My ICES 2013 Experience

Last week I had the honor of representing HI-SEAS at the 43rd International Conference on Environmental Systems (ICES) in Vail, Colorado. With over 260 attendees, the meeting featured more than 200 technical presentations on topics related to human spaceflight, including environmental control and life support systems, thermal control systems, EVA systems, habitats, terrestrial analogs, and aerospace human factors. As a non-engineer, I found myself a bit out of my element, which made everything I learned all that more exciting. This post provides short summaries of the talks I found most interesting at the conference, as well as the poster I presented there.

ICES began with a keynote address by John Curry of Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) on "Dream Chaser: The Future of Human Spaceflight." The Dream Chaser traces its heritage back to several lifting body craft such as the X-24A, M2-F3, and HL-10 vehicles which were developed in the 1960s. After Russia successfully flew their BOR-4 spaceplanes on five flights (4 orbital, 1 suborbital) in the early 1980s, NASA responded with the HL-20 spaceplane, which incorporated many aspects of the Russian design with Shuttle-derived technologies to became what we know as the Dream Chaser today.

SNC is one of three remaining competitors in NASA's Commercial Crew Program and is the only one using Shuttle heritage hardware. Later this summer, they will test their "Engineering Test Article" glider prototype by lifting it up with a sky crane, cutting the rope, and flying it back to Earth for a runway landing at 190 knots. Eventually, an Atlas V 402 will carry the Dream Chaser to orbit starting in 2016. The Dream Chaser can handle a wide range of missions with cargo, crew, or both and can hold up to 7 people.

The highlight of the first day of the conference for me was the marathon 4-hour ICES poster session, which afforded me opportunities to speak with dozens of people about the HI-SEAS analog field research program in Hawaii. These conversations brought up some great ideas for potential future work in the program, and I made sure to let people know of the upcoming opportunistic collaboration opportunities too. HI-SEAS has received three additional years of funding from the NASA Human Research Program to support three more crewed missions beyond the one that is going on now. Learn more about it in my poster below:

My (hardly edited) notes from the technical sessions follow. The ICES meeting was filled with all kinds of interesting sessions. I primarily focused on attending talks related to planetary surface exploration systems like space suits, EVA operations, and habitats.

Amy Ross of NASA JSC gave a great presentation on recent testing of the NASA Z-1 spacesuit. This suit was designed to support suit ports and be used for planetary surface EVAs. The aesthetics remind me very much of Buzz Lightyear, with lime green highlights on a white suit. They have done extensive testing with three experienced test subjects at the Anthropometry and Biomechanics Facility to study joint movement and functional task range of motion. The feedback has been that the suit is very mobile. Ross remarked that, "you could do the hula dance in the Z-1." I wonder if she might have been subconsciously foreshadowing a field test in Hawaii? :)

Shane Jacobs from the David Clark Company gave a fascinating talk about the suits used for Red Bull Stratos. The record-breaking space dive from 39 kilometers altitude posed specific challenges and requirements. For example, typical pressure suits place the wearer in a seated geometry, which may be perfect for U2 pilots but not for Felix Baumgartner, who had to go from a seated position to standing and then to skydiving position. His suit had a number of other unique advancements like an integrated oxygen delivery system that ensures CO2 washout while minimizing visor fogging and consumable usage. It was outfitted with accelerometers, cameras, GPS, antennas, boot heaters, and glove mirrors too for added visibility too. Some of the innovative modifications made for his suit will make it into the David Clark Company's next production model suits primarily aimed at commercial suborbital clients.

Speaking of commercial applications, David Graziosi from ILC Dover presented a very interesting talk about partial pressure suit design considerations for the commercial spaceflight market. He identified five factors that will be particularly important for space tourists: cost, safety, aesthetics, comfort, and performance. There are tradeoffs in each area. For example, what part of the suit should be considered reusable vs. consumable by each wearer (to take home as a souvenir)? Either the undergarment or overgarment could become the wearer's after the flight, with the overgarment even having the branding of the company and customizations like name tags. Space tourists will be paying a lot of money to fly, so they don't want the experience compromised by an uncomfortable suit either. Since they'll likely be sitting for a long time strapped into a seat, it's important that the suit regulate temperature well, not smell bad, be ergonomically sound, and allow the wearer to control comfort to some degree.

