AATC — Earth-Side Astronauts

Krupal Patel
12 min readMar 4, 2024

The lights are out. Your Communications Officer just informed you Mission Control has lost connection with the cameras that would help safely monitor your crew. Your teammates are saying that they feel their mouths getting dryer. The Medical Officer states that the Astrobiologist’s blood oxygen levels have dipped. You notice that it’s getting harder to breathe in your mask.

You look up and see that the lights in the emergency power outlets have gone out. The Communications Officer looks down at her phone, perplexed. Looking down and checking your own phone, you see that you have been disconnected from the Wi-Fi, meaning you’ve lost contact with the outside world.

There’s no one watching out for you.

Your emergency power has gone out.

The oxygen levels are dropping.

You’re all alone now.

Welcome to the Habitat.

Where It Started

Getting the Mission Call

Filling out the application to be an analog astronaut at the Analog Astronaut Training Center (AATC) in Kraków, Poland, I had no expectations. I had filled out the application in the middle of a random summer night in 2022, bored out of my mind and looking to get involved in almost anything that would get me closer to breaking into the space industry.

As I started my second year of mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, I completely forgot about the application I had filled out for the opportunity across the Atlantic Ocean.

And then. January 7, 2023.

This letter changed the trajectory of my year and quite possibly, my entire life. After not much consideration, I reserved a spot for Expedition 61 in June 2023 and got to booking my flights and itinerary.

Crash Course on Analog Mission

Let’s rewind and talk about analog missions really quick.

Analog space missions are simulated missions carried out by students or professionals of all different backgrounds and fields. The type and objective of the mission can vary depending on the organization or agency that’s conducting the mission.

Different missions will depend on the facility used and the environment and conditions simulated. For example, NASA’s NEEMO missions involve analog astronauts living underwater for up to 3 weeks at a time, simulating harsh conditions such as a limited oxygen supply.

Other types of analog missions can include:

  • Antarctic missions: simulating harsh weather and human isolation;
  • Desert missions: simulating difficult-to-navigate terrains;
  • Habitat mission: simulating human isolation in a confined space;
  • Environment missions: simulating microgravity or harsh radiation.

A common condition is circadian misalignment, where the analog astronauts must deal with a disrupted circadian rhythm. They have to be awake or asleep at “inappropriate” times that their body is not suited for.

Spaceflight astronauts aboard the ISS try to maintain a strict sleep schedule but given that they experience 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in a day, it can be challenging to differentiate day from night.

For the sake of this article, we’ll be deep-diving into habitat missions, similar to the AATC Habitat Mission I completed.

The mission's focus was to study the effects of short-term isolation in a confined space. We were told we’d be placed into a team of 6 crew members altogether and confined into a small house in the mountains of Poland.

There was a heavy focus on circadian misalignment due to the fact that the Habitat had no windows and we would be woken up at a random time every day (more on this later on).

We got folders full of different research we would be conducting as part of our daily routines. Many different universities, researchers, and space agencies sent procedures they wanted our crew to carry out and what results they wanted recorded. Some examples of the data collected include:

  • social interactions with other crew members using wearable amulets tracking our locations throughout the Habitat;
  • in-depth medical check-ups every morning and evening including bioimpedance, urine tests, and basic vitals;
  • basic vital check-ups every 2 hours including body temperature, body weight, respiratory rate, and mood check-in;
  • heart rate variability, heart stress, and metabolic equivalent (MET) levels measured through a monitor worn on our chests at all times (unless they were charging);
  • in-depth sleep data collected using smartwatches;
  • changes in team dynamics recorded through daily reports, surveys, and mood barometers.

Learning all of this during our virtual pre-training sessions was overwhelming but the excitement would overshadow any anxious feelings I had. I had the opportunity to meet the rest of my all-female crew: Ruchira Huchgol, Natalia Wróbel, Urszula (Ula) Ulanowska, Katarzyna (Kasia) Kruk, and Ewa Krężel.

We spent the months prior to our mission designing our mission patch, discussing our personal research with the AATC researchers, studying mission procedures, and getting to know each other. It was important to all of us that we learned more about each other’s backgrounds, learned how to work together on a variety of tasks, and most importantly, get to know each other on a personal level.

After all, I was going to be stuck with these girls for 7 days… in the middle of nowhere.

How it Happened

Touchdown in Kraków

Now, before this trip, I had never solo travelled anywhere before. So landing in a country where I was unfamiliar with the people and culture, and navigating through a language I did not know… was definitely a foreign experience for me (pun absolutely intended).

