While a lot of work goes towards ensuring astronauts’ good health upon reentry to Earth, scientists at NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) are focusing on something slightly different. They are interested in determining how soon after landing astronauts can perform mission-critical tasks.
“Through Artemis, NASA will soon send the first woman, the first person of color, and other crew members to the Moon’s surface. And after that, our eyes will be on Mars,” Jason Norcross, a scientist who studies human performance at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, explained in a press statement.
Once on Mars or on the Moon, crew members will have to act readily without much feedback from operators on Earth, especially in emergency scenarios. According to Norcross, this means that it is essential to know what an astronaut can do immediately after landing on a planetary surface and how long should they wait after landing to perform certain tasks.
Norcross and a combined team from NASA’s Human Physiology, Performance, Protection and Operations Laboratory and NASA’s Neurosciences Laboratory designed an obstacle course for astronauts who will be on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 and Crew-3 missions to navigate.
Before departing to the International Space Station, the crew ran through sets of tasks starting with emerging from a mock landing capsule and then, a simulated spacewalk on a planetary surface while wearing a spacesuit.
After the mission, immediately after returning to earth, the same crew will attempt the same tasks. The simulated capsule exit a few hours after landing, and the practice planetary spacewalk about a day later.
For the first task, researchers developed a mockup with lightweight metal tubing that forms the outline of a space capsule when deployed. This is a portable frame that fits inside a large backpack. The team will set up the mock capsule at an airport close to where the Crew Dragon capsule will splashdown. Astronauts will have to enter, lie down and then, the test begins.
During the test, the astronaut will stand up and unfurl a ladder from the capsule’s top while keeping in mind the mock capsule’s boundaries. After this, they will then secure the ladder tightly, grab a survival pack, climb the ladder, and hand off the survival pack to a researcher standing nearby through a hatch at the mock capsule’s top.
In the end, the astronaut has to descend the ladder, walk about 25 feet (approximately 7.6 metres) and return to where they started.
This task involves several posture changes, like turning the head and standing up after lying down. According to Norcross, these shifts in posture are the hardest things for the crew to do immediately after landing. In fact, the researchers don’t yet know if the crew can even do it for sure yet.
The simulated planetary walk, which is the second task, will happen once astronauts have flown back to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Once they are there, they will each take turns completing a different set of challenges.
The crew will also see if they can repeatedly move two 30-pound (approximately 13kg) objects from one boulder field to another. These objects are about the size of a five-gallon (more than 18 litre) water jugs. During both tasks, astronauts will be giving verbal feedback to researchers as they progress. After they complete these tasks, the crew will also take surveys about their exertions through each step of the test process.
During the simulated Mars walk, astronauts will be wearing sensors to monitor their heart rate and energy expenditures. All of the tests will be recorded on video. According to NASA, comparing the videos before the launch to the videos after landing will help scientists understand where and why crew members struggled during tasks.