Virginia Beach engineer chosen for NASA’s yearlong simulation of life on red planet

Tribune Content Agency

By the time you’re reading this, Ross Brockwell will be on his way to Mars.

Not the actual red planet, but something close.

Brockwell, a Virginia Beach native, is one of four crew members selected to embark on a mission at Johnson Space Center in Houston. For the next year, the crew will live in a simulated version of Mars.

The mission is part of Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog. It’s the first of three planned one-year Mars surface simulations, during which crew members will live and work in a 3D-printed, 1,700-square-foot habitat called Mars Dune Alpha. The space will include four private crew quarters, work stations, a medical station, lounge areas and food growing stations. Mission 2 is planned for 2025, and Mission 3 will be in 2026.

During the operation, researchers will simulate the challenges of a human mission to Mars. To be as realistic as possible, the crew also will face environmental stressors such as resource limitations, isolation and equipment failure. Similar scenarios played out in the 2015 film “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon.

“It’s a huge honor, and it’s very exciting,” said Brockwell, who will serve as flight engineer. “It’s really exciting that this mission to Mars is happening in our lifetime, and it’s great that I can be a part of that. It’s wonderful.”

Applications for the mission went out in 2021, and Brockwell said he went through a series of interviews before being selected. Candidates had to be 30-55 years old, nonsmokers and proficient in English for effective communication between crew and mission control. A master’s degree in a STEM field with at least two years of professional STEM experience or a minimum of 1,000 hours piloting an aircraft also was required.

The goal is to help NASA scientists study impacts of long-duration missions on the health and performance of crew members.

“Ultimately, this information will help NASA make informed decisions to design and plan for a successful human mission to Mars,” said Grace Douglas, CHAPEA principal investigator.

During the simulation, crew members will carry out different activities, including simulated spacewalks, robotic operations, habitat maintenance, personal hygiene, exercise and crop growth. Hailing from California to Illinois to Virginia, crew members have a diverse set of skills.

Other members of the CHAPEA crew include a research scientist with experience building models of human disease, an emergency medical director and tactical physician and an advanced practice nurse. There will also be two back-up crew members, who are a senior principal engineer in the aerospace and defense industry and a microbiologist in the Navy. Brockwell said he and his fellow crew members have met, and part of the pre-mission process included a backcountry trip in Wyoming.

“We’re really looking at how the crew performance and health changes based on realistic Mars restrictions and lifestyle of the crew members,” said Raina MacLeod, CHAPEA deputy project manager at Johnson. “So, the lifestyle is what we’re trying to simulate by setting up a realistic environment and workload for the CHAPEA crew.”

Brockwell and the other crew members will complete more training in Houston over the next month, and by the end of June, will be ready to begin their year on the simulated red planet.

“I think in our own way, we’ve each all been trying to prepare mentally and physically for this. It’s a long-duration mission, so we’ve been trying to prepare for that,” Brockwell said. “I’m a little nervous about the day-to-day life stuff being taken care of. Did I think of everything? Do I have everything covered?

“But I think that’s probably part of this, too. I’ve learned a lot about priorities in that process, and I think even that experience will probably help the mission.”

Despite the challenges, Brockwell said he is more than ready to get started.

“There are some things about normal life that I’m a little bit nervous about, but I’m pretty confident I have everything set up,” he said. “I’m way more excited than nervous, so I’m anxious to get in there.”