What does it take to be selected for a NASA Human Research Program?

Aerospace’s Ashley Kowalski is now one of four Americans vying for a spot in an eight-month spaceflight simulation study based in Moscow. She answers our questions (and yours!) about her pursuit to join the SIRIUS-21 mission.

The Aerospace Corporation
7 min readAug 17, 2021

Ashley Kowalski, Project Leader in the Global Partnerships department at Aerospace, has been selected by NASA’s Human Research Program for a spaceflight simulation study in Moscow, Russia. Kowalski looks to join an international crew of six people who will live together in isolation for eight months while NASA researchers study crew interactions, health, and physiology experiences including various aspects of social isolation and confinement.

The simulation is part of the program known as the Scientific International Research In a Unique terrestrial Station (SIRIUS) program and takes place in a ground-based analog facility called Nazemnyy Eksperimental’nyy Kompleks, or NEK, within the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

The latest mission, known as SIRIUS-21, will include nearly 70 separate studies researching the effects of isolation and confinement on human psychology, physiology, and team dynamics to prepare humans for Artemis exploration missions to the Moon, trips to the planned lunar Gateway, and long-duration missions to Mars.

Kowalski and three other U.S. crew members will report for training in Russia in late August. Two of them will be selected for the planned isolation mission from November 2021 to July 2022.

We caught up with Kowalski to ask her about the program and her plans for the future.

How did you get involved with NASA’s Human Research Program?

I have always had a desire to be more involved with human spaceflight, so I was specifically seeking out opportunities outside of my daily work that could give me the opportunity to be an active participant in furthering research in the field, and perhaps place me one step closer to my goal of becoming an astronaut. Participating in an astronaut analog study is one way of doing my part to help further the future of human spaceflight and successfully return humans to the Moon for long-duration lunar exploration missions and eventually to Mars.

I already knew of several other astronaut analog studies in existence — for instance, NASA HERA, NASA NEEMO, HI-SEAS, Mars Desert Research Station — but when I saw the SIRIUS mission, I knew that it had my name written all over it! For SIRIUS-21, the ground-based analog facility, the Nazemnyy Eksperimental’nyy Kompleks (Наземный Экспериментальный Комплекс), or NEK, is located in Moscow, Russia. I had previously spent a year living and working in Russia due to my interest in the global space industry and U.S.-Russian space relations. One of the requirements for SIRIUS-21 included passing various Russian language tests in addition to other academic, physical, and psychological requirements.

Because of my experiences in Russia, I was knowledgeable about NEK. The Russians have a long history of conducting research on behavioral health in support of crewed space flights and studying how to maintain human performance in unique/extreme conditions. Probably the most famous study performed at that facility that people might be familiar with is the Mars 500 study. That, paired with my love of human exploration and my desire to be a part of NASA’s path to return humans to the Moon for long-duration missions made this feel like the opportunity was meant for me.

This study will involve spending eight months in isolation with five other crew members. What are you personally hoping to get out of the experience?

I’m hoping to learn and grow both personally and professionally while carrying out the SIRIUS experiments to the best of my abilities. This program brings together a lot of my passions — intercultural relations and international cooperation, Russian space program developments, USA-Russia relations, space exploration, and human spaceflight to name a few.

I really like to do things that challenge me and push me to my limits — to see how much I can endure and what I am truly capable of mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. I have applied to and plan on continuing to apply for NASA’s Astronaut Program, so this will be a great test to see if I am capable of handling the rigors of that career path.

How do you plan to handle being shut in? Do you have any hobbies to help pass the time?

I love learning languages, so I’m hoping to really improve my Russian while in the habitat. I’ll have direct access to native Russian language speakers during the training portion prior to ingress as well as within the habitat, and I plan on bringing some of my Russian language books with me. This will be a great opportunity for me to really focus on my Russian language skills!

Also, I’m really hoping to journal and video/photo-document my time in the habitat as much as I can, so I can share details about this experience once it’s complete. I love speaking about and sharing STEM topics on social media, so my hope is that I can share this unique experience with the public as much as possible to help continue to garner interest in space, STEM, and human spaceflight.

Unfortunately, a lot of my other hobbies are not as easily transferrable into a habitat environment. I actively participate in musical theater and dance, perform on stage regularly, and play musical instruments, so maybe I’ll have to see if my crew mates want to join me in some in some artistic/performance endeavors while in the habitat. Perhaps a SIRIUS 21 mini-musical?

Do you think your experience at Aerospace will be useful as a crewmember for the study? If so, how?

Yes, one hundred percent! All of the technical knowledge I’ve gained while at Aerospace the past seven years will be beneficial to me, but specifically, my current position with the Global Partnerships Department involves daily interactions with international partners.

In my role in Global Partnerships, I’ve not only refined my diplomacy skills in my interactions with international partners as we represent the USSF interests, but I’ve also learned how to foster successful relationships and work on collaborative projects with people and organizations of varying cultural backgrounds. This will be extremely useful for me while in the habitat as only two of the six total crew members will be from the U.S.

You speak Russian and German and are fluent in Polish. Where did you develop your language skills?

I honestly love learning languages! I grew up in a bilingual household. My parents are both originally from Poland, so I was fortunate to spend a lot of time in Poland throughout my life and had many opportunities to communicate with family members who were native Poles. I was also recently able to practice my Polish skills in a professional setting at Aerospace as we engaged in dialogue and established partnerships with Poland. As for German, Germany is known for engineering, and at the time that I was starting my engineering career as a freshman at The George Washington University, I had already considered an internship abroad so I figured I’d try German to be more competitive for international internship applications!

I ended up doing an undergraduate summer internship at the Technische Universität Berlin, as well as a separate year-long Department of State sponsored fellowship program, the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals program in Hamburg after graduate school. Russian is a language I decided to pursue a little later in life. I became interested in U.S.-Russian space relations and accepted a fellowship program in Russia that allowed me to spend a year living and working within my field in Moscow.

To give myself a competitive edge for that fellowship, I decided to start taking Russian language classes. Now, I am able to apply my experiences from that program during the SIRIUS-21 mission.

How have your family and friends reacted to your participation in the study, knowing you’ll be isolated for eight months?

At this point, I don’t think any of my life or career choices are shocking to my family or friends! H. Everyone — my family, my friends, my Aerospace colleagues — have been extremely supportive and excited for me because they know that this could potentially help bring me one step closer to fulfilling my ultimate dream of becoming an astronaut. Even if it never comes to fruition, I know I’ll look back and think “Wow, I really did that!” and be satisfied knowing that I had a hand in helping NASA with their goals of studying how human psychology, physiology, and team dynamics change while individuals are exposed to long-term confinement, sensory deprivation, and limited communication.

The goal of this study is to prepare humans for inter-galactic travel. Would you be interested in traveling to Mars if you knew you could not return to Earth?

That’s the million-dollar question right there! I’m hoping that the SIRIUS astronaut analog study will provide me with experiences that will help me form a more definitive answer. The decision would depend a lot on where I am in life at the time, what my priorities are, and what’s most important to me. Earth is a beautiful blue gem with beautiful people on it. It would be very hard to separate from all of that permanently, but it’s definitely not out of the question!