AFIT fellow completes simulated Mars mission

  • Published
  • By Katie Scott
  • Air Force Institute of Technology

Master Sgt. Nicholas Pender recently got a rare peek at the red planet.

In February, the Air Force Institute of Technology Education with Industry fellow served as health and safety officer for the American Public University System Analog Research Group’s first analog astronaut mission to The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station.

Located in Hanksville, Utah, MDRS is a private facility that supports research to enable human space exploration under the constraints of a simulated Mars mission. 

“It is so much like Mars it just blows your mind,” Pender said.

Eight crewmembers were part of the 12-day mission that included two Airmen, one Guardian, one Sailor and four civilians. 

“It took a couple days to adjust to the dry air, change in diet, daily tasks and communications with mission control,” Pender said. “But we completed a lot of research and had a lot of fun learning how to live on Mars.”

As an Air Force logistics planner, Pender is interested in the complex logistical aspects tied to space exploration.

“My research pertains to the use of powered supply caches to extend human exploration on celestial bodies, providing a logistics-based approach to the safety paradigm in extravehicular activities,” he said.

His research was inspired by 20th-century Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen.

“He took his crew to the South Pole in the early 1900s, and they dropped supply caches along the way so that they could rely on those supplies to make it back home,” Pender said. “Everyone on his crew survived using those supplies, and I thought, ‘Why not apply that same concept to human space exploration?’”

Pender’s research involved an emergency-scenario exercise in which astronauts rely on the supply cache to safely return to the MDRS habitat after long extravehicular activity. This required Pender and a fellow crewmate to hike three hours in a spacesuit while resupplying on water and gel food from the cache to return safely to base.

The biggest constraint Pender faced in fielding the experiment was ensuring his water supply didn’t freeze.

“The supply cache is heated and solar powered to prevent the water from freezing in the very cold overnight Utah desert, which is similar to the Mars environment,” he said.

The mission was a culminating event for Pender as he completes his master’s degree in space studies from American Military University, an American Public University System component. He is working on a technical paper based on his research and hopes to improve the cache’s design for even more hostile environments.

“This type of field research has never been conducted in a moon or Mars analog, so it’s exciting to bring this concept to the forefront,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a network of something similar out there on the moon and Mars in the future.”

Pender, who was recently selected for promotion to senior master sergeant, is currently a fellow at SpaceX’s Starbase in Brownsville, Texas, as part of AFIT’s EWI program. Sponsored by the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Office for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, EWI fellows spend 10 months with top-tier public and private-sector companies to bring back industry best practices to build, sustain and retain a mission-ready workforce.

As a supply chain team member for SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, Pender has been involved with the process to move parts to build and launch Starships in rapid succession.

“SpaceX is always leaning forward for the next challenge, and research on the logistical aspects of space exploration is very much within the spirit of my EWI fellowship at SpaceX,” he said.

In addition, Pender has been exposed to the process SpaceX uses to prepare for a launch. He compares it to airfield operations. 

“Working through troubleshooting issues and solving problems with the engineers has been a super-rewarding experience that I'll be able to take with me when I go back to the Air Force,” he added.

Having the opportunity to experience what it would be like to live on Mars was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Pender. 

“This mission was not just a scientific-research mission but also a people experience,” he said. “When you live with people in close quarters for a couple weeks like that, you tend to grow close, and observing how we’re able to adapt as humans in that situation was a rewarding experience in itself.”