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MSU Ph.D. student travels to Mars moon virtually with NASA

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Posted at 12:37 PM, Feb 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-13 19:52:16-05

BOZEMAN — A Montana State University Ph.D. student has been selected to participate in a NASA program that is sending her on a virtual mission to Mars.

“I wanted to participate to contribute to human spaceflight and space exploration in general, and personally for the challenge it presented,” Madelyne Willis said.

Willis, like many growing up, dreamed of being an astronaut. This passion for technology and science eventually led Willis to microbiology. No longer is interstellar travel in her plans, but that doesn’t mean her skills and knowledge cannot be utilized for a contribution to space flight.

Willis and three other people were selected to be in Campaign 6, Mission 1of NASA’S Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA), where the team virtually traveled to the Mars moon Phobos.

“We were sent there to collect scientific samples and make measurements and bring those samples back to Earth,” Willis said.

The four crew members shared a 600-square-foot living space for 45 days, something Willis has experienced in her past research on Antarctica.

“I’ve done field research in Antarctica, and again, that was an experience in an isolated confined environment,” she said.

Willis’ past experience with single-celled organisms on frigid and glacial environments proved of use when comparing to the shells on Moons in the solar system.

“It’s a little bit ironic, a lot of environments I study—so glacial environments, icy environments— here on Earth, how similar environments exist on the icy shell of Europa or Enceladus,” Willis said.

Willis shared many experiences she had aboard the Campaign 6, Mission 1 vessel but says what she will remember most are the friendships formed with her crew mates.