From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.
On episode 308, the CHAPEA crew gives an update on how life has been in the simulated Mars habitat for their one-year stay, and a human research expert discusses the virtual reality spacewalks within the analog. This is the second audio log of a monthly series. This episode was recorded on September 11, 2023. Recordings were sent from the CHAPEA crew throughout August 2023.
Host (Gary Jordan): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 308 “Mars Audio Log #2.” I’m Gary Jordan, I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we’re bringing in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight and more. We’re back with another audio log from the CHAPEA crew. CHAPEA, or Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog, is a year-long analog mission in a habitat right here on Earth that is simulating very closely what it would be like to live on Mars. We’re lucky enough to have monthly check-ins with the crew; Commander Kelly Haston; Flight Engineer, Ross Brockwell; Medical Officer, Nathan Jones; and Science Officer Anca Selariu.
Now, as much as we’d like to have live interviews with them, they are simulating what it would be like on Mars. So video interviews, phone conversations, or really any form of communicating with Earth while on the Red Planet will be significantly delayed. Any information sent at the speed of light could take somewhere on the order of three to 23 minutes, one way, depending on relative distance between Earth and Mars as they orbit the Sun. This makes a two-way conversation, very, very difficult. So to meet the needs of fitting in this analog, the crew is recording an audio log based on the questions that we have drafted for them. On this episode, we’ll play the recordings of their second month in the habitat, which is here at the NASA Johnson Space Center, and was recorded in August 2023. We’ll also be bringing on a special guest to learn even more about CHAPEA. You’ll hear a mention of the crew performing EVAs or Extravehicular Activities, or spacewalks.
The crew has two ways of doing this. One is in a sandbox, just like it sounds, a box of simulated Martian soil. The crew gets in a spacesuit and performs tasks. The other is in a virtual reality simulation. On some of our recent conversations with the crew, they mentioned how much of their training went into this specific aspect of the mission. While on this audio log, we’ll hear from Patrick Estep who played an integral role in preparing a Mars-realistic virtual reality environment to help the crew with their tasks. So with that, let’s learn from the CHAPEA crew on how they’re doing, and from Patrick Estep on the CHAPEA Virtual Reality Spacewalk program. Let’s get into it.
Host: First is CHAPEA Mission Commander, Kelly Haston.
Kelly Haston: Hello, my name is Kelly Haston, and I am the commander of CHAPEA Mission 1, based on NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Right now, I’m feeling pretty good, and the crew is actually getting along really great. We’re all surprisingly still feeling pretty happy in our Mars habitat, Alpha Dune, and everybody is keeping busy. Really positive outlooks and we’re having a pretty good time still. We’ve had a lot of activities in the last 50 days that we’ve been in here and a lot of it is focused on EVAs, or Extravehicular Activities. These are some of the most fun things we get to do, where we put on a simulated spacesuit, and we go out into the Martian landscape either using virtual reality or sometimes not, and we get to do specific activities, builds, maintenance, you know, different things. So we have a really a lot of fun there, but we also have a lot of troubleshooting. So what it does is really gives the crew a chance to spend a lot of time troubleshooting. And because of our time delay, we actually have to do a lot of that without a ton of interaction with Mission Control in the way that you’re probably used to seeing if you watch any of the attractions between the ISS or the International Space Station and their mission control, where they have a very short delay, within seconds generally, and they get much more immediate feedback. Although sometimes they ask a question that the scientists have to go away and think about and come back for answers. But for us, it’s always at least, you know, 20, 30 minutes before we hear back and sometimes much longer. So we actually do a great deal of troubleshooting of our problems in real time with each other. And that’s actually been, believe it or not, one of the most fun things.
So an example is that sometimes on EVAs we have to build something. You actually have your mission control or your person inside, the habitat who is guiding you through the steps. And so we do at least have a live camera that can help us sometimes, although it’s not always active, but you know, we do a lot of communicating where we describe what a piece is shaped like and how we think it might fit together. And then the person inside who actually has some instructions for how to build this can walk us through it. So it really ends up being this collaborative effort of the two people outside listening to the person inside guiding them, and then figuring out common language for pieces that we’ve never seen before or have only like an inkling of how they’re actually going to look. And then we manage to actually put things together. And in the end, you know, it really ends up being this really cool process between all of the crew members really helping out to make that happen. So that’s actually one of my favorite parts of EVAs.
Kelly Haston: The other really cool stuff that we get to do, of course, are the virtual reality EVAs. Those are pretty immersive, and they’re really fun. They’re beautiful. So you get like a beautiful Martian landscape and mountains in the distance and, you know, you’re walking along the craters and so forth, sometimes going into the craters or the lava tubes. Those are all just really amazing sort of experiences to have. So you’ll often, you know, comment to your other crew mate that’s outside with you, you know, look at that in the distance, that’s really beautiful, or we’ll take pictures of ourselves out there so that we can really enjoy it afterwards as well. And also report on what we see. So there’s actually a lot of really neat stuff that we get to do outside.
But we have a lot of our life inside as well. We do a lot of testing inside. We do a lot of science inside. You know, we also are asked a lot about the food, and I’m not a fussy eater in general. There’s a few things I don’t like but I can eat them still. This is always shocking to people. I don’t like pizza, but I could eat it. I would always eat it, you know, when I was in grad school, it was the number one free food. So I ate it a lot actually. But in general, we have a really high variety of meals available to us, and we can actually put them together in different ways each night. So we get like the veg separate from the meats and the sides and so forth, so you can actually really create diverse meals for yourself. And they’re all really tasty for the most part. Everybody has a few things that maybe aren’t their favorite. But we also get to do a lot of surveys where we actually report back on how we feel about the food. So there are a few things that really stick out as favorites. Those go pretty fast and we usually try to sort of create equity around who gets the favorite ones. We want to make sure everybody gets a chance. But overall, the food in general is actually really abundant. We have a lot here and it’s also really varied, so I have no problems at all with the food. I do miss potato chips and red wine. But I don’t miss them too much just yet. So that’s probably a good sign.
