Jacob Smith, a third year MEng (hons) Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Bath, has just returned from participating in the LEARN (Lunar Exploration Activities and Remote Navigation) mission which took place in the Lunares habitat in Pila, Poland.
The habitat in which Jacob spent two weeks, simulated the type of conditions future astronauts will experience living on the moon. Jacob was the only UK student to take part in this mission which monitored how the five-strong simulation crew reacted and adapted to these conditions, providing future mission designers with invaluable information in helping them make life as comfortable as possible for astronauts who in the near future could be spending weeks or months on the moon.
As part of the LEARN mission, Jacob joined an international team of crew members from Poland, Estonia and Slovakia in the role of Communications Officer – the primary communicator between the crew and Mission Control based at ESTEC - the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Technical facility in the Netherlands.
Over the two week period, the crew conducted extensive experiments to study their physical and mental health, stress levels, memory, group dynamics, performance, and behaviour in isolation. A variety of collaborating research groups also benefitted from experiments in the fields of hydroponic plant cultivation, psychology, tele-operations, the sense of security in isolation, bioacoustics, and diet and oral health in space - the crew ate only freeze-dried food to study its effects on their saliva and oral hygiene.
Commenting on the experience, Jacob said:
Being cut off from the outside world for two weeks, eating nothing but freeze-dried food; measuring and recording absolutely everything; and completing surveys and reports every day…was quite different to my normal life but I quickly got used to it and none of it bothered me! The experience showed me I can live happily in isolation, but I know that it was largely down to the fantastic crew-mates I was with. We worked together incredibly well, bringing together our different backgrounds and individual skills and ideas to successfully live and work in the habitat. I liked following a strict schedule for everything – eating, exercising, conducting experiments, sleeping, etc – meant I was productive and focussed throughout the mission. This experience has definitely whet my appetite for more space adventures.
Jacob was personally responsible for operating the 3D printer, allowing tools to be made in-situ since there was no option for delivery. Jacob was also in charge of the biological laboratory, taking care of living organisms in the habitat and managing the habitat bioreactors that were used to recycle organic waste.
On the face of it, the habitat was not too dissimilar to everyday living amenities – the crew had access a shared dormitory, kitchen, office, biological laboratory, analytical laboratory, equipment storage, gym and bathroom, as well as a main living area.
The mission was designed to be as identical as possible to what is predicted a crew could experience on the moon. Jacob and the crew had to maintain the life support systems and also learn how to manage limited resources such as water and food. They were only able to leave the habitat wearing spacesuits to explore the adjoining hangar, which was made to emulate the lunar surface with basalt rocks and dust.
To emulate the light conditions on the moon, the LEARN participants saw no natural daylight with artificial lighting in the base, controlled by the Mission Control Crew (MCC) to extend the length of the artificial day much like what astronauts endure in space where a lunar day lasts 24 hours and 50 minutes.
Jacob and the team also learnt to waste as little as possible. The crew did not shower during the mission, instead using a small towel and bucket for washing. All the water they used for washing, cleaning, and drinking/eating was recorded, and they also measured their urine, and monitored the temperature and humidity in each room of the habitat. Every day after waking up and before going to bed they measured their heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, weight, and pulse oximetry to observe changes to their body over the two week period.
Academic tutor and Senior Lecturer in the University of Bath’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Dr Jos Darling, added:
Sending a student into (simulated) space is a first for the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Jacob has been uniquely privileged to experience life on a space station. His knowledge of the space environment will help develop our existing teaching of Space Engineering and as a result of his initiative and drive he’s been a great ambassador for the Department and the University.
For more information about the LEARN mission, visit the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/learnmission/