Local pilot discusses his 30-day trip through simulated space

Benjamin Joe/contributorKen Slaugenhoupt (left), president of the Lewiston's Historic Association, stands with Ron Franco, participant in NASA's Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) program and retired Air Force pilot.

LEWISTON — Two years ago, Lockport resident Ron Franco participated in NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) program, a space-exploration simulation project. On this mission, he and three other participants spent 30 days together within a small module in the Johnson Space Center in Houston, living the same way that astronauts on the International Space Station do. 

The purpose of this experiment was to simulate any problems that could occur in a mission and troubleshoot them in a simulation before they happen in space. Franco has since talked to audiences about his experience and was received again in the Messiah Lutheran Church in Lewiston. 

"We spent three weeks training for this,” Franco told a crowd of about 30. “Then 30 days of simulation, and then a week of medical tests and debriefing.” After finding out about the program online, Franco submitted his resume and was flown to Houston to complete a physical and psychological series of tests to show his fitness. He was accepted and teamed with three other applicants and was given his mission. 

“There is an asteroid that the Japanese had gotten very, very detailed, digital representations of from some spacecraft that they’d launched to it,” Franco said. “At the time, instead of going to Mars, it was politically savvy to try to go to an asteroid. Does anybody remember this? They looked to redirect an asteroid, if an asteroid was going to hit the Earth, so, that’s kind of the background to our mission.”

Some of the things that NASA monitored Franco and his team was stress related. The simulation would introduce stressors such as missing tools that the team would then have to create using a 3D printer. NASA also deliberately kept them all awake for 39 hours during the return trip from the asteroid.

“We were busy all the time, the guys on the space station are always busy,” Franco said, explaining that one of the biggest problems for astronauts is not getting enough sleep. “One of the things they installed on HERA was some lights that were different colors that would simulate morning and evening, hoping that the astronaut’s biosystem would start to adjust more.” This technology, according to Franco, will be going aboard the International Space Station soon.

Franco said that the simulation was real in all respects, right down to the food they ate, but one thing was missing. “Zero gravity,” Franco said then explained that zero gravity was also a health risk for astronauts. “We decided that (if) we were going to send a mission to an asteroid, we would have the module spin … that was how we decided we’d have a 1 gravity module.”

Moments before the presentation began, Franco said that he felt the space program today “was turning a corner” with the emergence of private space exploration projects like Space X and Blue Origin. Later during Q and A, he said that the freedom of our democracy allowing these companies to grow was going to keep the U.S. at the forefront of the field.

“I’ve had the opportunity to travel, not just around the United States, but the world, and I have not been more impressed with how welcome and how interested people are in the space program,” Franco said. “I’m sure it’s worldwide, but I just feel so welcome in Western New York every time I go to speak people ask the most amazing questions and not only are they very respectful but they’re also very knowledgeable, too. I think that having a base of aviation here that dates back literally to the Wright brothers has caused Western New York to have a knowledge base that’s almost unsurpassed historically.” 

Franco is also a retired Air Force combat pilot and now works with American Airlines, flying with them since 1999.

More information on events put on by Lewiston’s Historic Association can be found at its webpage www.historiclewiston.org.