As NASA prepares for the next era of manned space exploration, scientists are testing how well astronauts will be able to perform mission-critical tasks immediately after landing.
These challenges include disembarking from a space capsule, walking around in a spacesuit, and even setting up life support devices.
While there is already a focus on supporting astronaut bodies from the effects of space travel after landing on Earth, these tests are different, focusing on a landing on another world like Mars or the moon.
The team at NASA’s Human Physiology, Performance, Protection and Operations Laboratory and its Neuroscience Laboratory designed an obstacle course and simulated spacecraft to determine how long after landing astronauts can perform mission-critical tasks.
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The tests should help ensure that astronauts traveling to the Moon and even Mars are able to respond quickly and act without much information from Earth, NASA officials said.
“Through Artemis, NASA will soon send the first woman, the first person of color and other crew members to the surface of the moon. And after that, our eyes will be on Mars,” said Jason Norcross, a scientist at the Johnson Space Center. at NASA in Houston, which studies human performance, said in a statement. “So we need to know: right after astronauts land on a planetary surface, what can they physically do? How long after landing should they wait to perform certain tasks?”
“This is exactly what we need for the next steps in planetary exploration,” James A. Pawelczyk, a former NASA astronaut and now a researcher at Penn State University, told Space.com.
“You’re asking us one more fitness-for-duty question. When we land on another planetary body, whether it’s the Moon or Mars, when will we be fit for duty to conduct operations on that planetary body? Will it be immediately? Does it take a few days to adapt and develop our ‘legs of mars?'”
Facing the obstacle course were astronauts from NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 and Crew-3 missions, who were asked to perform two sets of tasks before being sent to the International Space Station (ISS) and then doing them again shortly after. the return to Earth. (Crew-2 is already back on their home planet; Crew-3 is due to return from the ISS next week.)
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During the tasks, volunteers provide feedback to the scientists who monitor them and, upon completion, fill out a survey about the effort they have experienced. The challenges are recorded to help researchers identify the tasks that caused the astronauts the most difficulty.
The first exercise involves emerging from a simulated landing pod that is made of lightweight metal tubes and fits in a backpack. This task requires the astronaut to get up and navigate the confines of the simulated capsule to release a ladder from the top of the capsule.
Assuring this, the volunteer collects a survival package, takes the ladder and climbs through a hatch at the top of the capsule, passing the package to a nearby researcher. To finish the test, the astronaut must descend the ladder, walk about 25 feet (7.6 meters) and then return to the starting point.
Immediately after returning to Earth from the ISS, at an airport near the Crew Dragon capsule landing site, astronauts are asked to perform this landing task again.
Norcross explained that the test involves changes in posture, such as turning the head and lying down, which he said are some of the most difficult things for a team to do immediately after landing.
“We’ve never evaluated astronauts doing this specific task at this specific time before,” Norcross said. “In the pre-flight test, an astronaut can get up, climb the stairs and walk with ease. A few minutes and they’re done with this whole task.
“But after the flight, we expect it to be completely different. Astronauts may have to stop, regain their balance, catch their breath, take breaks and maybe even have a moment to get sick. It can be a struggle.”
The second task involves walking on a simulated planetary surface wearing a spacesuit and performing various challenges. Astronauts will don the suit using NASA’s Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS) – a machine that lifts the suit and pressurizes, allowing for the reduced gravity experience. For these tasks, ARGOS will simulate the gravity of Mars.
During this test, volunteers will connect tubes representing supply lines to a life support module and repeatedly move bulky 14-kilogram objects from one end of a field of rocks to the other.
“It’s been part of astronaut training for decades to look at the crew’s egress ability — to remove yourself from a space vehicle in some emergency contingency,” said Pawelczyk, who flew NASA’s STS-90 space shuttle mission in 1998. emergency, and it’s on Earth.
“The task now, as we move into planetary exploration, is that we’re going to have to get out of this vehicle unassisted. And we’re going to have to do it in a different gravitational field than our own.”
NASA said future tests will include more participants, more complex and longer tasks, and programmed simulations for the moon’s gravity.
The space agency hopes the tests will help planners design future mission activities, emergency protocols, spacesuits and even space capsules. The ultimate goal of this will be to minimize difficult operations during the first few days after landing on the Moon or Mars.
“We don’t know the exact configuration of a Mars vehicle and suit at this time. So the exact task that will be required of these astronauts is unknown. So in terms of simulation fidelity – we need to improve once we have a better understanding of what that will be.” , said Pawelczyk. “Along with that will come finer tasks, tasks that require more dexterity.
“This is a big first step, but it’s one of many to come.”
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