Vail woman signs on for NASA Human Research Exploration to study inner and outer space | VailDaily.com

Vail woman signs on for NASA Human Research Exploration to study inner and outer space

VAIL — Chiemi "Chi" Heil cut her teeth snowboarding in Vail, and until this summer, her idea of cramped quarters was a crowded gondola car.

Heil, a NASA intern at the Johnson Space Center, just finished 45 days in a simulated spacecraft with three other people she barely knew. She knows them now — really, really well.

They worked 16 hours a day, slept five, never went outside, had no internet and talked to no people outside of Mission Control and one another.

And why would she do this? Science, of course.

"My master's is in human factors," said Heil, who studies the interaction between humans and other systems at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus in Florida. "I figured this would be a cool way to study the other side of the table and actually participate in an analog."

The studies are called analogs, and NASA's Human Research Exploration Analog simulates space missions to study how different aspects of deep space affect humans. During a HERA mission, the crew lives and works as astronauts would on a trip to the moon or an asteroid or Mars.

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The journey to an asteroid would take 715 days. NASA compressed it into 45. Virtual reality spacewalks and simulated vehicle exploring are part of the program. So are simulated disasters. Heil's HERA crew responded to emergencies such as a decrease in cabin pressure while finding and repairing a leak in their spacecraft.

Right place, right time

Heil's HERA XVII crew was two men and two women — Heil, Ph.D. scientists William Daniels and Michael Pecaut and Air Force pilot Eleanor Morgan — selected from the Johnson Space Center Test Subject Screening pool. The criteria are similar to astronaut selection. Heil was interning there when someone canceled in her group, so she joined the team.

Researchers gathered information about living in confinement, teamwork, team cohesion, mood, performance and overall well-being. Researchers also thought it would be fun to find a correlation between lack of sleep and mental cognition — someone else's lack of sleep, that is.

And as long as they were studying humans, researchers tested the effects of light and dark periods in space. That means that during their limited free time when Heil was trying to read, the lights were dimmed. So instead of turning pages, she folded pages, creating 1,000 paper cranes.

"There is a story in Japan — I'm half Japanese — that if you make a 1,000 cranes, it's supposed to grant you a wish," she said. She gave hers to her grandmother.

They performed other tasks that real astronauts might, such as donning virtual reality goggles for simulated space walks, gathering samples of minerals from an asteroid and vehicular exploring and growing plants and brine shrimp.

They even created a makeshift art gallery to hang their drawings and haiku — the spacecraft version of that great American wall of fame, the refrigerator door.

They ate what astronauts eat on the International Space Station — food produced by the Johnson Space Center Food Lab. The cuisine for their weekly semiformal Saturday night dinners together consisted of those same packaged foods.

May the Fourth Be With You

After graduating college in North Carolina, Heil was working in event marketing — 10 months on and two months off, which she spent in Vail.

"That's the longest time I've spent in one place since 2007," she said.

But science would not leave her alone, so she hooked on with the Army as an independent contractor. A tour of a SpaceX facility — Elon Musk's company that designs, builds and launches rockets and spacecraft and just shot a Tesla toward Mars — fired her passion for everything space and science.

She earned her degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida (Its motto: "It really is rocket science.") and is wrapping up her master's in human factors: how to integrate machines with humans.

Her HERA team's first task was designing their HERA Mission patch, which says in Latin, "May the fourth be with you," and features Star Wars iconography.

Their mission started May 4, International Star Wars Day.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.