Kelly Haston: We’ve definitely established a pretty solid routine at this point in the mission. At 50 days we’re settling in. We have a pretty standard way of doing some of the things we do. We’re still experiencing a few new things here and there, but we’re also getting to the point where we’re repeating some things, you know, routinely. And that really allows us to establish our norms, how people like to do things, you know, also just getting to know your crew mates and live with them as well. You start to sort of notice the things that people like to do or the way people like to have things. So if you don’t care as much, you can definitely go for it to be set up in a different way and just roll with it. Or in other cases, if you feel really strongly about something, you might actually, you know, go to bat for being the person that sets that up and sort of is, you know, the goalkeeper for it or the person that takes care of it and keeps it maintained. So we flip those around a fair bit so that nobody gets really bored, but there are also things that certain people really like to do and we tend to sort of like try to fit that into our routine as much as possible. So those things are nice and definitely really settled.
Right now, for free time, there’s a mix of things that we do. So we actually do a fair bit as a crew. I’m not a huge gamer, but the others game a lot. But we all actually tend to like to watch certain shows together. We have a regular rotation of a few different shows that we’re moving through, and we watch those together. So usually, even if you’re not in the room with everybody else, when they put something on, they’ll come and find you and let you know, “oh, you know, we’re putting something on in the rec room. Do you want to come and watch with us?” And so it’s always like, really, really awesome that we’re all kind of on the same page with shows so that we can talk about them and, you know, say which characters we like and which ones we don’t. We also play some games together and do some other stuff like that. Still kind of developing that. And then for my alone time, I definitely spend some time doing some crafts I like to do. My partner gave me a diamond painting, which is kind of like a paint by numbers of Mars, and I’m slowly doing that during the mission as a gift for him when I get out. So spoiler alert to him. I also like to do some other crafts as well, and I’m working towards getting more proficient with my ukulele. So those are the things that I do. And I read a lot. I think all of us are big readers, and so we’re oftentimes with a book. Even when we’re in the common space together, we’ll often be reading. So that’s kind of a really nice thing to do.
We’re going to get some live plants in September, so we’ll actually be able to both supplement our food with plant material or fresh green material, which is going to be amazing, but also we will get to take care of them. And I think that everyone is really excited about that. We also have two birthdays in September coming up, so we’re excited about that. And then for me, I will also in October, celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving and my mother’s birthday, which usually coincides, so some nice celebrations for us to have coming up as a group as well. So that’s it for me here in Mars.
Host: Alright, that was Commander Kelly Haston kicking us off. A few things to note about her experience that we can add some context to. One of the first things she talked about was the EVAs, the Extravehicular Activities. She mentioned that sometimes they’re in VR and sometimes they’re not. We’ll have Patrick Estep later in this episode to add a little bit more context on specifically the VR side. But really, the CHAPEA crew has two different ways of simulating or pretending to do Extravehicular Activities or Martian spacewalks or Marswalks. One of them is in a virtual reality simulator, and the other one is called the “sandbox.” It’s kind of what it sounds like. It’s a dedicated room inside of CHAPEA that makes it seem like they’re walking outside into a sandy Martian landscape. And so they have different ways of doing different tasks in either of these different things.
She also mentioned the interactions for spacewalks, and she mentioned these long delays. I mentioned this at the beginning of our episode here in the very intro. These communication delays don’t just impact the fact that we have to have these audio logs versus real-time conversations. It really impacts every part of what the crew is doing inside CHAPEA. So if you were to look at or view any of our spacewalks that we do now in terms of real-time at the International Space Station, those space-to-ground communications are very active. This is the teams interacting with spacewalkers who are up in low-Earth orbit, 250 miles above our head, and the mission controllers that are here in Houston. And it’s basically a non-delayed conversation that they can work with the people on the ground and the people that are in space.
Host: But for Mars, it’s going to be a little bit different. Those 20 to 30 minutes to hear back that Kelly mentioned, if they have a science question, not being able to get an answer for 20 to 30 minutes, it changes the way and the order that you have to approach a spacewalk. And so they really have to rely just on themselves. They have the spacewalkers outside and then someone on the inside with the papers in front of them reading the procedures and making sure that the crew knows what they’re doing. And so it’s a different way of doing things and an important reason that we have to have this CHAPEA mission.
Another thing that Kelly talked about was the time off and gaming, just to mention that the CHAPEA crew has a number of different things that they can do in their off time. But one of the things that they have are video games while they’re in CHAPEA. They have video games and they have shows, it’s a chance for them to do it anytime during their free time. Lastly, I just wanted to mention, Kelly mentioned doing crafts with her partner. And she mentioned this, if you go back and listen to 295 before they even entered the CHAPEA habitat, she mentioned that one of her personal goals to stay in touch with a significant other, in this case, Kelly’s partner, they were going to do crafts together. So while Kelly was doing crafts inside CHAPEA, her partner would be doing crafts on the quote unquote ground, here on Earth. They would kind of compare notes and talk about each other’s progress. So we may hear a little bit more about Kelly and her progress with her crafts throughout our audio check-ins. So that’s a little bit more about Kelly Haston. Next, we’ll go to CHAPEA mission Flight Engineer, Ross Brockwell.
