Volume 03, Issue 2
Mission to Utah
Boeing engineer leads simulated exploration of Mars
BY ELAINE CADAY-EAMES
Alejandro Diaz was uncomfortable in his spacesuit but waited patiently in the decompression chamber. After 20 minutes, he opened the hatch and ventured out of his habitat. Ahead of him was a vast red terrain with craggy geological formations off in the distance.
Mars? Nope, the Utah desert.
Diaz, a 28-year-old Boeing Integrated Defense Systems engineer at Huntington Beach, Calif., recently led a team on a mission sponsored by The Mars Society, a privately funded group trying to pave the way for human exploration of Mars by simulating missions in the desert. Diaz was selected as the commander for this mission because of his related work experience.
The simulation took place in April in the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah. There, Diaz, an engineer-scientist specialist on the Extravehicular Activity team of the International Space Station program, lived for 14 days with his crew. Located about five hours southeast of Salt Lake City and operated by the society, the silo-shaped habitat stands on a red landscape that resembles the Martian landscape shown in recent photos.
Diaz and his crewmembers were tasked to assess and perform repairs in the habitat. They completed multiple exploration and human factors tasks. Some of the tasks included completion of a daily personal schedule logbook and 11 courses of cognitive/psychological evaluation, assessment of the spacesuit gloves, and completion of a photographic survey of Mars Desert Research Station facilities. As with any space mission, the crewmembers got help from mission support, which consisted of individuals at universities and research labs who communicated directly with the crew via the Internet.
During the simulation, the crew lived in a two-deck habitat about 30 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall. Crewmembers slept in compartments five feet wide and no longer than 12 feet long. The entire habitat was small for six individuals, "but it's based on realistic assumptions of a potential Mars habitat," Diaz said.
Crewmembers were not allowed to leave the habitat module without their spacesuits. Before they entered and exited the module, they spent 20 minutes in a mock decompression chamber to simulate the procedure that would be performed in future Mars missions. "That was one of the most difficult things to adapt to mentally," Diaz said. "But it definitely gave me a good perspective and appreciation of what astronauts will be going through."
Diaz found the mock spacesuits to be uncomfortable at first, but he quickly adjusted. To improve the accuracy of future simulations, Diaz said he'd like to help the society produce spacesuits that more closely resemble ones that would be used on Mars.
The crew performed around 20 EVAs during the mission. "The overall intent [of the EVAs] was to give you an appreciation of the type of things that astronauts will be doing on Mars-exploring the terrain, repairing things and collecting geological samples," Diaz said.
What he gained on the project helped him with his full-time job. "It gave me greater appreciation and understanding of the field of human factors," Diaz said. Undertaking the EVAs, he said, "gave me a glimpse of what astronauts experience at the ISS when performing EVAs."
He believes that the psychological effects and social interaction issues will be crucial to successful long-term missions. "There needs to be more research on that," he said. "Where there's isolation, you're bound to have conflicts and issues. If there are conflicts and performance declines, you will have a greater chance of mission failure. We need to research the long-term isolation psychological effects on individual, interpersonal and organizational behavior, and determine how these affect overall individual and team performance."
Through his work and involvement in projects like the Mars Society simulation, Diaz said he believes he's helping the human race in opening the door of the next frontier: space.
"It is my personal belief that in our lifetime we will see the launching of a manned mission to Mars," he said. "Being part of such an extraordinary feat would be extremely gratifying for me, not only as an engineer, but most importantly as a human being."
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