Tim Holt

From Mars Simulations to Spaceship Earth

UH alumna Patrice O. Yarbough (Biochemistry ’80, ’85) discusses the confinement studies she leads at NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) and what insights they can give us to better cope with isolation.

Cut off from the outside world. Day in and day out: the same faces and the same four walls. Living through quarantine sounds eerily similar to the grueling flight to Mars. Imagine a small crew, even smaller quarters, and a months-long journey just to get there.

HERA (Human Exploration Research Analog) is a three-story habitat at the NASA Johnson Space Center where research subjects become astronaut crew members and carry out mission-like scenarios in isolation for periods of up to 45 days. Their latest project: simulate the conditions of a long-distance space flight to Mars, complete with communication delays, virtual assistants and sleep deprivation.

In many ways, the challenges faced by HERA’s crew members parallel our own recent circumstances on Spaceship Earth. Yet amidst the psychological fallout of our prolonged isolation, we still have to insist on getting things done.

Yarbough and the investigators with NASA’s HERA project are deeply concerned with how humans cooperate in teams: how we can thrive in confinement and work together to accomplish something great.

Your work at HERA centers on how teams collaborate and communicate while in confinement. As we have all been in our own “confinement study” during the pandemic, what do you think is important for us to keep in my mind about the connection between our biology and behavior when we’re in these situations?

Our minds and our bodies are connected. Our performance is connected to how we are feeling, and how we’re feeling is a psychological state and a physiological state. What we’re trying to do in HERA is actually tease that out. In many ways, the current situation around the globe is kind of like a science project that’s unfolding, but the difference is that what we’re experiencing in this pandemic is not controlled. It’s real time. It’s live.What the psychologists who are a part of HERA know is the importance of capturing data from more than one source. So, you may have a friend tell you that they’re sleeping well. But are they really? In our studies, we capture what people say, because we’re hearing it from the voice recorders, but we’re also capturing how our crew members answer certain questions and by the actigraphy watches they wear. We’ve got all of those mechanisms to capture the data and can correlate the responses with what the body is actually telling us about how a person is doing.We should keep in mind that even if our friends and family tell us they are fine, or if we tell ourselves we’re doing okay, to look for other clues our bodies and behaviors may be giving us beyond this.

It makes sense that NASA’s major goal is to identify and mitigate risks when assembling teams to face the particular challenges of space exploration. But are there coping skills that we can build in everyday life that make us more resilient members of our earth-bound teams of family, friends and coworkers?I’ll throw out a few words that are going to sound familiar, and they’re very relevant to our studies.It’s grit and resilience.But how do you measure resilience? How do you measure somebody’s ability to adapt to a situation?

I like to think of resilience as how you maintain your form when the going gets rough. And grit is how you deal with whatever it is that is off nominal, so that you can get through what you’re perceiving as a crisis.I had a crew member say to me, after completing his HERA mission, that he’s convinced the people who will travel on long-duration space flights will need to have already demonstrated their ability to manage difficulties and to overcome challenges. He had experienced hurdles and difficulties in his life, and that was what he drew upon when the stress of isolation and missing his family started to persist. There’s a morsel like that we get with each crew.I think grit is going to be an important part of coping with the effects of the pandemic, and people are going to have to dig down deep. We need to use our own resources, but first we’ve got to build those resources. And you don’t build them overnight. Sometimes we underestimate what our capacities are, because they’ve not been pushed to those limits. And we’re pushing them a little bit closer to those limits in HERA, within the confines of a controlled study.

As we’ve all felt our plans and timelines get pushed back over and over again over the last year, it seems critical that we define success in a way that makes it achievable. How do you define the success of a HERA campaign, and how does that reflect the nature of your research?

I tell the crew members, “At the end of 45 days, this will be a successful mission if all four of you return home at the same time, you return as a crew.” And that becomes an important directive for whoever falls into the position of commander because we give very little direction for how to manage the crew. We want to understand how different people manage and to learn what might be an ideal management prospect.The commander is given the primary goal of encouraging the team to perform their best and to lead them back home safely. And they usually look at me and say, “that’s it?” But that’s really a lot! Because you’re dealing with the unknown. When our subjects go into HERA, as investigators we’re also dealing with the unknown.Do we expect that at some point a mission will fail, in the sense that it won’t complete? Yes, I suspect that. The whole idea is for us to understand what can go wrong and to ask two questions: can we prevent it or, if we can’t, can we provide assistance to mitigate it? And that last one is really important. Once things move into action, you’re not going to be able to prevent it.But a failed mission doesn’t mean a failed study. That is going to provide us with precisely the information we need to build a countermeasure. That’s the beauty of research. If you already know the answer, then trust me, you’re not doing research.

Can you give us a glimpse of what’s next for HERA?

In planning for a future of space exploration that involves long communication delays, we started to ask ourselves questions about what sort of communication is going to be effective. For campaign one through five, our Mission Control was always there, always available and frequently providing guidance. Much like what happens on the ISS now.Up to this mission we had communication delays of up to five minutes one way, tops. For the next campaign, we will maintain the same level of communication delay but will allow the crew to make more decisions for themselves without clearing those decisions with the HERA Mission Control first. We want to observe and measure what happens when you give the crew the opportunity to make decisions on their own. We are interested in understanding when and why crew autonomy kicks in.We’re excited to learn these things and get the next mission started. We’ve had significant delays and, like everybody else, we’ve just had to deal with it. Our team, and everybody who supports space exploration, really wants us to be able to continue with our missions because they provide useful information.That’s where the grit comes in.I think grit and resilience are based on long term goals. They come from something bigger than the crises at hand that you want to protect, or that you want to eventually get to. When I think about my own path, why did I work so many hours for so long and so hard? Part of it is that I wanted to be able to educate my children and get them through college. What you’re doing right now is important, but the fact that it has future value is what keeps you going.The long-term vision and your grit keep you going.

For more exploration of the HERA project, read the last Q&A with Patrice Yarbough.