Ross Brockwell: Hello, this is Ross Brockwell. I’m the flight engineer on CHAPEA Mission 1. A couple questions from Houston We Have a Podcast, I’ll go through ’em. First is just, how am I feeling right now? I’m feeling really good. It’s been a lot of fun. Weeks are flying by, really. I hope it remains that way but it’s, you know, an interesting, exciting project, like we said, and the day to day is that way too. So I’m feeling good still. It’s been great. Some of the highlights, activities, and tasks of the last month. Well, it’s been an interesting month for sure. We’ve had a few really cool EVAs, the Extravehicular Activities. Some of them are out there in the sandbox, some of them are in virtual reality. They’re both really fun. We had a few challenges with our build. The virtual reality is always great. We did some exploring. We had some science instruments to deploy, some communications to realign. So those are always really great.
We’ve had a lot of good times already as a crew. Last month’s been more that, so we’re sharing meals, sharing games, movies, sharing stories and hopes for the future, things like that. So a lot of good conversation too. What are some EVA stories? So aside from what I just told you, all the things where we get to build are really fun. So I don’t know how specific I should be. But in general, the things we have to build are always really challenging and really fun. So the logistics module we got to build. We had a natural resource in-situ resource processing unit we had to build out. It was a lot of fun. In the EVAs, we usually, especially VR, we managed to get some good photos of ourselves. It’s pretty fun with the physics on the Mars environment to experiment with the low gravity.
Ross Brockwell: Have I had any changes in my perception of the food? I would say no. I mean, the food is really good actually. It’s really enjoyable. It’s healthy and it’s tasty and it’s pretty convenient. It’s all prepackaged and ready-made, you know, a few basic steps to prepare it and there you go. They obviously try really hard to make the food satisfying and varied, and we’ve actually managed to create some pretty interesting combinations. Some of the foods take on a new flavor, a new character when you combine them.
How am I getting along with the crew? I think we’re all getting along great. So I’ve mentioned this in our interview before, but we all got pretty tight pretty quickly during the selection process. You know, that’s held up in here. It’s been a lot of fun. We all have pretty complimentary personalities, I think, and manage to have a good time doing things together. And as of yet, it’s hard to imagine us facing any issues we won’t be able to work through with, you know, that sense of comradery and good humor.
Do I find myself in a routine more or less? I would say yes, more or less. Most days are scheduled pretty specifically for us. There’s kind of a pattern to it, so there’s a little bit of a routine, but there are various ways you can approach those recurring tasks and your training and your free time. You know, you can do things so it doesn’t feel monotonous.
How am I spending my free time? So we’ve all been reading a lot. I’ve gone through a few books already. But we have a few games we’ve got in here. We managed to play a lot of ’em. We share TV shows we started watching as a crew, which is pretty fun. So we’ve got a couple of those going. So it’s something to look forward to as a crew, something to enjoy in our free time. I have a handful of things personally that I want to train on and that I want to study. So I’ve got a lot of ways, a couple other fun projects I can use to keep me busy in my downtime.
Ross Brockwell: So what’s coming up in the next month? So this week we have our medical and physical testing, which is not a lot of fun to be honest, but it’s a big part of why we’re in here. So it’s important. So we take it seriously and it’s meaningful. And then we’ll have a few more EVAs in the coming weeks, I’m sure. And in the next month we have a couple of birthdays coming up, so I’m really looking forward to celebrating those as a crew. So everything’s been fun and interesting so far, and I expect and I hope it’ll stay that way throughout the mission. So thanks for these questions. Look forward to more in the near future.
Host: Again, that was Ross Brockwell, the flight engineer. A few things about what Ross mentioned. He again mentioned the Extravehicular Activities that all the crew were performing this month. But one thing that stood out to me was he mentioned something called in-situ resources build. On Mars, there’s this idea called In-Situ Resource Utilization. It’s really using the environment around you to create and generate more stuff. So one of the things that scientists are looking at is what the Martian soil is comprised of. So if you build some sort of hardware that can take advantage of the stuff in the ground, whether that be perchlorates or some other thing that’s in the soil, you can generate rocket fuel or you can turn that with a couple of additives into a wonderful soil for plants. Just different machines that process the soil in such a way that you can actually use it as part of a mission. So I just wanted to add a little bit of what that was.
A little bit about the food. All the crew members are going to be mentioning the food. Just to note that when we think about a Mars mission, they don’t have a grocery store, so they can’t go and pick things up. They’re not going to have regular resupplies of fresh food. So a lot of the food complement that they’re going to be talking about are things that are prepackaged meals ready to eat. So they’ll be talking about things that, you know, come in a package that are either shelf stable, that can be eaten in such a way that they don’t require a ton of preparation.
Host: They talked about scheduling, Ross talked about scheduling. Most days are scheduled, and this is part of what we’ll hear when we talk with Patrick Estep later in today’s podcast, mostly about the VR. But part of the design of CHAPEA is to make sure that the CHAPEA mission design is very much akin to what we can expect for humans to actually undergo on a mission to Mars. And so we can expect those crew days to be jam-packed with science and tasks. So to create a very Mars-realistic environment, the teams, the CHAPEA teams, the flight control teams, have to make sure that their days are packed. And so we can expect them to talk about a lot of the things they’re doing. And those days to be pretty frequent. Later, we’ll hear from Patrick that some of those spacewalks that we were talking about are on the order of six hours long.
Lastly, I just want to make sure that we mentioned the medical and physical testing. Of course, CHAPEA being an analog and a mission for testing what humans will have to undergo, we can expect them to reference these medical and physical tests quite often. We want to make sure that any crew that goes to Mar is in tiptop physical shape. And so they’ll be talking about some exercise that they’re doing, they’ll be just doing regular checkups. And this is very much akin to what we can expect for a Mars crew. Alright, so next up we have the crew Medical Officer, Nathan Jones.
