Side view of the HERA project facility. The hygiene module, where bathrooms and showers are housed, is in the foreground.
What happens if you put a group of adults together in a confined space and leave them isolated for weeks? Can they get along? Can they work together to productively carry out complex tasks, stay in shape, and conduct scientific research?
This sounds like the premise for a reality show (minus the scientific research part, which sadly doesn't play well on television). And in a way it is: these adults are filmed every second of the day. But instead of entertainment, this project has one very serious goal: develop strategies for keeping humans healthy, sane, productive, and safe for long duration voyages into space.
The Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) project is a critical component of NASA's Flight Analogs Project, which carries out research on different aspects of human long-duration spaceflight. I recently visited NASA to give a talk on genetics to ISS scientists, and was able to tour the HERA facility and talk about the project with its former director, Joe Neigut. Because this isn't the sort of thing that one gets to access on the regular Johnson Space Center tour, I asked the NASA officials if it would be all right for me to write a blog about my experiences to share with readers, and they kindly agreed, stipulating only a few restrictions on what I was allowed to share in the interests of research integrity. So here's what I saw and what I learned.
The HERA project takes place in a re-purposed modular structure that had previously been part of a desert research project, and was later brought to a JSC warehouse.
To get a sense for what it's like inside, imagine a quarter scale version of the Hab from "The Martian" . The similarities aren't coincidental--the producers of the movie actually visited HERA when they were designing the Hab set, and took many of their ideas from it. The major difference is that HERA is a lot smaller, a lot more cramped, and it's a functional space, so it's a lot less aesthetic. It's cramped, but not (I imagine) uncomfortable--there's a normal toilet and shower in a side module, a set of exercise equipment, and what looks like very cozy sleeping bunks in the top of the main module. (I'm told that many HERA participants indeed reported them as being very comfortable).
The goal of the project is to provide experimental conditions that mimic actual long duration spaceflights or off-Earth missions as close as possible. P.I.s (principal investigators) doing research with HERA really want actual astronauts to be their subjects. But because astronauts are too busy with their own training, other volunteers are chosen to be as close as possible to astronauts in drive, personality, and physical fitness. And like real astronauts, the HERA participants get to design their own mission patches.
Once inside, HERA participants do not come out for the duration of the mission (which can run from a few days to more than a month). They are completely isolated from the rest of the world, except for voice communications with scientists and mission control personnel supervising the project.
The activities of project participants are continuously monitored by scientists and HERA Mission Control personnel in cubicles just outside the facility. There are signs everywhere reminding people outside the facility to speak quietly, so as to not distract participants from the illusion of isolation
HERA participants' days are packed with activities and scheduled down to the minute. They're required to do extensive training on simulators that mimic flying spacecraft or planetary rovers--just like real astronauts would during their travel. They conduct scientific experiments, do press and educational outreach, practice simulated EVAs, and work on mission-specific scenarios. The eat exactly the same food that astronauts do, and exercise as if they were combating the effects of zero gravity.
Occasional simulated events and emergencies require the teams to problem solve, or conduct repairs to components of the life support system. Of course participants aren't in any real danger, but scenarios are designed to be as accurate as possible.
As they carry out their tasks and experiments, HERA participants are constantly watched. Their interactions with each other, their performances on simulations, their reactions to various stimuli (which is the part I can't talk about in any detail so as not to compromise research integrity), their health and physical fitness, their cognitive and psychological performance....all aspects of their lives are monitored 24/7 by the Mission Control Center and studied by P.I.s to see what lessons can be learned to apply to human long duration spaceflight in the future.
Here and here are descriptions by HERA mission participants if you'd like to get more insights into what day to day living was like. I was incredibly impressed by how much detail and planning went into every aspect of this project, and I walked away with an absolute conviction that future missions to asteroids and Mars are going to be a reality.
You can "follow" the current HERA crew on their Twitter feed. Although the crew doesn't actually have access to the internet during their mission, they set up a script to let folks follow what is planned for them during their 30-day stay in HERA.
So would you be interested in participating in future HERA projects? I sure would--I'd volunteer in a heartbeat (assuming it was during the summer and my own research could stand to have me absent for a little while). The project is crucial to solving the problems that would inevitably arise on a long duration space mission. Getting to contribute even a small part to enabling our further exploration of space would be an incredible honor. So if you've got the "right stuff", contact the JSC Test Subject Screening facility at 281-212-1492. You can also read more about the HERA project, and other Human Research Projects at NASA here.
Many thanks to Amelia Rai, Joe Neigut, and Lisa Spence for allowing me to tour HERA (best day ever!) and answering my questions.
 I was curious about this. Turns out, everybody at NASA has seen that movie. The people I talked to especially loved the dust storms, which they said were very beautifully rendered.