University of Calgary

Engineering student halfway through exclusive Mars astronaut simulation project

UToday HomeJuly 2, 2013

Simon Engler, a graduate student at the Schulich School of Engineering, will live in a Mars-like environment on the Big Island of Hawaii for 120 days. Photo by crew member Sian ProctorSimon Engler, a graduate student at the Schulich School of Engineering, will live in a Mars-like environment on the Big Island of Hawaii for 120 days. Photo by crew member Sian ProctorSimon Engler, a graduate student in robotics and artificial intelligence at the Schulich School of Engineering, is taking part in HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation), a NASA-funded planetary surface exploration analog site at 8,500 feet on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Engler, who is from Calgary, was selected from a pool of 700 applicants to join this astronaut-like mission where a crew of six members lives in a habitat for 120 days under Mars-exploration conditions.

The simulated mission started with the crew entering into isolation on Feb. 15, 2013 and will be completed on Aug. 15.

We caught up with him as he reached the mid-point of the mission.

Question: How did you get involved in this project and why?

Answer: I’ve always had a strong interest in space and space exploration. I heard of the Mars 500 Analog mission in Russia back in 2009 and wanted to apply. However, I was in Afghanistan at the time serving in the army so it wasn't exactly a good time for me. When I ended up in graduate school in 2011, I looked for similar missions and I came across a call for participants for a Mars Analog mission called HI-SEAS. I was chosen as the crew Engineer out of 400 applicants in the Engineering category.

What are your main responsibilities as part of the mission?

I am the crew engineer. I work to ensure that everything in the habitat is running properly and that we have enough fuel and power to conduct our research. There are a number of sensors placed throughout the habitat and I am constantly monitoring things like power consumption and CO2 levels in the habitat. If something breaks, I have to fix it, and since we are simulating being on Mars I have to improvise a solution.

Crew members, from left: Angelo Vermeulen (crew commander), Sian Proctor (crew education officer), Kate Greene (crew journalist), Yajaria Sierra (crew science officer), Oleg Abrimov (crew geologist), Simon Engler (crew engineer). Photo by Sian ProctorCrew members, from left: Angelo Vermeulen (crew commander), Sian Proctor (crew education officer), Kate Greene (crew journalist), Yajaria Sierra (crew science officer), Oleg Abrimov (crew geologist), Simon Engler (crew engineer). Photo by Sian ProctorAre you involved in research work as part of the mission?

I am participating in a large number of studies inside the HI-SEAS habitat. The main study concerns food. We test the difference between pre-prepared astronaut food and cooking shelf stable food. I am also participating in a NASA clothing study looking at treated exercise clothing and special socks that last an exceptionally long time without requiring washing. There is also a sleep study looking at the effects of light exposure on the duration of rapid eye movement sleep. Also, I have two of my own research projects: one looks at astronaut-robot interaction and the other looks at astronaut-robotic companions for long duration space flights. In July, we will be working with the Canadian Space Agency where I will drive a Canadian space rover called Juno. I will be operating the rover from Hawaii under real life time delay conditions.

Why is this mission based in Hawaii?

We are located in the saddle area on the Mauna Loa volcano side opposite Mauna Kea. The volcanic rock in this area is chemically identical to the geology seen on the surface of Mars. This is one of, if not the most Mars-like environments on earth. The area is important for geological research, but it is also important for psychological impact. When you look out the window and walk outside in the simulation suits, it is really easy to believe you are on the surface of Mars.

What is the coolest think you've learned so far?

I learned that I should never sell myself short. I applied to this program and when I heard the competition was so steep, I immediately wrote it off. I was very shocked when I was selected. I have also surprised myself on a daily basis in how I can find solutions to very unusual problems by improvising.