Nathan Jones: Hello, this is Nathan Jones. I’m the medical officer for the CHAPEA Mission 1. First question is, “how are you feeling right now?” I’m actually feeling pretty good. Nothing really to complain about. Haven’t had really any aches or pains for anything. Took a little bit of adjustment to get used to the foods here. Just a whole lot more vegetables and those things than probably I typically eat. And I feel like I have a pretty good diet normally. But yeah, just took a little bit of adjusting for that and then sleeping in a new place. Probably took about a week, but we’ve been doing pretty well since then, or at least I know I have.
The next question is, “tell us about some of the highlights of the activities and tasks of the last month.” So we’ve had a pretty good time on the EVAs. I will say that the suit that we wear is pretty hot, and generally speaking, one of the things we noticed is we come out from them and take them off and they’re covered in the expected dust, which is orange-red in color. But we also noticed that they tend to be caked in and white powder, which is from all the sweat. And most of us, I think probably lose some weight from a little bit of volume loss from the activities that we do when we’re on EVA. So that’s probably one more surprising things as far as that goes. But in general, we have a good time with them. We enjoy them. We actually built quite a few things.
Nathan Jones: Next question is, “any changes in your perception of the food?” I don’t know if there’s any changes. I still haven’t really gotten bored of anything. The things that go to space have lower salt content because you don’t want them to be holding on to fluids anymore when they’re already kind of puffing up and adding fluids up near their face and their head and kind of feeling congested from those things. So most of the foods are lower salt, and we really enjoy it when we get a little bit more salt in our diet, we do have some salt that we can add, most of us aren’t routinely adding it. The other thing that I would say about the foods that I think most of us are missing crunchy things. For instance, I find myself kind of wanting maybe some chips or crackers or that sort of thing, popcorn maybe; these would be the things that I’d probably miss the most other than fresh fruit and vegetables.
Next question is, “how are you getting along with the crew?” I’d say the crew’s actually getting along very well. It’s hard to imagine it’s really getting along any better than we have. Haven’t really been any significant disagreements that I can think of, especially not recently.
The next question is, “do you find yourself in routine more or less?” Yes. I’d say it’s just about like any other lifestyle. There are certain things that are routine and on a day-to-day basis, and there are things that are more of a routine on a month-to-month basis. In other words, we have certain tasks and things that we do every day, and our day looks somewhat similar every day from a standpoint of when we get up, you know, and eat breakfast and then little time in the evening together and then going to bed at the same time every day. But the things we do on a day-to-day basis change quite a bit from the EVAs to maybe fitness testing, which we’re doing this week. Some weeks we’re collecting samples of everything including, you know, saliva, urine, stool, skin swabs, all those. And then other weeks we’re not really collecting any of those things. So those things tend to come on a month-by-month basis. And so there are some routines there on a larger scale too. In general, I haven’t really got to a board of the routines.
Nathan Jones: “How are you spending your free time both alone and with your crew?” is the next question. So a lot of us have done quite a bit of reading. We’ve got some educational materials we’ve used. I myself have, enjoyed playing some guitar. One thing that I’ve been doing is I brought up quite a bit of music with me. I kind of play along to the songs that I’m listening to on my tablet. And I’ve enjoyed kind of learning how to do that just a little bit better. We do have a video game system. We have a large library of videos that we brought with us. And then I know one other personal thing I like to do is I brought a bunch of photos and videos of my family and I, you know, sometimes like to watch those and look at the pictures.
Final question is, “what’s coming up in the next month?” Exercise testing, specimen collection, rock analysis, education, a whole lot of maintenance tasks. And then we’ll have some EVAs as part of it. One of our favorites are the drone and rover activities where we get to collect samples using the assistance of drone and rovers that are offsite. Beyond that, I don’t think there will be really anything new in general. We’re still pretty excited about what’s to come. That’s all the questions they had for me today. Appreciate you taking time to listen in for my comments.
Host: So again, that was Nathan Jones, the crew medical officer. A couple things about what he said. First of all, I just wanted to mention that the reason that we’re hearing the questions from the crew is whenever we have a chance to interact with them, again, this is not an opportunity for us to do some sort of live interactive podcast like we typically do with our guests. We have to send our questions ahead of time. And so what we end up doing is just sending a list of questions for them to address at their own convenience. And they have a dedicated slot in order to do it. A lot of times we ask them to record in their crew quarters. Since the CHAPEA habitat is its own and confined space, we ask them to go into those crew quarters that they’ve been mentioning.
They do have their own private areas to sleep. It’s not very large, but it’s an area for them to sleep. So you heard Nathan talk about the crew quarters, which he’s getting more accustomed to. One thing I wanted to mention also was we’re going to hear about EVAs from each of the crew members, these Extravehicular Activities. But Nathan was particularly pointing out his experience in the sandbox and mentioning the suits. Now if you’re imagining a full-up white, extravehicular walking suit, this is not what they have for the CHAPEA experience. It’s definitely a lower fidelity. In fact, if you go to our episode webpage, you can see the photos of Nathan, who is in the simulated extravehicular suit and what that sort of looks like. But in any sense, it’s going to mimic what the crew would end up having to experience, less so from a technical function, but more so from experiencing levels of discomfort and heat and those things that Nathan was pointing out. So it very much simulates what a real spacesuit would be like, but there’s really no need for a high fidelity spacesuit in order to make this work.
