NUI Galway PHD student Ilaria Cinelli explains the unique challenges of engineering solutions for space missions. Cinelli was selected as commander of Crew 172 in 2016 and Crew 185 in 2017 of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) and also won the Emerging Space Leader Scholarship by MDRS. During a four-week mission in Utah she collected data-based research on the crew’s behavioural patterns throughout the mission and tested emerging technology. During the mission there were numerous stressors on the crew. “Stress is a reaction produced in someone by one or more stressors – this can pertain to conflicts in the self, interpersonal relationships, performance, psychiatric and environmental factors. All of those are different stressors that are affecting the performance of the crew member and the success of the mission,” explains Cinelli.

Threshold for what is categorised as an emergency is decreasing

“Astronauts undergo intensive physical and mental training because they have got to live there [in space] for at least six months (as on the International Space Station), thinking every minute that something really bad can happen. When you are in space your threshold for what is categorised as an emergency is decreasing because you are getting used to the environment – the environment itself is not changing. “The training for the analogue [simulated environment] missions are different. The challenge here is to keep the balance in the crew. If you send people to Mars for two years, as scientists we have got to predict, or estimate at least, what are going to be the interpersonal relationships between the crew and how that will impact the mission itself. "During the analogue missions there are a lot of stress factors that we monitor as the crew communicate with the mission support centre by email. “During analogue missions on Earth, we assess the mission structure and management, monitoring stress factors in the crew. We test procedures and protocols, and we assess the structure for a one-national or international crew. On Mars or on the moon, the human body adaptation reserves a variety of surprises, so the game is not over.

Time pressures

"Of course, there is a great variety to the types of analogue missions that are being currently carried out. And they cannot be treated the same in research terms. The risk with the analogue missions is that you have a short period of time to observe certain stressors because the period of the mission can be two weeks, a month, up to a year but that is usually a small window of time if it is not well used,” says Cinelli. “And there are very few missions lasting a year, which have different issues related to the small sample size. At the moment, there are only one or two places where that’s being done and the population that goes there is six crew members. It’s hard to set rules derived from a study of six people. “What is often missing in the engineering required for these missions is that when you are stressed, you might use technology in the wrong way because you are not able any more to understand precisely what is happening around you. And this is something easily overlooked. "For example, we cannot think that the technology that we will produce in 10 years’ time will be used on Mars. And the reason for this is that there is a time required to assess the technology and the human factors together. We cannot assume that we can rely on future technology to get onto Mars.”

New versus old technology

Cinelli points out how this would involve significant limitations because the people that will be selected for the first Mars mission are probably very young now, so they are used to emerging technology. “If you ask them to work with technology that is 10 years old, based on the current culture, this is a nightmare for them. Imagine being asked to do your work with previous technology – without perhaps using a computer or phone? “Even technology like wifi is quite recent but if you remove that from the life of a typical person, many people will freak out. If told to choose between wifi, water and food, many people will not care about nutrition and will choose wifi. This must be considered in the context of these missions. The use of wifi on our analogue mission led to difficult discussions on what people felt they needed. “Part of the reason for this is that most of us now have a virtual identity and we must preserve it as we must preserve our physical identity. This is something that we are daily taking care of because we want the other to think that we are that virtual identity. So if people tell you that for one year you are not going to be able to use social media or check your email, this is a nightmare. Not everybody is very flexible and able to do that,” she says.

Significant engineering problems

“As engineers we must optimise everything while taking into account the precise customer needs. The devices we create must be done so as not to be based on expected market success but on the success of the mission. "The people engaged in the mission must not only know how to use a device, but also how to fix it. The creativity aspect for the engineer is greatly reduced. It is hard for an engineer to go on Mars for the simple reason that they are losing creativity. “This happened in just the two-week analogue missions. You lose creativity. If you think of the typical life of an engineer, we may work in a beautiful office with computers and other technology – if you put us in a grey room for two weeks with very basic tools and using technology that may be 20 years old, there is limited creativity for the engineer. The skills to fix the problems that arise are very tough to learn and maintain. “Think about how many engineers and other people and are involved in a space mission and how difficult is to understand the full picture. It is hard to encourage innovation in a very unusual and restrictive environment and at the same time to keep in mind that there is a huge picture around that is affecting everything you do. This is the reason for which analogue missions are trials for the validation of the mission structure.”

A multidisciplinary approach to space sciences

Biomedical engineering in space is easily identified with spacesuits and life support systems but Cinelli emphasises that engineering encompasses many other factors, such as how you structure the mission, and that we cannot simply separate out the biomedical engineering elements. “When we think about, for example, designing a device in space, we have got to consider all of these fields together to optimise it. On Earth, it is different because you can release a device and then optimise it as you gather feedback from customers. What is challenging is that the astronaut population is not only tiny but also are very particular, which makes it harder to validate any device. “As a biomedical engineer, I am trying to enhance my knowledge in psychology, psychiatry, chemistry and other topics to have as clear a picture as possible of the problems that we face," explains Cinelli. “So, what is the point of space exploration? Mars is far away, is complex and probably we won’t get there in our lifetime. So, why is it so important? Because 'life in space is for life on Earth'. Every step forward in space exploration and space life-sciences is beneficial to our life on Earth. I was invited to the International Space Medicine Summit to set the bases of translation to terrestrial medicine for the incoming years. “For instance, a recent advance in our knowledge is that in space, we use our legs less than on Earth, and our brains actually compensate for that to maintain our balance. So, the area of the brain that controls our legs is not shrinking as would happen on Earth. The brain tries to rebalance what it loses on microgravity. The opposite happens to what would happen on Earth.

Sleep research

Then, there is a lot of study on sleep research in space. The way the sleep and circadian rhythms are altered will impact the performance of an astronaut and this is one of the biggest successes in terms of translation. “All of this research done in space is applicable to people such as pilots or night-shift workers on Earth. “We never stop learning about the importance of sleep and how it affects us," adds Cinelli. “What I’m trying to say with my current talks and activities is that you can go anywhere in space, but you have got to have a specific vision and a compelling personal goal. Failure is ordinary, success comes from the best use of failures. “When you leave this planet, you don’t go out thinking ‘I am from Ireland’ or ‘I am from Italy’. You think that you are representing humanity. I think this is crucial to changing our point of view so that it leads us to respect our planet more. “I want to do science and engineering that benefits humanity. As long as I am productive as an engineer, I want my research outcomes to be used for humanity, not for a single nation or product. I’m training as an emerging space leader to achieve the requirements to be selected as an astronaut. But it’s not a game that is over – it’s a huge, complex game. Train hard – fight easy.” Ilaria tweets from @tgcine - You can view her TedX talk - Lesson from Mars: don't fight, explore! -