NUI Galway Biomedical Engineer Selected Commander of Mars Mission

Mars Mission Crew 172 walking on the full-scale analog facility in Utah.
Mar 07 2017 Posted: 09:43 GMT

A PhD student of Biomedical Engineering at NUI Galway was recently selected as Commander of Crew 172, an international mission for the Mars Desert Research Station, which supports Earth-based research required for human space exploration.

The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), owned and operated by the Mars Society, is a full-scale analog facility in Utah in the United States that supports Earth-based research in pursuit of the technology, operations, and science required for human exploration on Mars.

The extreme mission is not unlike the fictional story behind the 2016 Oscar nominated movie The Martian, starring Matt Damon. The Hollywood star plays astronaut Mark Watney who is left behind when an unexpected storm hits Mars, leaving him to engineer ways to feed himself and survive the harsh environment of Mars.

Ilaria Cinelli, a PhD student in the College of Engineering and Informatics at NUI Galway was selected as Emerging Space Leader of the Mars Mission thanks to her extracurricular activities in this field. Ms Cinelli led an international crew of six people under the constraints of a simulated Mars mission over four weeks. The unique facility in Utah is surrounded by terrain that is a geologic Mars analog, which offered Commander Cinelli and her crew opportunities for rigorous field studies as they would be conducted during an actual space mission. This study will lead to new insights into the nature and evolution of Mars, the Earth, and life on Mars.

Commander Cinelli’s leadership role allowed her to measure the impact of human behaviour among her crew, brought about by living in such a confined environment and the loss of personal contact with family and friends. Ms Cinelli collected data-based research on the crew’s changing behaviour patterns throughout the mission. Due to monotony, loneliness, lack of social contacts, major responsibilities and stress, Ms Cinelli’s research observed a marked improvement in the crew’s performance in the development of successful strategies; increased confidence in performance; the ability to independently deal with complex problems; higher levels of inner emotional energy, a resistance to stress, increased internal control and social growth.

Commenting on the Mars mission, Commander Cinelli said: “The purpose of this mission was to investigate the impact of isolation on human behaviour, performance and leadership. The Mars simulation experiment is aimed at increasing the physiological and technical autonomy of the crew in preparation for an actual long-term mission over a number of years. During these missions, the marsonauts are training to make full use of the available resources and independence of decision making from remote support.

The MDRS is in the middle of the Utah desert and three hours away from the nearest town. Extreme conditions were created due to the limited amount of resources available such as food, water, electricity and WiFi. The mission was the first for most of the crew who had never experienced living in such an extreme environment before. They made great progress throughout the mission by stepping outside of their comfort zone, overcoming stress, increasing control and overall performance.”

MDRS officially began operations in 2001 as a fully volunteer enterprise, which is now in its 16th field season. To date, over 1,000 people have participated as crew members at the habitat, and many are now involved in other analog studies at different locations around the world.

For more information about The Mars Desert Research Station visit:


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