Host: Nathan mentioned his experience eating some of the food, and he made a reference to the crew members on board the International Space Station with their fluids actually shifting to their head. This is a very common phenomenon, and it’s called fluid shifts on the International Space Station. In the microgravity environment over extended periods of time, they do have a tendency with one gravity always pulling our fluids in our body down to our feet and our body having to compensate by pushing against that gravity towards our head. It continues to compensate when in a microgravity environment, although there is no one gravity pushing down against your feet. So if you notice any of the crew members on board the space station have this shift of fluids and they kind of look puffy up in their face, it’s because of this phenomenon that happens in microgravity. And it’s one of the reasons we’re sending astronauts to the space station is to continue to study this phenomenon.
Lastly, I wanted to mention the drones and rovers. This is another capability of CHAPEA. They’re doing a lot of different things and Nathan rattled off a couple of them in his audio log at the very end there. All the different things that they have to do. But one of them is remotely operating drones and rovers. Not all the time do the crew members have to go out to perform Extravehicular Activities. Sometimes they can perform the work from inside the safety of a Martian habitat and remotely operate rovers that are on the outside and continue to collect some great science without necessarily the physical toll of a spacewalk. And we can maybe expect this on future Martian missions, humans on Mars.
Alright, so we have one more audio log from Anca Selariu. But before we go to her, let’s take a break and talk with Patrick Estep, who actually had a huge role in designing the virtual reality Extravehicular Activities that all the crew members have been talking about. So let’s spend a little time talking with Patrick about what went into making this VR capability for CHAPEA possible. Patrick Estep, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast.
Patrick Estep: Yeah, thank you so much. This is super exciting. Glad to be here.
Host: You know, we’ve been checking in with the crew a couple of times now. We got a conversation before the ingress and we were asking them so many times, “what are you looking forward to? What’s some of the things?” A lot of things of what they talked about was this virtual reality, extravehicular activity. They were so pumped for it. And it’s such a big part of your mission. It must feel good to have contributed to it.
Patrick Estep: Yes. I don’t even know how else to say it. It’s one of these things that’s been in the works for so long that seeing it come to life and implemented in the study, and they’re making it through it and they’re, you know, quote surviving, if you will, it’s super exhilarating.
Host: So I want to get a sense of your background and kind of what led you to this. You said you’ve been involved with it for so long, but what were you doing I guess, before CHAPEA? And I guess what you still do to a certain extent now that kind of prepared you for taking on this role?
Patrick Estep: Sure. So short background is that I work in one of the Human Health and Performance labs here at JSC. I’s called the Human Physiology Performance Protection and Operations Lab, or H-3PO. And so it’s very broad. We cover a lot of topics related to human health and performance. And specifically there, I’m a human performance engineer that’s focused on spacesuits and exploration operations and how that ties back to human health and performance. What’s the cost to the human of getting in a spacesuit and, you know, going out the door and doing a spacewalk? What’s their metabolic rate? What’s their heart rate? What’s their cognitive workload? How does all of this kind of tie together? And then what can we do from a mission perspective or a suit or hardware perspective to augment or protect for their health and performance? So that’s kind of what I do in a brief background. And that covers so many things. EVA is very central to a lot of NASA’s missions. So we’re going back to the Moon, we’re going to go do EVAs. And so all of these other things kind of have to funnel up into that. So things like decompression sickness and pre-breathe, I know you guys talked to Alex Garbino kind of recently. The food system has to be able to support the health and performance. So how all these things come together to support EVA is what we’re super interested in.
Host: Yeah, so it’s like that marriage between the human and the technology, the engineering.
Patrick Estep: Exactly.
Host: So you are sort of the person that’s thinking about both and how they work together.
Patrick Estep: Yes, exactly. And not just those two, but also the operational concepts, the mission profiles and all of it, yeah.
Host: So tell me about sort of the beginnings of when they started calling on you for thinking about CHAPEA and thinking, “hey, we want to introduce this VR concept for the EVA component.” How did those conversations begin?
Patrick Estep: Yeah, so I joined the project basically I think right after the proposal got approved, so like four and a half years ago. And we were like just starting to figure out how in the heck are we going to do this? We knew that there was kind of this big gap. We’ve got to figure out how to do a mission on Mars. And so again, a big part of that, we expect to send people to Mars and we’re going to do EVAs, we’re going to do spacewalks, we’re going to go do science and explore Mars and these kinds of things. So we had to go figure out how to do that in this realistic Martian environment. And again with I think a lot of the background on the study is it’s very focused on the countermeasures, the food system, the exercise, how do all these things come together and protect or enhance our ability to do these things? So for us, it was really important that we figure out a way to incorporate EVAs into CHAPEA.
Obviously, spacesuits are not just a commodity that we can go, like grab and throw a bunch of suits in there. So we had to think, “okay, how can we simulate an EVA? What are different ways to do that?” You can put people in spacesuit simulators, which we do for CHAPEA, you can put people in partial gravity analogs. So ARGOS or the NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory) are good examples of facilities here that do that. But obviously, we can’t shrink those down and put them into CHAPEA. And so for us, looking to virtual reality is kind of the next best way where we can put somebody in something that looks like a spacesuit simulator, we can add some physical burden that kind of simulates what they would experience potentially on Mars doing these tasks in a real spacesuit. But in the VR, you know, heads-up display, we can actually put them on the surface of Mars and what that does for their cognitive workload and their immersion to the mission, everything else. You’re walking around and you see the Mars surface and you’re doing things on the Mars surface virtually. So that was kind of the solution that we looked after to implement in CHAPEA. And so we spent years and years developing a lot of the content that they’re working through now.
Host: So you mentioned ARGOS, this is the gravity offload system. It looks like a pulley system, maybe crane.
Patrick Estep: It’s a fancy crane that basically picks up some part of a person and suits weight.