David Akin from the University of Maryland Space Systems Laboratory gave an extremely informative talk on the Desert FLEAS (Field Lessons in Engineering and Science) program, which is jointly run by University of Maryland and Arizona State University. Using only trained field geologists as test subjects, they have done three field tests of their MX series spacesuits and RAVEN Astronaut Support Rovers in Arizona since 2010. All Desert FLEAS tests compare field geology activities across several regimes: shirt sleeves (control), EVA, EVA+rover, teleoperated. They have studied terrain trafficability, robotic sample collection, head-tracking command interface for rover control, night EVA operations, active suit cooling systems, crew riding on the rover, and the Body Pose Measurement System (BPMS), which is a skin tight suit with sensors to track all body motions. The fourth field campaign Desert FLEAS IV will most likely commence in January 2014. It will focus on 2-person extended duration EVAs along with tele-operated dextrous robotics. The ultimate goal of this work is to come up with a suit and rover design that helps rather than hinders planetary field geologists. HI-SEAS crewmembers are currently testing the MX-A and MX-B spacesuits on their mission. The future MX-C model will incorporate the BPMS, in-suit VO2 monitoring, full duplex voice radio, and an in-helmet projection display for mission and system checklists, GPS data, maps, and other information. The suit also has an integrated wrist control panel with an electromicroscope display (to replace a geologist's hand lens) and rover-mounted camera feeds. The latest generation RAVEN rover can accommodate 2 EVA crew members and has two Baxter dual dexterous arms, as well as other useful field geology sensors.

In my opinion, probably one of the most provocative talks of the conference was given by Harry Jones of the NASA Ames Space Biosciences Division. He compared the cost of storage vs. regenerative life support systems for a Mars mission and concluded that it is cheaper to bring it all with you (storage) versus recycle your consumables and waste products like water and air. This flies in the face of almost every other long duration mission ever designed, but it's hard to argue with his numbers if you believe the assumptions in his paper. First, everyone agrees that storage-based life support systems are simpler, cheaper, and safer than regenerative ones. The problem is that they require much more launch mass and therefore at first glance drive up the overall cost. Jones applied the Advanced Missions Cost Model to show that when you factor in development and operations cost, storage systems come out much cheaper than the less mature technologies of a regenerative approach, which will cost a lot to develop. Comparing estimated costs for the NASA Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0 and a similar Mars mission scenario, he found in both cases that a storage system was at least 50% cheaper. Of course, one can challenge his figures and assumptions. The audience asked some pointed questions about the cost savings from multiple missions to bring down development/operations costs of regenerative systems, the added benefits of a hybrid system to get the best of both worlds, utilizing in situ resources on the planet, and the ancillary spinoffs that would almost certain result from the new technology development needed for a system that recycles everything. Jones feels that a hybrid system may be optimal in a long-term exploration strategy but that for a single mission, it is hard to economically justify the added cost and risk of a regenerative system.

A trip to Mars won't do you much good if you don't have radiation shielding. This is one of the most pressing obstacles facing a journey of that length. NASA's Steven Walker presented two talks on designing radiation shelters to protect crewmembers from solar particle event (SPE) radiation. The goal is to develop a SPE shelter to leverage available materials in the habitat as much as possible to minimize needed mass while reducing the effective radiation dose to either 50% or 70% levels. He compared four concepts: a deployable group shelter, a wearable shelter, a deployable individual shelter, and having individual crew quarters be the shelters. Each has its pro's and con's in terms of mass, usability, and gap potential to let SPE radiation in. In general, group shelters have lowest total mass but leave more holes for radiation to get by. Experience learned from terrestrial analogs such as bomb shelters shows that 1 cubic meter is the minimum volume per person needed for a shelter, but the optimal size is likely larger because you need to have some extra room to maintain work continuation if you plan on being in your shelter for long periods at a time. Shield materials need to have high hydrogen content to block SPE, but you'll probably not use potable water. Rather, he recommended making "trash bricks" of food and other waste products that you generate throughout the mission. They are testing some mockups of these shelter designs in facilities at NASA Langley.

