AANA Updates

Nurse Anesthesiology Training Prepares CRNA for “Once in a Lifetime” NASA Opportunity

  • May 31, 2022

By Patti Flesher
AANA Public Relations and Communications


Julie Milczarki NASA Photo

On May 27, NASA launched its latest simulated mission to Mars and on board is crew member Jennifer Milczarski, DNAP, CRNA. Milczarski and three other crew members will live and work for like astronauts for 45 days inside the Human Exploration Research Analog, or HERA, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston while “traveling” to the Martian moon Phobos.

HERA enables researchers to study how crew members adjust to isolation, confinement, and extreme conditions on Earth before NASA sends astronauts on deep-space missions. To help researchers learn about crew behaviors, the crew carries out various science and maintenance experiments inside HERA. In addition, NASA will perform 15 studies on human behavior to help NASA create a robust data set on how individuals adapt to challenges inherent in spaceflight.

Milczarski’s mission to Mars started with a several months-long selection process. 

“For years, I had been looking for an advanced practice nursing position in NASA’s aerospace medicine program. However, the primary positions they had been seeking were for physicians and nurses,” she said. “Then, I met a friend of a friend who suggested I look into HERA.”

Milczarski could not pass up the opportunity to be part of research that will aid in future human space travel, including deep-space travel for eventual travel to Mars. She submitted an application and several months later received an email from NASA that she was advancing to the next stage in the selection process.

“Each stage required different testing and submissions of information,” said Milczarski. “The final round was an in-person interview in Houston that lasted for three days with one-on-one interviews with the HERA selection team and one of NASA’s psychologists who works with the astronauts both on land and while at the International Space Station (ISS). In addition, I underwent several physical, cognitive, and psychological exams and evaluations before being selected.”

Milczarski draws heavily from her education, training, and experience as a CRNA to prepare her for the mission.  

“HERA strives to choose candidates that are ‘astronaut-like.’ Most astronauts served in the military and have proven their ability to think logically, maintain composure, and perform well under extreme conditions. I believe my years of being a CRNA have helped me to do the same,” she said. “CRNAs undergo a vast amount of acute and chronic stress each workday. We are adaptable, can think abstractly, utilize critical thinking, maintain composure in emergency situations, receive and process information quickly and accurately, and perform well under pressure, often in less-than-ideal conditions. I believe this constant exposure to these extreme conditions helped me, personally, achieve competencies that HERA was seeking from their candidate pool.”

This crew marks the third group of volunteers to participate in HERA’s current research campaign. While in “space” the crew will have 16-hour workdays, six days per week. They will be assigned projects similar to those conducted on the ISS, including analyzing plant biology, animal biology, and microbiology.

“We will also be raising shrimp and growing hydroponic lettuce. The crew’s favorite work assignments are extravehicular or EVA missions – using augmented reality and virtual reality to perform an array of tasks such as: visiting the Martian moon Phobos for space walks; sampling, inspecting and analyzing the exterior of our space station for anomalies; and utilizing a robotic arm to dock and undock varies items from the space station,” Milczarski said.

“Additionally, at any time random emergencies will arise that include a variety of realistic scenarios that can, or have, happened in space flight,” she said. “Part of the research is studying how crews handle space flight and emergency situations autonomously. As astronauts advance deeper into space, communication with mission control will become more delayed. Therefore, during these emergencies our crew will work solo, or as a team, to analyze the readouts from the habitat support system, diagnose the anomaly and then proceed with the repair.”

Although they have no Wi-Fi or cell service and communications to Mission Control may be delayed, the crew has access to a variety of tools similar to those used in space, replacement parts, and a 3D printer to resolve any issues that will arise.

Milczarski hopes her mission motivates others to take on new challenges. “I hope that me partaking in HERA serves as an inspiration to others. Whether that be to seek out similar opportunities in human space travel or to get creative when thinking about their future. Too often we become our own limiting factor in life. It’s amazing how the doors of opportunities begin to open when you choose the path of self-improvement.”

“I enjoy stepping outside of my comfort zone and I take pride in rising to whatever occasion presents itself. I believe HERA to be a once-in-lifetime experience that will challenge me on all levels: physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. I hope this opportunity helps me to continue to grow as a person and to better understand myself and my interpersonal relationships with others.”