Host: Hard to immerse yourself. If you’re strapped to a crane and you’re in like a small sandbox or something, you don’t really get that immersion factor.
Patrick Estep: Not as much, yeah. One of the things that we see in a lot of the spacesuit, an EVA testing that we do is that no one environment is perfect for testing these things. So with ARGOS being kind of the example here, and without getting too technical, it basically picks you up at your center of mass overall. So even though when you kind of move your whole body and suit, you feel like you’re at partial gravity, your arms are still kind of experiencing Earth gravity. So there’s a little bit of mismatch there. In the NBL, it’s a fantastic analog for doing a lot of things, but the water drag actually adds some effects that confound some of the science that we do. So there’s no one true EVA simulation environment That’s perfect. And so that was kind of another part of the reason why we said, “hey, let’s go develop our own imperfect one and implement it here.” But VR and spacesuit simulators is kind of a nice way to blend the best of a lot of the worlds.
Host: Yes. Okay. So not necessarily crane, you didn’t go for the underwater thing. Just let’s talk about VR.
Patrick Estep: Yeah.
Host: So when you started thinking about the concept and the things that you would have the crew do, and you brought your knowledge of everything that you’ve put in for supporting operations, space station operations, and thinking about how the human interacts with the spacesuit and everything… what were the things that you were looking at to best provide that immersion factor to give you the data that you need?
Patrick Estep: Whew.
Host: Loaded question. Loaded question.
Patrick Estep: Yeah. So I think there are a couple of pieces. We’ve kind of hit on the immersion piece already. You’ve got to get them really feeling like they’re on Mars. They’re not just staring at a wall and walking on a treadmill cause they’re going to get bored, their level of effort’s going to drop, and that’s going to affect some of the other data we’re looking at. So being able to put them on that Martian environment is huge. Some of the other things we were looking at is the physical workload. And again, trying to tie it back to some of the food systems and other countermeasures, EVAs are tough. You’ll hear crew members talk a lot about how difficult they are and the physical workload that comes with that can’t be understated. And, you know, there’s a caloric expenditure with that. If you’re working hard, you’re using up more energy. So the food system has to be able to supplement that. And so part of it for us was being able to come up with tasks and concepts that are realistic and they have a way to simulate that physical workload and burden kind of at the same time. Again, without the suit or without changing gravity or anything like that.
So some combination of things that we had to go through were figuring out how we could get them to relevant workloads based on what we’d seen from other suited testing and these partial gravity environments, as well as different tasks that we expect people to do when we put them on the surface of the Moon, or in this case Mars. So they’re going to go off and do geology that’s going to require them to have certain tools and make certain motions. If you imagine taking a geological sample from a rock, you’ve got to like get down and like hammer on the rock and take pictures and do all these things. And so being able to emulate those tasks and the motions associated with it kind of helped us drive out the workload, but also helped us add relevance and realism to a lot of what we were developing as well.
Host: Yes. So okay, I’m thinking about it. You have to have that perfect mix and maybe it’s not necessarily perfect, right? We talked about the imperfection, but that mix of what are they going to be doing and what is the expected—and this is the key word here—the workload? Cause this is what really drives the data. In order to get good data to understand what spacewalks or Marswalks are going to be like on the Red Planet, you have to give them an appropriate workload. You can’t just hammer a rock and be like, “okay, we kind of know what that’s like. You can ingress now.” You have to give them a full day.
Patrick Estep: Right. Yeah. There’s a lot of complex interactions here. Like you said, it’s not just focused on a singular task because maybe to get to that rock, you’ve got to walk two kilometers in your spacesuit and you know, if you imagine, you go and walk or run a mile or whatever and try to do some simple task after, your energy expenditure’s going to be higher because you just spent a lot. And so there’s kind of a down-ramping effect a little bit. That’s not maybe the best example, but that kind of illustrates how a lot of these different things play together. And so it was important to us to build a mission profile with tasks that we might actually ask Mars astronauts to do one day, you know, “go to this site, do some geology, go to this other site, set up some sort of payload or science experiment. Maybe you come back to the habitat, you take care of the habitat somehow,” and all these kinds of things. We had to string these together in a meaningful way. Doing that, basically by itself, kind of does a lot of the work of building a workload-realistic simulation for us. And again, adds to that relevance and fidelity, which is super cool. So it’s an art for sure.
Host: You had to work on this art, this beautiful painting, for years, right? So you brought your perspective on you mentioned, what is the right marriage of the workload and what the tasks they’ll be doing. You’re thinking about it from “what is the data I need? What is a good design of a spacewalk look like so I get good data?” But you have to match that with the people who are actually designing the VR. So when you’re working and designing some of the tasks and coming up with the procedures for what they’re going to be doing and then you have to bring this into a virtual reality environment. Tell me about some of that work that has gone over the years to actually design the VR missions that they’re undergoing now.
Patrick Estep: Yeah. There’s been a lot of discussion with all sorts of different groups. And again, EVA is really cool and how interdisciplinary it is. So you’ve got of course the engineers and the suit people. You have flight operations, exercise and fitness play into this, which is part of CHAPEA as well. You’ve got the geologists and the scientists wanting to do all these things. And so everybody’s got different concepts of what tools we’re going to use, where we’re going to use them, how we’re going to get them there, is it going to be carried on like a utility belt? Are we going to push a cart? Are we going to, you know, fly ’em there with a spaceship and the crew will get ’em when they need ’em? Whatever it is. Again, what tasks are we doing? What kind of science are we doing? What are we interacting with?
