One small step

UND Space Studies students confined to Lunar-Mars Habitat for 14 days in one-of-a-kind NASA-funded research mission

Stefan Tomović,, an electrical engineering major with a minor in computer science from Cold Spring, Minn., is a crew member on UND's Space Studies' latest mission, which features two new research modules for plant production and extravehicular activities, funded with a new NASA grant of $750,000. Image courtesy of UND Space Studies.

Stefan Tomović, an electrical engineering major with a minor in computer science from Cold Spring, Minn., is a crew member on UND Space Studies’ latest mission, which features two new research modules for plant production and extravehicular activities, funded with a new NASA grant of $750,000. Image courtesy of UND Space Studies.

They call it “The Hab.” And it just might be the first step for a mission to Mars.

What looks like four giant marshmallows on the prairie near I-29 by Grand Forks is home to three graduate students and several NASA experiments for two weeks.

It’s UND’s fourth Inflatable Lunar-Mars Analog Habitat mission, funded by NASA through NASA EPSCoR. The goal is to further develop space technology.

“We are the only university in the United States to do this kind of research,” said Pablo de León, professor of space studies, who is spearheading the project. “Our work is important to understand the complexities of deep space exploration. We’re looking at the kinds of problems astronauts may encounter on a mission to Mars.”

This latest mission features two new research modules for plant production and extravehicular activities, funded with a new NASA grant of $750,000. It began in September 2015 and is scheduled to end in August 2018.

Pablo de León, professor of space studies

UND’s fourth Inflatable Lunar-Mars Analog Habitat was conceived, designed and created by Pablo de León (above), professor of space studies at UND. Image courtesy of UND Space Studies.

Living space

Inside the modules are living quarters, stations for conducting experiments and growing plants, and a module with a space vehicle. They are surprisingly bright and roomy, with narrow corridors to allow more space for experiments.

The students conduct experiments from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day for 14 days, with free time from 5 to 11 p.m. The “free time” isn’t really free – the students still have homework for other classes. Other students serve in mission control and scientific/technical support areas.

“NASA is interested in testing experiments here,” said de León. “This is a great opportunity for UND to be involved in this research.”

This latest mission features two new research modules for plant production and extravehicular activities, funded with a new NASA grant of $750,000. It began in September 2015 and is scheduled to end in August 2018.

UND student crew members, who are spending 14 days living and working inside a specially designed inflatable Lunar-Mars habitat on campus, are (left to right) Stefan Tomović, Prabhu Victor and Joseph Clift. Image courtesy of UND Space Studies.

The students will be in contact with NASA researchers throughout the mission.

“This is pretty serious,” said Stefan Tomović, one of the students in “The Hab.” “This is no vacation. The more we put in, the better the results. Not many people get to do what we do here.”

Tomović, an electrical engineering major with a minor in computer science from Cold Spring, Minn., is working with graduate students to build a computer for the plants module and works on networks and circuitry, along with taking part in biomedical experiments and psychological tests.

The most important factor of space exploration is human health, and the students will monitor and test themselves and each other.

Joseph Clift, a space studies graduate student from San Dimas, Calif., will focus on how the mission affects morale and focus.

“We know astronauts are at a high point psychologically when they begin the mission,” Clift said. “Then they plateau, and morale gets lower. It increases as they get ready to go home. We want to see if we can maintain the same level of morale throughout the mission.”

Overseeing the mission is Prabhu Victor, a space studies master’s student from Eden Prairie, Minn., who earned his electrical engineering undergraduate degree from UND. Along with ensuring the mission goes well, he will spend what little free time he has writing his thesis.

“I want to evaluate my reaction to a confined environment, as well as how team dynamics change throughout the mission,” Victor said. “I believe this could help learn about variables that increase or decrease stress and help improve team morale for future missions.”

Prabhu Victor,

Overseeing the mission is Prabhu Victor, a space studies master’s student from Eden Prairie, Minn., who earned his electrical engineering undergraduate degree from UND. Image courtesy of UND Space Studies.

Groundbreaking work

This newest project continues UND’s groundbreaking work in space studies. The department has incorporated human spaceflight into the curriculum since 2004, making UND one of the few universities in the world to offer human spaceflight-related courses.

In 2009, UND was the first university to be awarded a grant from NASA to study inflatable habitats that could be adapted for use on the Moon and Mars. UND is also the first university with two fully operational spaceflight simulators, designed and made by students from space studies, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. Students have also developed several spacesuit prototypes.

“I do this because I love space,” said de León. “For us, it’s the first step to Mars.”