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Sri Lankan Scientist Piyumi Wijesekara: Stepped on the Mars

NASA has chosen a new crew of four volunteers for a simulated Mars mission at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Jason Lee, Stephanie Navarro, Shareef Al Romaithi, and Piyumi Wijesekara entered the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) on Friday, May 10, and lived and worked like astronauts for 45 days, exiting on June 24 after their “return” to Earth. Jose Baca and Brandon Kent are the alternate crew members for this mission. 

HERA allows scientists to study how crew members adapt to isolation, confinement, and remote conditions, which is crucial for preparing astronauts for deep space missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. During their simulated Mars mission, the crew will conduct scientific research, perform operational tasks, and experience a “walk” on Mars using virtual reality. Communication delays with the Mission Control Center will increase to up to five minutes each way as they “approach” Mars. 

This crew is the second group of volunteers to participate in a simulated Mars mission in HERA this year, with the previous crew completing their mission on March 18. Two more missions are planned for this year, concluding on December 20. Notably, Shareef Al Romaithi is the first crew member from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to join HERA, thanks to a partnership between NASA and the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC). 

NASA’s Human Research Program will conduct 18 human health studies during the mission, assessing the physiological, behavioral, and psychological responses of the crew in conditions similar to those on a Mars trip. Seven of these studies are collaborations with the MBRSC and the European Space Agency (ESA). The insights gained will help develop strategies to support astronauts on long missions in deep space. 

Crew of the Mission: 

Piyumi Wijesekara 

Piyumi Wijesekara portrait

Piyumi Wijesekara is a postdoctoral research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, focusing on developing tissue models to study spaceflight stressors like ionizing radiation and lunar dust on the respiratory system. She holds a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego, and master’s and doctorate degrees in biomedical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. She lives in San Francisco and enjoys running, hiking, and volunteering. 

Jason Lee

Jason Lee portrait

Jason Lee is an associate professor-in-residence at the University of Connecticut’s School of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Manufacturing Engineering. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on manufacturing processes involving heat transfer. He resides in Boston and enjoys running martial arts, and rock climbing. 

Stephanie Navarro 

Stephanie Navarro is a space operations officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and a senior systems engineer at Northrop Grumman. She has a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Central Florida and is pursuing a master’s degree in cybersecurity. Born to Ecuadorian parents in Miami, she enjoys traveling, studying for her pilot’s license, and spending time at the beach.

Shareef Al Romaithi

Shareef Al Romaithi portrait

Shareef Al Romaithi is a pilot with over 16 years of experience, currently commanding Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft. He holds a bachelor’s degree and three master’s degrees from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a doctorate in aviation. He is the world’s youngest and eighth graduate to earn a doctorate in aviation.

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