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Astronaut alumnus has advice for coping with isolation

March 24, 2020   /   by Colleen Kearney Rich

Mason alumnus Mounir Alafrangy (seated) spent 45 days inside the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) habitat as part of a simulated mission to Phobos, Mars' largest moon. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Mounir Alafrangy knows a bit about isolation and being quarantined. In October 2019, the George Mason University alumnus successfully completed a 45-day confined space mission at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Alafrangy, BA History 2010, was one of four crew members, known as analog astronauts, who were selected from a large pool of applicants to be part of Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) Mission XX, a space mission simulation to Phobos, the largest moon of the planet Mars.

While they simulated a landing on Phobos, the crew stayed inside of the HERA habitat in Houston for the duration of the mission. HERA is a ground-based analog used by NASA’s Human Research Program to study the effects of isolation and confinement on humans. This research will help NASA better understand the hazards of human spaceflight as it prepares to send astronauts to the Moon and on to Mars, and bring them safely home.

In 2014 NASA started with seven-day missions, which have lengthened over time as systems, procedures and objectives expanded. This mission was seventh to last 45 days.

With people with or exposed to the coronavirus, COVID-19, either quarantining or isolating, we asked Alafrangy how he dealt with being cooped up, how he got involved in the mission and his training.

Do you have any advice for people self-quarantining or just working remotely?
In regards to managing yourself while in isolation, what I found to be helpful is to spend a couple of days creating a schedule that includes all the things you’d like to accomplish. For example:

  • Waking up and going to bed at the same time everyday helped me be efficient during my waking hours. 
  • I exercised every day for 30 minutes, alternating cardio and resistant days. I uploaded every day’s exercise data into an Excel sheet to see my progress with respect to time. This helped keep the motivation going.
  • I also gave myself “white space” areas in my schedule so I could do whatever I was feeling like—but never took naps.
  • Set your goals, and remember to take pride in accomplishing them. Even the little ones.
  • Lastly, follow the schedule you made strictly, and enjoy the people you are with.

Is there anything in your life that helped prepare you for that?
I actually love being outdoors so that presented a few challenges since I wasn't able to see the sky or run. However, parts of that also prepared me, such as camping and the types of food you eat while backpacking. Almost everything we ate was dehydrated, so doing a 70-mile hike down the C&O Canal a couple summers ago helped prep me for that part of the experience.

What is the biggest risk with something like this?

There are certainly risks involved with something like this, mental health being one of them since it can be impacted by so many things. As I mentioned, the testing you go through before being selected is quite thorough, so I believe they are trying to select candidates who they believe have what it takes to be in this type of environment. They do also monitor our mental health throughout the program to ensure we are okay. Mission Control Center (MCC) and the scientists that run HERA were some of the smartest and brightest minds I’ve ever met. I never doubted them and always felt like I was in great hands. I’m happy I made friends for life with a lot of them. 

How did you become involved in this program? 

I learned about this opportunity through my fiancé who was taking a "Human Health in Space" course at George Washington University. She had a speaker who works with a number of analogs related to space, and HERA was one of them. Knowing about my interest in space exploration, specifically, the human health aspect of it, and my background in mechanical and aerospace engineering, she thought this opportunity would be a perfect fit. So, she encouraged me to apply. The application process took a number of months and many rounds of both physical and psychological tests. At the end, I was selected as one of four participants. 

I saw that you all trained together before the mission. What was your training regime like? 

We all arrived in Houston, Texas, about two weeks before the mission started. We trained for at least eight hours a day on a variety of systems, tools and processes we would need to perform while in the habitat. For example, I trained for a several hours before the mission on the robotic arm, the Canadarm, to become familiar with it and learn how to virtually grapple cargo sent to the spacecraft. I also trained on our moon landings using virtual reality headgear. We also spent a lot of time doing team-building exercises and working on interpersonal techniques that could help us get along during the long isolation period. 

What did you do during those 45 days? Were you assigned a job or jobs? Did they throw emergencies at you? 

It's is hard to summarize what we did—it was a lot. We spent approximately 15 hours a day working on a variety of tasks. Generally speaking, those tasks were very similar to those experienced and done by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). We captured cargo using the same mechanism, the Canadarm, they have on the ISS; we did virtual moon landings on Phobos where we collected samples; and we also did many experiments. While I can't go into too many details, I can say that from what we were told, the experience is very similar to being on the ISS. Emergencies? No, they wouldn’t do that…would they?

What do you do when not on a mission? 

When I'm not on a mission, I'm working on developing tools for use in the space environment as I am passionate about deep space exploration. I also enjoy camping, hiking and being outside. Being in confinement gave me additional appreciation for our beautiful blue sky. Afterall, there is no place like Earth.  

What do you have planned next? 

I'm working for a private company on expanding their space exploration unit. My time with HERA gave me a unique perspective on the needs and opportunities within that environment. I'm looking to take what I've learned and create solutions for the space sector that will enable the human species to explore further into space and survive there for longer periods of time. 

The Human Exploration Research Analog habitat. Photo courtesy of NASA.