Yet looking out the window of my Uber as we drove into the city, I couldn’t help but stare. Kraków’s architecture and landscape were astonishingly beautiful. I had never been to continental Europe before but it was exactly like how it looked in the movies.

Image taken during one of the many walks we took through the city.

I was the first to arrive at our Mission Coordinator, Dr. Agata Kołodziejczyk’s, house. Her house would serve as our headquarters for the entirety of the mission. Ruchira arrived not much later than me and we were introduced to Agata (as she told us to call her) and were shown to our room.

Later that evening, Ruchira and I set out into the city to meet with Ula, Kasia, and Ewa for a night out. We walked through the city, exploring Kraków's history, visiting an actual castle, trying local Polish food, and walking through a heritage market in Rynek Główny, the Main Market Square.

Mission Prep

The next day, all of the crew had moved into HQ and we spent the day integrating as a team. We went over our strengths and weaknesses, how we solve problems, our professional backgrounds, how we think, and how we perceive the world around us.

We had physical fitness training throughout the day and into the night. We hiked to one of the highest points in the city, testing our capabilities in a high-altitude setting. Sometimes we weren’t allowed to talk, relying on non-verbal communication to help each other out. At night, we had to leave our phones at HQ, using our memory and a little problem-solving to navigate through the city and the forest.

Team picture after hiking to one of the highest points in Kraków.

While this might seem unconventional, this entire experience brought us all remarkably closer to one another, building our trust in each other, and strengthening our crew for the mission to come.

It was well after midnight when the girls and I gathered after some much-needed showers, planning for the upcoming days. We decided on the roles each of us would take for the mission:

  • Ruchira would assume the role of our Crew Commander;
  • Natalia would be the Communications Officer;
  • Kasia was assigned as the Medical Officer;
  • I was given the role of Crew Engineer;
  • Ula was chosen to be our Astrobiologist;
  • Ewa was given the role of Data Officer.

The day after, or Day 0, was spent packing our bags and driving to the mountains towards the Habitat.

After getting briefed on last-minute house rules, we heard the door to the Hab lock behind Agata. I remember us looking at each other, my emotions mirrored across my teammates’ faces: excitement, anxiety, uncertainty, and most importantly, determination.

In a second, we snapped into action.

We knew Day 1 would be the busiest day of the mission since it would take some time to get settled into our routine. We used Day 0 to prepare the space around us to help make the transition as smooth as possible for the next day.

We collected inventory, put away supplies, set up the lab space, sewed our country’s flags and mission patches onto our flight suits, and most importantly, got familiar with the space around us.

Sewing our patches onto our flight suits in the Galley Mod.

The subtle abnormalities of the Habitat were tough to fall asleep to later that night. The constant whirring of our life support systems, the blinking lights of the cameras that were in every room, the wires and cords running across the walls and ceiling, and the knowledge that we were being constantly monitored by researchers across the globe.

Expedition 61

Day-to-Day

We would get a wake-up call from our Mission Cap-Com (MCC) every day and then promptly set the clocks on our devices to 00:00.

Instead of using the conventional clock, we’d plan our day using hours. For example, the first hour we were awake would be Hour 0 and we’d go until Hour 16 was finished when we’d settle back into our bunks for the “night”.

Doing this was part of the circadian misalignment research we were conducting. Essentially, we’d have no way of knowing when it was day outside of the Habitat; for all we knew, we were working through the night.

We knew we were working 16-hour days and then going to sleep. From our sleep data, we knew that sometimes we got 6 hours of sleep and sometimes we got 3–4 hours.

Each hour of the day had different tasks that needed to be done and responsibilities we all had to uphold including meal prep, physical fitness training, and Hab maintenance.

Ewa and I collaborating on our research together.

We’d start the day by going through numerous medical and psychological tests, including bioimpedance, urine tests, vitals, cognitive tests, etc. As the mission went on, our routines became smoother, more natural. Morning tests that used to take until 00:30 were finished within 15 minutes of waking up.

During breakfast and dinner, we would have our debriefs through Natalia with our MCC, reporting how we were feeling, what our plans were for the day (morning), and what we had accomplished (evening).

Our days were filled with personal experiments, report writing, data collection, and surprisingly enough, having a lot of fun. Participating in an isolation habitat analog mission, you need to make sure you don’t get trapped in the monotony that comes with it.

We created small traditions like playing the High School Musical soundtrack during morning reports and sharing a pack of cookies every night during evening reports.