A highlight of ICES Day #2 was an engaging and very well-attended panel on "Future Directions in Human Space Exploration Beyond Low Earth Orbit". The six panelists presented their views on the major challenges and opportunities going forward from a variety of outlooks including government, commercial, and international. I won't summarize all of the panelists' talks, but Barry Finger of Paragon Space Development Corporation (and the Inspiration Mars Technical Lead) gave a great general overview of the landscape today, comparing Orion/SLS, Inspiration Mars, Mars One, ISS, Commercial Crew, Bigelow Aerospace, and suborbital players like Virgin Galactic and XCOR. He offered good advice to avoid "Analysis Paralysis": organize & allocate responsibility/authority, minimize stakeholders in decision pathway, freeze requirements early, make informed/vetted decisions and move on. The old adage, "better is the enemy of good enough" applies. From a technology development standpoint, Ed Hodgson spoke about how the key challenges we face to enable permanent exploration beyond LEO are robustness, reliability, and maintainability of the systems we will rely upon. Radiation impacts the trade space profoundly, and there are unanswered questions about whether regenerative and ISRU technologies can be made robust enough. Joshi Jitendra provided a carefully thought-out philosophical justification for having a capabilities-driven framework for more sustainable exploration rather than a destination-driven framework like Apollo. He lauded the example of the ISS as an example of international cooperation to achieve an unprecedented technical project that would have died if a single country had tried alone.

The second half of the session was opened up to the floor for questions and discussion that dealt with the big picture of why we should explore other planets, how we can justify this to humanity, and how technical experts can better communicate such things to the general population. Panelist Ed Hodgson anchored this part of the conversation by providing eloquent answers to the tough questions naysayers might have about space exploration. For example, he mentioned how we are undertaking a global experiment with our planet's natural system with every building we build, car we drive, and decision we make. We only understand a small portion how the whole earth system works, and that is why such a vast experiment is so risky. Going into space, we can control the variables of life support in a much more defined way, thus expanding our knowledge how closed life support systems work, gaining us a better grasp how such lessons might apply to our own spaceship Earth. Learning to live on Mars and becoming a multi-planetary species will double our data points for how planetary ecosystems function, allowing us to make more informed choices about how we handle our home planet.

The spacesuit session on Wednesday dealt with technologies to aid crew members with information during EVAs. The most exciting talk was by Richard Adams of Barron Associates Incorporated. Repeated research has shown that people prefer tactile over voice interfaces because it is more natural, intuitive, and enjoyable to interface computers. This makes sense because humans are wired to interact with their environment primarily through their hands (See "motor/sensory homunculus".). We can learn a lot from smartphone consumer devices, which have been developed and refined to be very competitive with hundreds of millions of users. All of these have some type of keyboard-like and mouse-like data entry features. Conventional EVA practice, however, has been to create devices with big buttons that could be used through bulky EVA gloves, which hamper functionality. However, Dr. Adams took a very novel approach to think of the gloves not as barriers to information interaction but rather as the platform for an information feedback device. With a NASA SBIR grant, he developed a finger and hand motion tracking system using integrated flexion sensors and vibrotactile actuators to provide haptic feedback, effectively turning EVA gloves into a USB mouse and keyboard. Finger motions are mapped to buttons using a velocity-based algorithm, allowing for the wearer to type in the air on a virtual keyboard or move a cursor. Trials with test users have resulted over 97% accuracy, making this technology seem very promising for future use.

Also on the topic of human-computer interfaces, Daryl Schuck of Honeywell presented a prototype heads-mounted display (HMD) he had built and tested at Desert RATS in 2011. Comprised of a military dust goggle hooked up to the small PC mounted on the backpack frame, he developed the HMD to integrate with NASA's EVIS (EVA Information System), as well as compass, GPS, and camera information. The display is a small screen on the goggle close to the wearer's eye with a series of text menus with access to procedures, schedules, and other information. The crew member navigates the menus and selects options with a commercial-off-the-shelf Bluetooth remote control made by a ski glove manufacturer. It has 5 big buttons that can be pressed easily with most EVA suit gloves. They have future plans to integrate the HMD into the suit helmet and incorporate aspects of augmented reality, overlaying information on the user's actual field of view.

Wednesday night featured the annual ICES banquet and awards ceremony, including an inspiring keynote by Taber MacCullum of Paragon Space Development Corporation. He talked about lessons he learned as a crew member in Biosphere 2 that led to the development of Paragon and a number of exciting projects, which now include Dennis Tito's Mars flyby mission Inspiration Mars. Most of the keynote dealt with the life support technologies they must develop and the aeromedical factors they must overcome to pull off the ambitious Mars mission by 2018. During the banquet, Dr. Jonathan Clark, who leads the medical and crew selection efforts in Inspiration Mars, was awarded the 2013 AIAA Jeffries Aerospace Medicine and Life Sciences Research Award. The dessert reception after the banquet was decadent with a chocolate fountain, marshmallow roasting, and many other treats.

