UCLA Engineering PhD Candidate Leads Mars Simulation Training Program

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Dylan Dickstein, a PhD candidate in aerospace engineering, is back to everyday life on Earth after conducting a two-week Martian simulation experiment last spring.

Dickstein, who is expected to graduate this fall from UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, has successfully led a multidisciplinary team of six students and recent graduates from UCLA and other universities in the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) analog astronaut. Owned and operated by the nonprofit Mars Society, the facility is located near Hanksville, Utah. MDRS supports terrestrial research in the pursuit of the technology, operations and science necessary for human space exploration.

Acceptance of the highly competitive MDRS program is a notable achievement. Previous attendees include NASA astronaut and UCLA geology alumnus Jessica Watkins, Ph.D. ’15. Watkins is currently in training for NASA’s Artemis program scheduled for a 2024 mission to the moon.

“I have admired Astronaut Watkins for years now, and it is an honor to conduct research at the same facility,” Dickstein said. “The high fidelity of MDRS missions makes them a valuable training ground for future astronauts, and it is encouraging to see alumni recognized for their performance in simulation.”

Dickstein’s experience was particularly rare as he and his teammates were on the first full rotation since March 2020, when the pandemic struck. All other MDRS 2020-2021 field missions have been canceled or delayed for at least one season, and the next rotation will not take place until this fall. Dickstein and his U.S.-based teammates were all at least partially vaccinated and sufficiently quarantined when they began the mission April 11-24.

Crew 245 in the science dome of the Mars Desert Research Station

“COVID was a major hurdle, but we kept moving forward with plans to get into the simulation in April,” Dickstein said. “We were fully prepared when we received the official ‘Go for Mission’ from the program director earlier this year. ”

Charged with the task of commanding the simulation, Dickstein began building the team two years ago by recruiting people with compatible personalities and a diverse set of skills and experiences. He chose his teammates from among former internship and research colleagues, as well as peers from the Matthew Isakowitz scholarship program – a summer internship and networking program designed to bring together students and mentors interested in commercial spaceflight.

In addition to Commander Dickstein, other members of the MDRS 245 crew include crew scientist Olivia Ettlin ’20, a UCLA graduate in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology currently working as a laboratory technician at Caltech; health and safety officer Alex Coultrup of the Florida Institute of Technology and the International Space University who works on spacecraft architecture at Nanoracks; General Manager Shayna Hume who is researching entry, descent and landing for her PhD. at CU Boulder; team botanist Julio Hernandez, who holds a doctorate. candidate at Purdue University studying structural health monitoring of airplanes and spacecraft and crew engineer Shravan Hariharan, a graduate student at MIT where he studies the use of in-situ Martian resources.

Dylan Dickstein (left) and teammates Olivia Ettlin (center) and Alex Coultrup (right) after a successful EVA
Dylan Dickstein (left) and teammates Olivia Ettlin (center) and Alex Coultrup (right) after a successful EVA

The crew is also called “Team Patamars”, named after a type of sailboat and chosen for its nod to the simulated location. The team performed a variety of science experiments, including several extravehicular activities (EVAs) around the research station. Mars Society founder and aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin suggested the team collect soil samples as part of the EVAs. The exercise is to help demonstrate the search for extremophiles, microorganisms that live under conditions of extreme temperature, acidity, alkalinity or chemical concentration in Martian landscapes.

The Patamars team also performed an experiment to identify emergency shelter locations and create merit figures to rank each shelter. They used GPS devices to mark the positions of the shelters so that their teammates could find the locations later in the mission.

Led by Ettlin, two botanical experiments – a hydroponic garden and a Martian regolith viability study – were made possible by the greenhouse and on-site science lab.

Dylan Dickstein taking soil samples with teammate Shayna Hume
Dylan Dickstein collecting soil samples with
her teammate Shayna Hume

Additionally, each crew member participated in a dexterity feasibility study to better understand the limitations of space suit gloves. Coultrup also periodically quizzed the crew about their personal habits and commitment to strict simulation protocols despite the isolation and demanding workload associated with the mission.

While the technical aspects of the analog make sense of the simulation, Dickstein said it’s up to each crew member to conduct research that will help inform space experiments conducted by astronauts.

“Choosing the right experiments, performing them accurately and analyzing them scrupulously plays a central role in the importance of the overall mission,” Dickstein said. “It has been an incredible privilege to conduct research at the Mars Desert Research Station and we were conscientious not to take any moment for granted.”

Dickstein plans to pursue his dream of working in space after UCLA. As part of his continuing education, he will record more flight time on private planes, complete additional dives under his belt and undertake other astronaut simulations. Dickstein will also use his technical training at UCLA to design and analyze the next generation of launchers and spacecraft, as he did with his previous employers, including SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, United Launch Alliance and The Aerospace Corporation.


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