but I do think that is one of the challenges that we will, we will address. And we will do that by setting limits and protecting humans from the different types of radiation. Other things that are maybe more specific to partial gravity is we haven’t really done that for a long time, right. We have our lunar experience and we definitely have some precious lessons learned of what it was like for those crews to touch down. But they were in flight, you know, days to a week prior to touching down on the surface of the Moon. So very different place in their adaptation that Jenn and I talked about, in terms of what goes on with the physiology. For the crews that we have that will set foot on the surface of Mars, those folks will have been in a microgravity environment for many months. And so, they’ll be in a different place in their adaptations to microgravity. And so that will likely pose some new challenges. It will be a little like, we think, coming back to Earth where there is a period of time that I bet Serena can share with us what that’s like to readjust to the full 1 g, as we go to Mars, it will be something in between. And so, we’ll need to understand. And it’s a big unknown for us exactly how we will adapt. And we’ll need to plan certain things. Like the first extravehicular activity. We’re going to be really eager to go out and get those boots on the surface of Mars, and so how will we do that? When will it be safe to do that? We have some open questions there. And then one of the things we anticipate for Mars surface phase is that we will want to be outside exploring a lot in our spacesuits. And so, some of the challenges there, we talked about changes in altitude. So, change in pressure. When you go out in a spacesuit, you typically want to do that at a relatively low spacesuit pressure so that you have lots of mobility. So, you’re not working hard against the pressure of the suit. But that change in pressure from maybe we’ll do the transit vehicle something like sea level pressure and percent oxygen, and maybe we will have a habitat that’s at a lower pressure, so it’s closer to the suit pressure, so you have to do less of the pre-breathing of oxygen that we do to prevent something called decompression sickness. And if you want to go out the door a lot, because you want to do lots of activities, the closer those pressures can be, between your habitat and your suit, the better. But we have lots to learn about the best ways to do that, the safest ways to do that. And the protocols around that. So those are some of the open challenges that I see as we get ready for Mars.
Host:Absolutely beautiful. And Serena, I’m going to pass it to you to take us home here. Because we’ve talked a lot about the challenges of a Mars mission. And there just seems to be just so much that we have to figure out. There’s a lot of work. And there’s a lot of effort from all kinds of teams, you three included, just trying to figure out how to do this. But we’re doing it, you know. So, Serena, I want to end on this note. Is why are we doing this? Why are we — why explore with humans deeper into space?
Serena Aunon-Chancellor: You know, it’s a massive question, Gary. I’m really glad you asked it, though, because you look at the group that met here today to talk with you, both of whom I’ve known for so many years, and if I could take a step back in time and look at where we all were when we first started this and met each other, some of us were still in training, we were very junior in our roles, as young women. And we all believe though, that this was the right thing to do. That humans were meant to explore. And that we were meant to lead the way. Especially young women coming up in our fields. And it’s been such an honor to know these two because again, if I could have taken a step back and said hey, 20 years from now, ladies, these are the leadership roles we’re going to be in. Could you have imagined it? I’d say yes. Because I think we all know our potential. And it’s that strength of character and the work ethic and the belief and the drive that we should be out there exploring, and that America should continue to lead the way, that is what drives us. We believe in science, you know, we believe that the younger generation that is constantly looking at us and looking to us for guidance and to be role models, that we always act in their best interests. We act in this country’s best interests to make sure that our space program always pushes forward. You’ll never hear the words “can’t do it,” “can’t do this” from any of us. As Jenn said, we do it, we do it because it’s hard and because we love it. We love every minute of it. So, Gary, I wanted to end with saying that I am deeply honored to know these two women that I have worked side by side and together with for so long. And to me, it’s really special to be able to do a podcast with both of them. And I can’t wait to see what the next — I’m going to say it, 60 years is going to bring, ladies. Because I may be 102, but we’re pushing forward in space exploration.
Host:[Laughter] Wow, Serena, I could not have asked for a better ending. Thank you, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. And Jenn and Sharmi, to you as well. Thank you so much. This was an absolutely fascinating conversation. I hope to have you on again. And thanks for all you do.
Sharmi Watkins: Thank you, Gary.
Jenn Fogarty: Thank you. Pleasure being here. And thank you, Serena. That was beautiful. Appreciate it.
Sharmi Watkins: It was awesome.
Serena Aunon-Chancellor: Love you guys!
Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. What a wonderful conversation we had today with Sharmi, Jenn, and Serena about living like a Martian. Really tackled a lot and I know I definitely could have gone for a lot longer than that. I hope you’ve been really enjoying our Mars Monthly series. We just talked to Dr. Grace Douglas and we got one more coming up next month. If you want to go listen to them in order, we have a website where we’ve been collecting these. It’s our normal webpage, NASA.gov/Johnson/HWHAP, as in Houston We Have a Podcast. But just at the end there, add a /Mars-episodes. And you can see all of our episodes in order. It’s under the Mars Monthly category. We also have a couple other Mars episodes that we’ve done in the past. You can check those out, too. But if you want to start from the beginning, that’s where you can do it. If you want to talk to us at Houston We Have a Podcast, we are on the Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Just use the hashtag #AskNASA on your favorite platform to submit an idea for the show. And just make sure to mention it is for us at Houston We Have A Podcast. This episode was recorded on September 21st, 2020. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Belinda Pulido, Jennifer Hernandez, and Michelle Rucker. The next episode of our Mars Monthly series will drop December 4th, 2020, so stay tuned. Thanks again to Dr. Sharmi Watkins, Dr. Jennifer Fogarty, and Dr. Serena Aunon-Chancellor for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of the show. We’ll be back next week.