A common phenomenon we’d noticed was how we tended to cluster together as the mission went on. I found myself seeking out Kasia, Ewa, and Natalia. We’d hang out together at the table in the Galley Mod or sprawl out on the bean bags in the Dorm Mod.

Ewa and I working on our reports in the Dorm Mod.

Sitting with each other, and working separately might seem minuscule, but when we were isolated from the rest of the world, it brought a different kind of peace and tranquillity that we needed.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last long.

Kraków, We Have a Problem…

Throughout the mission, we kept hearing chatter about our “emergency”, a simulated event that would test how we worked as a team under high-intensity conditions.

We had a manual on the possible scenarios and what steps we needed to take. We had stocked our Shelter Module with batteries, food, and anything else the MCC had told us would be needed.

Crew preparing supplies for the emergency.

The night of Day 6, right after dinner, we got the call.

It took maybe a second’s worth of hesitation before we sprung into action. Dishes and reports were abandoned as we grabbed our devices and manuals, zipped up our flight suits, and walked to the Shelter Mod. Despite the situation, it was impressive how we remained calm and went about the steps in an orderly fashion.

Ruchira and I were appointed as extra-vehicular activity (EVA) officers, meaning we had to go about the Hab and “reset” any systems that might have been damaged in the simulated emergency.

Again, it’s important to remember it was all a simulation — at least, it was at first.

And then, we blew the emergency fuse. The actual fuse not the simulated one. The fuse that was supposed to power our Wi-Fi, the lights, the cameras and atmospheric sensors, and most importantly, the life support systems.

Natalia let us know that she lost contact with the MCC. Kasia informed us that Ula’s blood oxygen levels were decreasing; dangerous enough on its own without considering the fact that she had asthma.

Luckily, we had trained for this. We knew how to act and what to do when mission success was at stake. Everyone either had or was on the path to getting an engineering degree; problem-solving was an integral part of who we were.

Natalia, together with Ruchira, was working to get our Wi-Fi reconnected. Kasia and Ewa had found an external electric connection: a cable running from outside the Hab that was supporting the appliances in the Lab Mod. Ula and I were walking through the entire Hab, using the building blueprints, and drawing up a rough schematic of the electrical connections.

As a team, we were able to come together to understand which fuses were powering which outputs. Eventually, we were able to re-route the external electricity to power the necessary devices, such as our life support systems.

We weren’t sure how steady the connections might be so we stayed up for a couple hours, waiting to see if our impromptu connections would hold. We discussed what had gone wrong, digest what had just happened, and what we needed to do if something went wrong.

Finally, we were given the green light to head to bed. The sensors were working again and we had multiple researchers studying our atmospheric levels while we slept, just in case.

Luckily, the connections held for the rest of the mission.

Mission Success

We finished Day 7 of the mission with no errors or roadblocks. The day was filled with packing, cleaning up the Hab, wrapping up personal experiments, and most importantly, finishing up all of our reports.

Day 7 team photos.

On Day 8, we got the thumbs up to go ahead with egress procedures. Stepping out into the sunlight, finally feeling the wind on our faces, even after only 7 days of being locked away in a windowless house, was an exhilarating experience.

It made me think of how astronauts would feel coming back home after spending months or even over a year in space. The rehab that astronauts have to undergo when they’re transitioning to life back on Earth is extensive, long, and gruelling.

My experience as an analog astronaut is infinitesimal compared to the work spaceflight astronauts put in in their careers. I didn’t have even half as much training as they have, was only exposed to maybe 7% of the conditions they are but the research done and the results about the psychological and physiological changes that are obtained from analog missions is a fundamental stepping stone for future spaceflight missions.

In the future, both private companies and government space agencies have plans for a long-term human presence in space. All research and data gathered leading up to that will be crucial in making sure longer spaceflight missions can be done smoothly and in a fashion that will ensure the safety of the astronauts and the mission.

Egress from Kraków

As my plane took off from Kraków International Airport, I couldn’t help but look down at the city.

I realized I was going to miss it, the city and the experiences and people that came with it. Travelling to an unknown city, having the opportunity only few in the world are given, it’s thrilling in its own way.

There was one thing I knew for certain as the city faded into a tiny dot, barely visible between the clouds: this was not going to be the last analog mission I took part in.

Exp. 61 Crew after mission completion.

Hey!

Thanks so much for reading my story!

My name is Krupal Patel and I’m an aspiring research engineer, working to break into the space sector. I hope to design future spacecraft that will be powered using alternative fuel sources.

If you want to follow along my journey, don’t hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn or read up on my work on my profile!

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Krupal Patel

A girl trying to figure out better ways to explore the universe.