All of these different discussions had to come together for us to figure out what’s important to emulate. There’s no shortage of expected tasks and operational concepts that we’re going to do. And there’s a number of, of documents that are out there, hundreds of pages, we’re going to go dust solar panels and we’re going to do rover maintenance and we’re going to replace rover wheels and do all these different things. I mean, it’s loads and loads and loads of them. So for us, again, we’ve been very physical-workload-driven to date. And so a lot of the tasks that we’re really concerned with and developed early on were those that we thought would have a higher workload. So going to do the geology, doing walking, carrying some relatively heavy object and moving it somewhere else and manipulating it. So we spent a lot of time focused on these things. We’re really starting to get into a lot more of the finer and more finesse things that you have to do. But maybe they’re not as important from a workload perspective or maybe they have a lot of other implications with them. Things that are maybe like—well, I’ll stop there. That’s maybe a lot.
But there was a lot of just figuring out what we’re going to emulate in virtual reality. And then we had to go off of course and work with the software engineers and the VR developers to say, “hey, I want to add this in. I want this functionality. I want a map or a compass. I want to put a hammer in here. And when I interact with some sort of virtual rock, you know, hit it enough times, virtually, it gives me a sample of that rock.” And so there was a lot of back and forth and troubleshooting and, and working through it. It’s not unlike what people would see with like a major game studio or developer.
Host: It’s interesting cause another thing that I guess we haven’t touched on quite yet is it’s a little different from how we typically do spacewalks. I mean, not just the fact that it’s in VR, but the sense that when crew are executing a spacewalk, they don’t have that regular feedback throughout the whole thing. They don’t have constant communications. Like, so if you’re watching a spacewalk right now on the space station, space to ground is hot. They are talking and we’re like, “all right, what do I need next?” And then you have someone on the ground that’s relaying the procedures to them. It’s really all on the crew and there’s the spacewalk, there’s the ones that are doing the spacewalk and then there’s the intravehicular crew, there’s the crew on the outside. So tell me about some of those considerations that you put into designing a good Martian spacewalk.
Patrick Estep: Sure. So you’re exactly right. You hit on a really critical point. When we get to Mars, we’re going to have these long comm delays and so we’re not going to have MCC kind of in the back pocket of the crew like we’re used to no. They’ll still be there of course, but you’re exactly right. There’s a lot more autonomy and decision support authority that’s needed by the crew. And so the way that we’ve set this up in CHAPEA is that we still run with a pair of extravehicular crew out doing the EVA. They’re being guided basically in real time by an intravehicular operator, much like we do now. But then they still have that calm delay back to MCC. From that we can embed different performance measures into that as well. Again, to look back at the health and performance implications of doing a Mars mission.
That’s kind of how we get it at here, greater in kind of the, the EVA community. There’s a lot of work going on trying to figure out what information’s important to show to the crew, both EVs and IVs. So is it important to show them their heart rate or their remaining consumables, or is it important to show them a map? And then how do we show them these things and how does that help offload them cognitively so that they can then focus on doing the task at hand? So there’s a lot of work now that’s really getting into kind of the root of that question. But in the case of CHAPEA, we’ve tried to engineer and train a lot of those things out at some level.
Host: So yeah, in terms of engineering and training, one of the things that we talked about before the ingress, we got a chance to talk with all of them and we were asking them about the training experience and all of them were just like, “the VR training is awesome, the extra vehicular training is awesome.” So it seems like all that work really paid off. And I think from what they described is, and not only was it awesome, but it took a decent amount of time. It was quite a learning curve it sounded like.
Patrick Estep: Yeah. I think we spent on the order of 40 to 50 hours with each of the crew in total. And of course we did it, you know, in pairs and groups and things. Cause they’re running it in pairs and groups, but there was a lot of time. And that was because not only did we have to teach them how to use the VR itself, we even started with like, what is EVA and how do you do an EVA? What does that mean? And had to walk them through all these things and using, you know, the buddy system and like good communications and things like that. You can’t just say whatever. We taught them the language, we taught them the alphabet. We taught them copy versus affirmative versus wilco and like all these other things that you don’t really think about until you’re having to do it and teach somebody else.
So we spent a lot of time with the basics and then we jumped into VR and we said, “okay, here’s just how to use VR and all the different VR pieces we have.” Coming back to autonomy, and I’m sure we’ll touch on this a little bit as well with the crew experience, but we had to teach them how to troubleshoot things if something breaks or didn’t work out quite the way they anticipated or if they encountered a software bug in the VR. We had to teach them how to address that, how to recognize that, how to fix it. And then after that we had to take them through all of the different unique tasks and EVA simulation content that we had. So there’s some things in there for like exploration and traverse. There’s geology, there’s repair and replace and maintenance-type tasks, habitat repair. There’s some operations with solar panels and communication arrays and other different assets and widgets and things that they have to interact with. So they had to get experience with all of those as well. And then run through it all in like a final end-to-end mission-like EVA. So there was a lot of training, but there were a lot of concepts we had to train a on.
Host: Okay. So final question, Patrick is, you know, what we’re trying to stress when we have these conversations is, you know, it’s becoming more clear that of how widespread this team is. When we go through these Mars monthly check-ins, the monthly check-ins with the Mars crew, we’re going to be kind of getting a better understanding of all the different disciplines. And I want to hear your perspective on your discipline. When it comes to getting the data that you need to make good decisions for what a spacewalk on Mars, what a spacewalk on the Moon may look like, what to you in your world is one of the best benefits of CHAPEA and doing an analog like this?
