• A man smiling and a simulation room near him

      Ross Brockwell (Photos – NASA)

      Caltech Alumnus Ross Brockwell is living on the Red Planet—in Houston.

      By Elise Cutts

      On June 25, Caltech alumnus, structural engineer Ross Brockwell stepped into a 1,700-square-foot, 3-D-printed habitat at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to start a yearlong mission for NASA.

      He could not wait to begin. Since the doors swung closed behind him, he has been cut off from his friends and family, been bombarded with stressful tasks, and eaten a copious amount of freeze-dried astronaut food.

      The space agency tapped Brockwell, who earned his Caltech master’s degree in aeronautics, to serve as flight engineer for the first of three planned Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) missions. Along with three crewmates, he will spend a year inside the Mars Dune Alpha habitat coping with challenges like equipment failures and resource shortages as the team tries to accomplish its mission. Meanwhile, NASA scientists will monitor the crew’s mental and physical health to learn how to keep astronauts fit during future long-term missions to Mars.

      At Mars Dune Alpha, Brockwell is effectively on another planet. His messages to the outside world are even slowed by a simulated communications delay. Last month, before he headed to Houston, he answered questions to ask about the mission selection process, his role as flight engineer, and what has been on his mind as he prepared for a year on “Mars.”

      What made you think, “I want to do this!”

      I’ve always been interested in the space program and the Mars mission in particular, and I got into structural engineering thinking I might be able to design space stations, habitats, orbiters, rockets, and things like that. That’s why I was so interested in going to Caltech, and why I got into city planning and infrastructure. I’ve always thought that community design would be a part of the space program someday.”

      What was the selection process like?

      There was a medical, and then I went to Houston for a week or so. There were psychological evaluations and various exams, tests, and interviews. They presented us with a few mission-realistic tasks both individually and as a group, which was super cool. I mean, it was at the Johnson Space Center in Houston!

      There was also a virtual reality component to this, so we got to try that out. We also took part in this expedition over the mountains in Wyoming for almost two weeks as a small group with an expedition leader and a psychologist from NASA. We did a little adventure up in the backcountry. It was amazing.”

      What will your responsibilities entail, and how will they differ from what you’re used to as a structural engineer?

      Maintenance of the structure itself, and some of the energy and oxygen and water-cycling systems probably will be things that I’ll be expected to take the lead on. Some of the problem-solving aspects are universal, and some of the management parts are too. But I can imagine there’ll be something related to solar panels—that wouldn’t be a surprise: it’s obviously going to be a big part of a real mission. I don’t do that in my day-to-day, but it’s something I’ve always been interested in.”

      Are you going to miss anything specific from the outside world during the mission?

      I’ll miss fresh seafood for sure! I was actually just talking about that the other day. I can literally walk down the street in Virginia Beach where I live and have some of the best seafood you can get.”

      As the start date approaches, what’s been on your mind the most?

      I would hope that this mission could help spread some excitement and build some appreciation for the value of the space program in general. There’s been some debate over it. I hope that starting to talk about the exploration of the moon and Mars will help society keep things in perspective and foster a healthy discussion about the value of these unified projects and exploration efforts. There’s sometimes a discussion as if it’s Earth versus Mars, and I really hope we can bridge that gap. Reaching out into space and exploring Mars only adds to the appreciation and understanding of our home planet. It’s not either/or.”

      two beds next to each other separated by a wall

      Sleeping quarters (Photos – NASA

      A kitchen quarter with tables, chairs, TV and sink

      Kitchen (Photos – NASA

      This article has been edited for clarity. It was first published on caltech.edu.


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