In Fall 2023, I had the unique opportunity to serve as a mission controller for the 5i analog mission involving members of the American Public University System Analog Research Group (AARG). The setting for this mission was the University of North Dakota’s Inflatable Lunar/Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH), designed to simulate a space habitat. Our mission spanned 14 days and was dedicated to performing research aimed at expanding humanity’s capabilities for living and working in space.
As a mission controller, my primary role was to establish and maintain communications between the crew and the outside world. I was at the center of the mission, responsible for coordinating all external interactions with the ILMAH crew. I also ensured the crew remained informed about crucial updates, including weather, habitat conditions, and emergency situations.
For communications, we used a text-based messaging service called Emulating Communication Delays for Human Spaceflight Operations (ECHO). On this system, mission controllers and analog crew members typed out messages to each other throughout the mission.
Crisis Communications during a Simulated Emergency
The first real test of my abilities came unexpectedly on the fourth day of the mission. Still acclimating to my responsibilities, I was surprised by a simulated emergency.
Little did I know that I would experience a roller coaster of stress and excitement. The simulation involved a gas leak in ILMAH’s science lab, requiring the crew to perform an emergency Extravehicular Activity (EVA).
Although the steps in this simulation had me second-guessing myself, I steered the crew through the critical steps of the emergency protocol for such an emergency, prioritizing the crew’s safety. Despite my initial nerves, my focus sharpened under the pressure and allowed me to effectively collaborate with the crew to resolve the “emergency.” I also developed a deeper understanding of the importance of communicating accurate, timely information.
After the simulated emergency was over, there was some relief among mission control and the crew that it would be smooth sailing afterward. However, I learned that the challenges of being a mission controller extended beyond simulated emergencies.
Coping with Communication Delays
One significant obstacle that emerged during the 5i analog mission was a 20-minute communication delay, mimicking the time lag that astronauts would experience during real Mars missions. This delay transformed even simple tasks into complex operations, and a single conversation could take over 40 minutes.
Adapting to this delay required a shift in my normal communication and decision-making. I learned to anticipate the crew’s needs and provided information I thought they might want in advance.
That information helped to minimize the impact of the time delay on the crew’s operations. This aspect of the mission provided insights into the patience and foresight needed by both crew members and mission controllers during real space missions.
Takeaways from the 5i Analog Mission
Overall, serving as a mission controller was not only a test of my technical skills and mental toughness, but the experience also helped me to better understand the human aspects of space travel. Ensuring clear, empathetic communications, showing my motivation and fostering a sense of teamwork was integral to the mission’s success.
This mission highlighted the importance of human emotions in space missions, where mental and emotional resilience are just as vital as technical expertise. I gained invaluable experience regarding how important teamwork is between mission controllers and crew members.
My experience as a mission controller also underscored the critical skills of leadership and adaptability in a digital environment. Leading a team through unforeseen challenges and maintaining composure over text-based messages is more difficult than it sounds.
These skills are also applicable to real-life scenarios, where effective leadership in a digital environment can make a difference. As technology continues to advance and humans venture into space, being able to effectively communicate and lead teams using a digital platform will be essential.
As humanity inches closer to interplanetary travel, missions like the 5i analog mission offer vital insights into the potential challenges of life beyond Earth. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to play a role in this mission and bring humanity a little bit closer to traveling the cosmos.