Children's Hospital of Michigan nurse spending 45 days in NASA habitat simulating trip to Mars
Jennifer Milczarski, a certified registered nurse anesthetist at DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan, won't find out in person but she will aid in NASA's mission to get to the Red Planet and its moon Phobos.
Milczarski, 33, is a crew member for NASA's simulated mission to Mars in the Human Exploration Research Analog at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Along with three other members — a NASA aerospace and robotics engineer, a NASA aerospace engineer and a private industry aerospace systems engineer — Milczarski will enter the 360-square-foot simulated habitat on Friday and perform experiments within the habitat for the following 45 days.
NASA researchers will study how the crew members adjust to the "isolation, confinement, and remote conditions on Earth before NASA sends astronauts on deep-space missions."
Milczarski is the only non-aerospace professional aboard the mission, but she has extensive education and experience in human physiology. Besides her work at Children's Hospital in Detroit, she operates a health care company that uses the anesthetic drug Ketamine to treat depression.
Crain's interviewed Milczarski ahead of her mission this week about joining the mission, her interest in space travel and expectations of being crammed in a tight space with few amenities.
How does a nurse anesthetist get involved in a NASA mission?
I've been looking into NASA's aerospace medicine programs for quite some time, searching their website for any mid-level provider positions I may qualify for, but those are mostly for doctors and regular nurses. But I was in Arizona last summer and met a friend of a friend that had a similar interest in aerospace that told me about the HERA program. So I quickly pulled it up on my phone, read about it and thought it was up my alley. So, I decided right then and there I would apply. Admittedly, I thought I was a long shot. I waited for several months before I even got a confirmation email. But I finally heard back. Then it was a whole process of different stages of interviews and screenings. I made it through the initial screening, then had to take a bunch of physical tests and psychological exams all over the country. I did those in Michigan, Texas, Florida and Montana. But I made the cut.
So you've always been interested in space travel?
It started in childhood. Probably eighth grade when I went to a technology camp at Wayne State University. I spent my entire summer there and was really intrigued with science, engineering and aerospace. We learned how to build rockets. My rocket landed the safest and with the furthest distance. It did not go the highest. I think I came in second or third for height. I thought it was so awesome. So when I got back I went to different science museums and learned as much about space travel as I could. But eventually, like so many, it became an unrealistic goal in life. So nursing came to the forefront. It seemed a way more attainable career. So I went down that route. I really like being a nurse anesthetist but I never grew out of my passion to become an astronaut. I'm driven by challenges. I went to nursing school and then needed more of a challenge. Got a degree in anesthesia and needed more of a challenge. Began working in pediatrics and transplants and needed more of a challenge. So I started doing anesthesia in pediatrics, which many will tell you is insane. Peds is awesome, but it's very stressful. I then opened a Ketamine-infusion clinic based here in Michigan for treating depression, mental health and chronic pain. But then Elon (Musk) started making reusable rockets and sending people into outer orbit. So I thought maybe I should look again at my original career plan. I resorted back to my ultimate goal which would be an astronaut where I would be going to be space. It still seems pretty far-fetched considering the application pool, but now it's more of a potential than it ever was.
What is the purpose of the mission?
It's very psychologically based. How people do for a very long time in confined spaces. It takes seven months to get to Mars through space travel. To get to the (International Space Station), it takes a day. So they aren't in confined spaces for that long. So NASA wants to know how astronauts handle long-term space travel on a physical level, physiological level and an emotional level. They will monitor our stress and how our bodies are functioning. And of course they'll regiment our diet and our exercise. We're only allowed to go to bed at 11 p.m. but we have to get up at 7 a.m. There is a sleep deprivation element where we can't sleep for a couple of days. They want to see how we can handle the sleep deprivation and the stress of 15-hour work days. We'll also be conducting research for NASA. We'll grow plants and study and analyze the microbiology. We'll also do missions called EVAs (extravehicular activity) where we have to fly to the moon (Phobos) and do two spacewalks using virtual reality.
How small is this confined space?
The HERA habitat is approximately 360 square feet. There's a lift in the center and one bathroom module. For privacy, there's only a shower curtain. And only one sink for all purposes: dishes, laundry, hygiene. It's a typical bathroom sink in a hotel. On the main floor, we have our workstations and we take the ladder or the lift up to the second floor, which has our galley area and a stationary bike. All of our food has to be rehydrated before we can eat it. If it's not space food, it's very close to space food. Another ladder goes up to our bunks, which has just a cargo net that separates us from everyone else.
Are you cut off from the actual world and people you care about?
Contrary to what people believe, there's not a lot of downtime. There's no real ties to the outside world. That's part of the mission — to see how you emotionally handle being cut off from the things you know for that long. We do get to communicate with our families once or twice in the first few weeks, but it's through a record file to mission control to our families and vice versa. The further we get into the 45 days, though, the longer it takes to send and receive those messages to replicate the delayed communication the farther you are in deep space. There's no Internet. You don't know what's going on in the world. They don't send you a newsletter.
You're prepared to be in those tight quarters with strangers?
We've already spent a lot of time together. We've gotten to see what people's quirks are. And we've said from the beginning that if something bothers you, you have to say it right away. There is nowhere to escape. We have to approach it as a learning experience and make the best situation for the team. This is not every man for themselves. We have to be very open and communicative. We've had to talk about things coworkers don't normally talk about. But a few times already, we were quite frustrated with one another. But we worked it out. So I'm not too worried about us working as a team and being together for 45 days. Maybe on day 20 or 25 I will have different thoughts on this. We've met past participants of this mission who have said when you get to the halfway point, the frustrations go away and it gets better again. There are a few days in the middle where everyone is on edge. So we're prepared for when that time frame is approaching and plan to be be open and honest and keep everyone's emotional state in mind.
Even though you're not leaving Earth, do you have any fears about this mission?
I don't have any basic working knowledge of engineering or aerospace aviation. That's a lot of what we're going to be doing. I'm basically learning a whole other profession in a few weeks. Even learning to communicate with the comms system is new to me. I've had to learn the military phonetic system. I'm not a gamer, so having to learn the virtual reality and augmented reality we're using is brand new to me. But I'm doing pretty good with it. I might not be able to perform as well as my crewmates who have master's degrees in these fields, but I am getting it. We also will have to troubleshoot emergencies where I will have to use the toolbox, find the problem, diagnose it, take systems apart and try to troubleshoot. That will be the most stressful part for me. I don't do that every day.