Another challenge of a Mars flyby mission is the long time delay between ground-crew communications, which will grow as the crew gets farther from Earth and shrink as they come home. NASA missions have traditionally been directed almost exclusively by Mission Control, but this becomes more impractical as communications delays enter the picture. For example, a little-known fact is that there were times during the Apollo missions when the crew would stop communicating with ground for a while and do their own thing because it was too frustrating trying to talk to them through the time delay. Jessica Marquez of the NASA Ames Human-Computer Interaction Group at NASA Ames presented her team's work developing scheduling and planning tools used by both the mission control and crews on the ISS, which they have tested with time-delayed operations in analog field missions like Pavilion Lake, NEEMO, and Desert RATS since 2010. They compared different software tools according to type of activity (routine, periodic, event-driving, mission-driven, etc.) and collaboration types (1 crew, crew-crew, crew-ground, ground-planning, etc.) and found that a calendar-like tool is the easiest to use and preferred over text editors, spreadsheets, and the like. Since we are all used to text messages these days, they also found that chat interfaces are most effective for maintaining asynchronous conversations between crew and ground, potentially changing the traditional model of having one CAPCOM that primarily interacts with crew since people can maintain separate discussion threads with different people at the same time.

Steve Rader of NASA JSC presented a compilation study comparing data on human-in-the-loop operations over time-delay at different NASA analog programs as well as real missions. They sent surveys to people invoked with the following missions that involved time delays of some sort: Apollo, JPL deep space robotic missions, ISS, NEEMO, Desert RATS, HMP on Devon Island, Pavilion Lake Research Project, Mars 500, Autonomous Mission Operations (AMO), and Deep Space Habitat (DSH). 5 out of 16 NEEMO missions had time delays; Desert RATS missions since 2009 have used them; at Mars 500, the comms delay would gradually grow and shrink throughout the mission. AMO was a very thorough scientific study of time-delayed mission operations, and DSH was a 10-day study with a crew of 4 over a 50-second delay. The surveys sent to representatives of these programs asked for different user perspectives ranging from behavior health and performance (BHP), science, mission control, crew, EVA, medical, CAPCOM, communications, data management, and education/public outreach. They asked questions related to how the missions handled data analysis, planning, telemetry, email, file transfer, web access, and other considerations. The survey broke down operational regimes as follows: emergency, EVA, contingency, troubleshooting, medical, maintenance, repair, personal crew, normal systems, science operations, health science, public affairs, and educational outreach. To varying degrees in all cases, it was noted that crew autonomy is really hard to implement, although it is necessary the longer the time delay gets. There was a fair degree of "cheating" in the simulations where the time delay wasn't always observed, especially for special events like high-risk operations and public outreach events. None of the analogs effectively limited bandwidth to a level expected for a real mission, and he would like to see analog studies imposing more severe bandwidth controls to have the that constraint come into play as well as the time delay. One way to enable this is through the use of the Disruption Tolerant Networking Protocol (DTNP) as opposed to standard IP-based networking. Other recommendations were that there needs to be more research on the crew/ground split in autonomy, how extended delays affect humans (some interesting results came out of Mars 500), how to handle EVA operations in the context of crew/ground autonomy, and the need to develop new tools to help like text messaging, voice transcription, heads-up displays, and a Tivo-like tool to record what the crew does and replay it back (on delay) to ground. Mr. Radar also described the ISS Test Bed for Analog Research (ISTAR) program, which will simulate deep space missions in the analog environment of the ISS in the future.

In another session on near-Earth asteroid simulations carried out at Desert RATS and NEEMO, Steven Chappell presented two talks on recent NEEMO missions. Due to the low gravity of such small bodies, astronauts can't just walk around very well. Instead, they will require some kind of anchor to aid them in their work and mobility. At NEEMO, they have tested jet packs and boom arm as alternate mobility techniques with a range of realistic tasks like soil sample collection and geophysical surveys. They did this with a 50-second communications delay and found that such a delay was acceptable for nominal communications, but crew/ground communication completely broke down during any simulated emergencies. The question how to handle contingency situations under telemetry delays is an open one, perhaps one that HI-SEAS can help address on one of its future missions.

I was grateful to have the opportunity to attend the 2013 ICES meeting in beautiful Vail, CO. Thank you to Dr. Jean Hunter of Cornell University and Dr. Kim Binsted of the University of Hawaii, as well as the entire HI-SEAS crew for making it possible. On to Mars!


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