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Mars Analog Missions - An Interview with Yael Yair Helman

This summer saw the launch of three robotic exploration missions to Mars: China's Tianwen-1 , the UAE's Hope, and NASA's Perseverance from the USA. These missions will hopefully succeed in reaching their destinations and return exciting new scientific information, whether from orbit or from the surface of the red planet.

While missions like these have provided a wealth of insights into the physical environment on Mars, robots cannot predict in situ human behaviour on future crewed mission; and we can't rely solely on Mark Wahlberg's acting to plan billion-dollar planetary exploration. Analog missions, which recreate Martian conditions here on Earth, are one of the best ways to study how people are likely to behave on a crewed mission

Taken from the northern end of the crater
Makhtesh Ramon. Image Credit: Kovi Rose

Besides being a spectacular place for stargazing and astrophotography, the Ramon crater's geology, arid weather, and isolation make it an ideal location for Mars analog research.

We spoke to Yael Yair Helman, a PhD student in molecular microbiology, about her experience as a "Ramonaut" in one of the D-MARS missions last year. Yael, who felt an affinity for space since childhood, also told us about her history with space, which started with her father’s work on the MEIDEX program.

Yael: My father worked with Ilan Ramon [Israeli astronaut and member of the fatal STS-107 Columbia mission]. The experience and subsequent tragedy really impacted him and our whole family. It wasn't depressing, rather we all kept dreaming towards space - There was a whole world out there waiting for us to discover it.

Fun Fact Science: How did you first get involved in the space industry and the D-MARS project?

Yael: My first space-related job was with SpacePharma doing microgravity research on bacteria and then, with D-MARS, I was a science officer in the control room for the first analog mission. After that I got the chance to be a Ramonaut in a subsequent mission and immediately jumped at the opportunity.

FFS: Could you tell us a little bit about D-MARS?

Yael: D-MARS is a centre for Mars analog missions. This organisation has the enormous potential to become a worldwide centre and place for collaborations. We are planning a big collaboration with Austria (AMADEE), which has unfortunately been delayed due to the COVID19 situation.

FFS: This mission was significantly longer than the previous analog missions. Did you prepare for it mentally and/or physically?

Yael: Physically of course, my main concern was the physical side - the spacesuit and PLSS (primary life support system) are very heavy. Despite training in advance, it was still difficult at first but I got used to it and overcame in the end. Mentally, you can't really prepare in advance for how the isolation and the intensity of the mission will impact you. You're cut off for 2 weeks and the outside world doesn't wait for you.

FFS: How was the mission on a personal level?

D-MARS Crew Unity Handshake Image Credit: D-MARS

Yael: For me one of the most amazing parts of the experience was the crew. The human factor is one of the most important, because it's crucial to be able to communicate and decompress with your crew-mates. If you try to keep it all inside, you'll explode but everyone was really empathetic and sensitive to each other's needs.

FFS: What was the most challenging part for you and how did you overcome?

Yael: Two things: Firstly, the biggest obstacle was being the science officer as I was responsible for all of the experiments. This involved me going out to get samples in extreme weather conditions - some days it was 5 °C outside, others it was 35 °C. My goals were very clear and I think that knowing them helped me stay in line. With that said, you can’t control everything and it’s important to be able to adapt quickly. We had some small technical problems but as long as you know your fundamentals you can improvise. This is one of the advantages of analog missions, the ability to practice solving these issues in a safe environment. The second main challenge was the isolation. We had a very limited connection to the outside world - the control room communication was delayed by 20 minutes, so by the time you get an answer to a question it could take 40 minutes or more! It was tough missing my family, friends, and my dog.

Crew of the third DMARS Mars Analog Mission
The crew poster for Yael's D-MARS mission. Image Credit: D-MARS

FFS: What was the daily schedule for the crew during the mission?

Yael: Generally, we woke up around 7:00. Drank coffee, ate breakfast and then had our morning briefing. Then at 8:00 I would start preparing/stretching for my daily EVA (extravehicular activity). There was always someone with me, in case something happened, and I would usually come back by 9:30. It took 20 minutes to take off the suit and it was important to stay hydrated and stretch down afterwards. Then I would do experiments with DNA extraction from the soil samples until about 12:00. It was really important to document everything, I had another crew member helping me to organise notes on everything.

In the evenings after dinner we’d relax, listen to music, and play games like Settlers of Catan and Cards Against Humanity. We'd often talk about family and life - everything but politics - as drank tea which helped to warm us up during the cold nights in the desert. Around 22:00 we’d head to our sleeping pods, and I have to tell you that sleeping in a sleeping pod is the BEST. It was just designed in a very clever way, not like a tomb. It was really spacious and I even started to call it my room at one point.

FFS: What were the objectives for the mission and were they achieved?

Yael: The main experiment - which was designed by myself and by Dr. Reut Sorek Abramovich - was a lot of responsibility. We had to be very careful to avoid contamination and managed to do pretty high-level science considering the environment. We also had psychological and sustainability experiments, so I gave each crew member an experiment that they would be in charge of to help share the workload. The main goals were the scientific ones but it was also important to test the infrastructure’s ability to support a mission this long. It was important that we obtained good scientific results that could be used in papers and also that everyone had an enjoyable experience. For myself at least I can say that all of the goals were achieved. 

Yael collecting samples during an EVA from the habitat. Image Credit: D-MARS

FFS: How do you see analog missions like D-MARS contributing to society?

Yael: Analog missions are very powerful tools. We can’t simulate everything - like the gravity for instance - but simulating the isolation and the suit with its limited dexterity for delicate tasks, this enables us to calibrate the relevant protocols for future missions; of course you can't understand how much is required until you do actually do it. After these kinds of missions we can better understand what challenges we will face on Mars, and develop protocols for things like communication and sanitation ahead of time.

FFS: How would you summarise the experience?

Yael: It was an intense, challenging, empowering experience and I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to do it. I worked really hard to get into the project, which was a once-in a lifetime experience. It was my first project as an independent researcher and it definitely helped to boost my self-confidence in my abilities.

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