Patrick Estep: Oh, there’s a lot. But I think the biggest piece is that it is one of the most realistic, wholly comprehensive Martian missions NASA has done to date. And so being able to look at all of these integrated things coming together and how the crew are making it through their EVAs and at what performance level, that’s really one of the best images and pictures by way of data that we can really get to inform what this might actually look like on Mars. Again, there’s some fuzz factor because we’re not in an actual spacesuit, we’re not at Martian gravity, but if we did our homework right, going into it, we kind of simulated those things close enough that the data’s in the same ballpark, which is huge. It’ll either confirm to us that, you know, we can go off, we can do all of these things. The crew are healthy, they’re performing well, they’re happy, they’re surviving, all these different things. And that’s really what it’s all about is, is kind of enabling these future programs and missions and having the data there to back it that says, “yes, if we put all these things together, they can go do EVA. They can go do all the science that we want them to do on this foreign body, however many hundreds of million miles away.”
Host: Right. That is important. So Patrick Estep, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast, sharing your perspective and adding context to this great mission that everybody seems to really like the VR stuff is pretty cool. So thanks for coming on.
Patrick Estep: Yeah, thanks. If nothing else, I’m happy to hear that they’re enjoying it. I’m gloating a little bit on the inside, but I appreciate it. This was awesome. Thank you.
Host: Awesome. Thanks, Patrick. Okay, again, that was Patrick Estep. Very excited to be talking with him about everything that he has done. We do have one more audio log for you. This is Science Officer Anca Selariu.
Anca Selariu: Hello, I am Anca Selariu, science officer of CHAPEA Mission 1. How am I feeling right now? I am slightly sleepy because I had a huge lunch and generally, I feel very calm and happy to be here. Some of the highlights of the activities and tasks of last month were lots of EVAs, including VR and non-VR EVAs, and we got to do a lot of Mars surveillance. We collected several rock samples, which is a lot of fun. We’re actually in the middle of that.
Changes in my perception of the food? Not really. I really, really love the food here and it’s so well balanced and so healthy. Although, it actually is not very salty at all, it is very flavorful. So we often even forget to look at the sodium content of everything or need to add salt to anything. So that’s great.
How am I getting along with the crew? I actually love spending nearly all my time with the crew. I find them a lot of fun, a lot of fun to play and a lot of fun to work with. They each have their own unique perspectives and talents and every week that passes as we discover that we have something either in common or some other unique talent that somebody has. For instance, the other weekend we’ve discovered that the medical officer is also an excellent hair stylist. I got a haircut and I feel a lot better washing my hair now.
Anca Selariu: Do I find myself in a routine? I think you could say that it’s the nature of the schedule that forces us into a routine. We do have everything scheduled already, so in a way our routine is preset.
How am I spending my free time? I do tend to spend my free time with the crew for almost 90, 95% of the time. The time that I spend alone is maybe reading. What is coming up for the next month? Well again, a bunch of EVAs and I do look forward to growing other things, other plants that we actually will get to eat, including leafy greens and tomatoes and peppers, radishes, and so forth. And probably some herbs because I really love mint tea. I look forward to making the first Martian tea. And that concludes my updates for this month. Looking forward to updating you next month. Have a great one.
Host: Alright, and that last one was Anca Selariu. That wraps up our audio log #2. I hope you’ve really enjoyed it. A couple of things about what Anca said, just to add a little bit of context. She mentioned that the food is not very salty and this comes with a lot of what we hear about how the food complement is now on board the International Space Station. We’ve talked with food scientists before that say that salt is one of those things that they have to look out for as they continue to monitor people’s health over long periods of time in the microgravity environment. Anca did mention that they have other condiments and things to add to their food, including salt. So that option is still present for the crew. She also mentioned a haircut given by the medical officer Nathan Jones, just wanted to make sure folks are aware that this is it. Once the crew is inside that habitat, they are just inside that habitat for a year. They do not have the chance to go out and get a haircut and go out and get to breathe some fresh air. This study truly is what would life be like over the course of a year if all of your needs have to be satisfied by the crew around you. And that includes haircuts, that includes social time, and so they have to sort of rely on each other. We see this a lot with the crew on board the International Space Station, a very common thing, that they give each other haircuts during their six-month, sometimes one-year expeditions. That will be very much the same for any Mars crew. They’ll have to have their meals together. They’ll have their haircuts together. So we’ll be hearing I think more about how they’re helping each other out, making sure that they’re all healthy and moving along for that one year.
Lastly, I wanted to mention the plants. So we’ve been talking about some of the food that they’ve been experiencing so far, and this is really the prepackaged meals. But part of their design for the CHAPEA mission will be growing food. Anca mentioned this in the very first audio log. We’ll be hopefully hearing more about their experience with these plants that they’re growing that may supplement to a certain extent what they’re going to be eating onboard CHAPEA. This includes many of the things that Anca rattled off. There were a lot of very tasty things that she rattled off.
So again, that’s it for audio log two from Alpha Dune. And that’s all of the audio logs plus our special guest Patrick Estep. Thanks to all of our guests for joining. And thanks to everybody for participating in the second audio log in our series. You can check out more about the CHAPEA mission on nasa.gov and any of our episodes in no particular order on nasa.gov/podcasts, many other shows that we have there as well that you can check out. But if you want to talk to us, we’re on Facebook, X, Instagram, and you can use #AskNASA on whatever platform you want to submit an idea for the show. Maybe ask a question, something we haven’t dove into so much on the podcast, just make sure to mention it’s for us at Houston We Have a Podcast.
The recordings for this episode were sent from the CHAPEA crew through August. And we had the conversation with Patrick on September 11, 2023. Thanks to Will Flato, Dane Turner, Abby Graf, Jaden Jennings, and Anna Schneider. Thanks to Patrick Estep for taking the time to come on the show. And a big thanks to Kelly Haston, Ross Brockwell, Nathan Jones and Anca Selariu, for sharing their experience for this audience on Houston We Have a Podcast. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think. We’ll be back next week.