Alumnus Bob Ferguson spent six weeks in a simulated space habitat and emerged a grateful man.

When he stepped out of the mock spaceship for the first time in 45 days, Bob Ferguson, ME ’02, hugged his wife and took a bite from a juicy apple. He also looked back a little longingly at the Human Exploration Research Analog, or HERA, where he had experienced the life of a space explorer.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I say that as a researcher at heart,” said Ferguson, the Vice President of Global Research & Development for Atlanta, Georgia-based Vernay Laboratories. “It was also pretty exciting to be involved in such a cool science experiment.”

Ferguson, 44, was one of four volunteers chosen for the 20th HERA mission, which is part of NASA’s quest to understand how human behavior and group dynamics are affected by prolonged isolation and confinement.

The call had gone out for healthy non-smoking STEM majors with advanced degrees. Ferguson earned his master’s in engineering at night, driving into Cleveland from Sandusky, where he was working as a test engineer.

 “Higher education and continuous learning have always been important to me,” he said. “I guess I’m just curious and interested in a lot of different areas, not to mention human space flight!”

After passing a flight physical exam, he met his crewmates: Ryan Paldanius, a product engineer in Houston; Amran Asadi, an anesthesiologist in Stanford, and Mounir Alafrangy, an aerospace engineer in Washington, D.C.

Their HERA habitat was meant to resemble a space ship flying to Phobos, a moon orbiting Mars. Parked inside the Johnson Space Center in Houston, it has three levels and measures 636 square feet. The door closed on them on August 16, 2019.

For the next six weeks, until egress September 30, Ferguson and his crewmates lived and worked side by side. They simulated space maneuvers and dug up simulated moon rocks. They shared a galley and a bathroom and slept in bunks separated only by netting. They enjoyed one weekly phone call to family. 

“For the most part, we got along really well,” Ferguson said. “We performed well as a crew. One of the biggest concerns to me was how well I was able to handle the confinement.”

A scuba diver who competes in iron man competitions, he was worried about feeling cramped. But he found he was able to stay upbeat and focused through 16-hour work days.

He said it helped that the crewmates all met each other virtually before the mission, and then went through astronaut-like training and team building. Plus, he saw a bigger picture.

“I knew this was part of a larger mission, the human exploration of space,” he said.  “I am extremely honored to have contributed to the science that generated such significant data, and especially to work with such a talented group of scientists and engineers within the NASA HERA project.”

Still, he missed the old world. Upon exiting his spaceship, he rushed to hug his wife, Holly, and soon was ordering the food he had been craving, his first meal back on Earth.

A pizza.