Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Nora Swisher and Diane Turnshek
As a child, Nora Swisher dreamed of attending space camp. Now she's a Ph.D candidate studying physics in Carnegie Mellon University's Mellon College of Science. And she has been selected as one of six crew members who will spend two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah. Her fellow crew members will include CMU faculty and astronomy outreach coordinator Diane Turnshek. Their experiments will help astronauts prepare for human exploration on the red planet.
"I like the idea of trying new things," Swisher said. "If NASA or the private agencies that are starting up now sent out a call for volunteers to be Mars colonizers, I would definitely sign up." The crew will be required to complete all of the same reports as if they were astronauts. Swisher is looking forward to the opportunity to do things she's never done before. "One crew member is a geologist. So, I'm sure we'll help her on the geology work she'll be doing, which should be fun," said Swisher.
Using the station's observatory, Turnshek will take advantage of the long nights around the winter solstice to search the sky for exo-solar planets, which are planets around nearby stars. The crew will study how well the rehydrated meals satisfy the nutritional and psychological need for food. Exercise experiments will also be conducted.
"Mars has one-third the gravity of Earth, so it will be a challenge for astronauts there to keep muscles toned," Turnshek explained. They'll be required to wear spacesuits outdoors, go in and out of airlocks, test all-terrain vehicles, share one bathroom and use biodegradable soap. It'll be close quarters with only an hour or two of downtime in the evenings to journal, rest and email friends and family with a 20-minute built-in communication time lag. A self-described introvert, Swisher says she'll be curious to see how two weeks with virtually no time alone will affect her.
"There are things that scientists can do in the lab to, say, make better spacesuits or structures to live in. But you can't have a successful space mission with humans if you don't know how humans will respond in situations like this," Swisher said. Turnshek hopes their analog Mars adventure inspires more women to consider careers in science.
"Nora brings fresh eyes to the eroded desert vistas, and her vision will shape a new age," Turnshek said of her student. "Hopefully, this trip will give Nora an amazing science experience to share, and in the sharing, perhaps inspire some of today's youths to follow in her dusty, rusty footsteps all the way to Mars."
Dan Wilcox (A'13), a CMU master of fine arts student, is also on the crew. His documentation of what life is expected to be like for the first humans on Mars will form the basis of his thesis project, which is a live musical performance and concept album.