UArizona trains its first class of aspiring astronauts at Biosphere 2

A person placing a spacesuit helmet on another person

Trent Tresch, CHaSE founding director, places a spacesuit helmet on Space+5 astronaut candidate trainee Sydney Hamilton.

Arlene Islas

When Trent Tresch envisions the future of human spaceflight, he imagines not just a military or scientific presence on the moon and Mars, but also everyday people – plumbers, artists, journalists, teachers – from a variety of backgrounds and abilities. It's exactly this normalcy that excites him and drives him to make his vision a reality.

Tresch is the founding director of the University of Arizona Center for Human Space Exploration, or CHaSE, at Biosphere 2. Kai Staats is the co-founder and research director of the Space Analog for the Moon and Mars, or SAM, also at Biosphere 2.

Founded this year, CHaSE is a UArizona Center of Excellence focused on furthering the sustainable presence of humans in the solar system and beyond. Its mission is to foster the global space community through accessible and experiential spaceflight training opportunities and post-training resources to students, professionals, members of the public and other interested parties.

The idea for CHaSE arose from Tresch and Staats' work on SAM. The  hermetically sealed research habitat is being built to develop technologies for living sustainably on- and off-planet.

"Throughout the process of exploring the different potentials (of SAM), we developed the idea for CHaSE," Tresch said.

He and Staats are exploring creative solutions for long-term habitability on the moon and Mars while bringing attention to how people can live more sustainably on Earth.

"We have to be at or near 100% sustainable to be able to do that long term," Tresch said. "The technology that we develop should be directly applicable to making life better here on Earth."

The new class of astronauts

In mid-November, the first class of aspiring commercial astronauts descended on Biosphere 2 to attend a weekend training program, which was conducted with private aerospace company Uplift Aerospace.

The classes were led by Tresch and astronauts Sian "Leo" Proctor, who piloted SpaceX's Inspiration4 all-civilian orbital mission to space, and Mira Milas, executive director of UArizona's APEX aerospace medicine fellowship.

The five trainees were selected from Space+, a community-led initiative launched by Uplift Aerospace earlier this year. The private space program seeks to increase access, diversity and inclusion in space exploration. This first class of astronauts is called the Space+5.

Like CHaSE, Uplift Aerospace is working to create an accessible space program. They facilitated an astronaut-selection process through blockchain infrastructure and coordinated with UArizona to make it a reality.

"Blockchain is built around the philosophy of decentralization, open access and transparency," said Uplift Aerospace CEO Josh Hanes.

People were invited to apply to be the company's first commercial astronauts. Then, the community of digital token holders were invited to vote for the first Space+5 astronaut.

Rubin Salinas was selected as Uplift Aerospace's first community astronaut and Space+5 team leader after the voting commenced this past July. The company has contracted him to fly on an upcoming Blue Origin New Shepherd rocket. The rest of the Space+5 class will undergo training and go to space if other opportunities arise.

Three additional trainees were ambassadors from AstroAccess, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance disability inclusion in space.

"As part of our inclusive vision, we sponsored AstroAccess to join our astronaut class for this training," Hanes said. "It will allow us to get their feedback on how astronaut training can be curated in the future to be more accessible. Our mission as a company is based around the philosophy that if you can give access to advanced technologies and opportunities to communities that don't have that access, it gives us the opportunity to change our future for the better."

The Space+5 team was also accompanied by A.I. humanoid robot BINA48, created by Terasem Movement Foundation. BINA48 is being used to investigate the potential applications of machine intelligence on future human crewed space missions, especially in emergency situations.

Training for tomorrow

According to the United States Code of Federal Regulations, launch providers must train space flight participants on emergency response, including smoke, fire, loss of cabin pressure and emergency exit. These were the topics of focus over the weekend.

For example, the class practiced donning spacesuits and pressurizing them, a skill used to retain consciousness in the event of emergency cabin pressure loss.

They also practiced water landing emergency egress, or emergency evacuation of a spacecraft. Using the Campus Recreation pool, the trainees shimmied into bright red neoprene exposure suits, also called gumby suits, which covered everything except their eyes. After jumping into the water, they quickly flipped onto their backs and swam to a rope that led them to a life raft. There, they practiced initiating a rescue beacon before exiting the raft to simulate a rescue. AstroAccess Ambassador Mary Cooper took off her prosthetic leg for these drills and demonstrated the ability to successfully and safely perform all of the emergency egress maneuvers with one leg.

On the other end of the pool, AstroAccess Ambassadors Eric Shear and Sheila Xu, both deaf, were practicing signing underwater to each other in different body orientations. This study investigated the feasibility of communicating in American Sign Language in a space environment. The all-deaf scuba team was able to successfully understand one another, regardless of orientation. This study builds off work conducted on previous AstroAccess Zero-G flights and is preparing the AstroAccess Ambassadors for ASL experiments they will conduct aboard the upcoming AstroAccess Zero-G flight in Houston on December 14.

"The power of accessibility is that it makes our systems safer for everyone, not just those who have historically been excluded. ASL is an excellent example of these benefits for all. If comms systems malfunctioned in space, imagine how valuable it would be if all astronauts could communicate through sign language," said Anna Voelker, co-founder and executive director of AstroAccess. "This value was seen in action not only while the AstroAccess team was scuba diving, but also when Eric and Sheila were in their pressurized spaceflight suits and able to communicate fluently while others had difficulty hearing one another. Accessibility and universal design enhance safety for all."

"Human spaceflight, like any other pioneering endeavor, pioneering, is full of potential dangers. So it's important to try to envision scenarios that may occur that are so called off-nominal, or not normal," Salinas said. "In these types of scenarios, preparation is key. Every one of the steps we're practicing, as far as fire suppression or emergency egress, requires certain steps to be followed in the proper sequence, and this is where we're using AI and evaluating how AI can support us in that type of off-nominal event."

During a fire safety training, BINA48 calmly talked the trainees through what to do if there was a cabin fire. Bruce Duncan, managing director of the Terasem Movement Foundation Inc., said this is just one example of how humans can use AI in space.

"BINA48's presence allows a regular person access to specialized information without special training," Duncan said. "BINA48 also acts as a calm expert to turn to in times of stress, in the heat of the moment, calmly bringing you back to your center."

Proctor's lessons focused on creating what she calls "A JEDI" space – Accessible, Just, Equitable, Diverse, and Inclusive. Proctor, who was the first Black female spacecraft pilot, focused on how crews foster such environments for themselves and the mission.

The trainees also created art with Proctor, who was selected for her seat on Inspiration4 because of her talents as an artist and a poet.

"I'm hoping to activate that creative side and think about not only the science and engineering, technology and the math, but also the arts and the humanity side of going to space," she said.

Soon, such training opportunities through CHaSE will be available widely to UArizona students, other professionals and the community. This first astronaut training class will provide CHaSE leaders with feedback to further tailor the curriculum.

"The University of Arizona is really uniquely situated for a program like this," Tresch said. "Not only are we one of the highest space- and science-funded universities in the nation, but we also have the Biosphere 2 – this incredible habitat that has this rich history. And with that history, we're able to build the future."

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