KINGS POINT, N.Y., February 11, 2019 – On Friday, United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) Alumnus, Dustin L. Wallace, Class of 2006, will be signing-on to a 45-day assignment that is not exactly typical of a Merchant Mariner. Wallace, a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve (USN) and a United States Coast Guard (USCG) Licensed Chief Engineer has been selected for his newest role - part of the team for National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) next Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) mission.
We recently caught up with Wallace, who graduated USMMA with a Bachelor of Science in Marine Engineering Systems with a concentration in Aeronautical Engineering:
Dustin, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Before we talk about HERA, can you tell us what have you been doing since graduation?
I have done a combination of sailing, maintaining a commission in the Navy Reserve as a Strategic Sealift Officer (SSO), and furthering my education. On the sailing side, I have worked for Military Sealift Command, Keystone Shipping Company, and Hornbeck Offshore, ultimately earning a Chief Engineer's License.
On the SSO side of the house, I completed both short and long term assignments within the U.S. and around the world, including Bahrain, Italy, Oman, and Singapore. In 2013, I deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan for six months and attached as an Operations Officer to Defense Contract Management Agency, where I planned and executed air and ground transport operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2015, I began a 1.5-year assignment as IT Project Manager with Military Sealift Command's IT Engineering department, where we developed next generation IT platforms that were deployed across the MSC fleet. In 2017, I supported efforts for the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain post-collision repair preparations efforts in Yokosuka, Japan.
On the education side, I completed a Graduate Certificate in Space Studies with the Air Force Institute of Technology in 2011. I also earned a Master of Science in Aeronautics, concentrating in Space Studies from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in 2016. In both cases, I took advantage of the distance learning curricula offered by those institutions. Periodically, throughout these years, I completed upgrade and renewal courses for my USCG License.
In 2016, I was selected as Scientist-Astronaut Candidate, with Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere). Project PoSSUM is a 501(C)(3) research and education program conducting upper-level atmospheric and astronautics research while offering immersive astronautics education. The organization aims to provide Citizen Scientist Astronauts as researchers aboard commercial suborbital vehicles. Suborbital space is the internationally recognized boundary, called the Kármán Line, which is 62 miles (100 km) above Earth. Each mission costs approximately $250,000 per person. In the meantime, I was able to contribute to high-level altitude cloud formation research as well as be a contributing author of two chapters in the book, "Handbook of Life Support Systems for Spacecraft and Extraterrestrial Habitats."
In my free time, I have completed a number of full and half marathons. Meanwhile, for about a decade, I have studied the martial art called Capoeira, which is a Brazilian dance fighting form that traces its origins to Africa.
Are you still in the reserves?
Yes, I am a Strategic Sealift Officer (SSO). I am a Lt. Cmdr. and I am also an SSO Mentor, overseeing 18 SSO's. The SSO mentorship program was recently reorganized and it has already become a rewarding experience to engage, de-conflict, and interact with fellow SSO’s.
How did you get involved with HERA?
It was a combination of sorts. I first heard about HERA spoken in Project PoSSUM circles. Then last year, Gregory Sachs, USMMA '99, shared an article on the USMMA Alumni Association and Foundation Facebook page, documenting some of his experiences with HERA. After Greg completed his mission, I got in touch with him. He provided me with more insight, especially prior to my own mission start.
What was the selection process like?
The selection process for HERA is pretty straightforward. I applied through the HERA website. To be considered, a candidate needs to be between ages 30-55, have a Body Mass Index of 29% or less, pass a Category 1 Test Subject Physical and drug screen, be fluent in English, have and advance degree such as a Master of Science, and must undergo an echocardiogram.
The selection process must be very competitive. Do you know how many applied for this mission?
Although I do not have a firm number, I know the applicant pool is rather small. NASA is basically asking you to give up slightly over two months of your life to be involved in this study. Not everybody can do that, which keeps the applicant pool small.
Once you were selected, what kinds of things did you have to do mentally, physically and practically to get ready for your "departure?"
I had to get into the mindset, like I was shipping out. That means, on the home front, making sure the right people are in place to ensure affairs are maintained in order. It also means, packing what you need. Further, I would have to get into the mindset that I would have limited contact to the outside world. This is imperative to focus on the mission!
There are approximately two weeks of training scheduled up front, in order to learn the particulars of the mission. That includes habitat layout, familiarization with experiments, and simulated space walking processes. Physically, we PT’d a lot—both individually, and together as a group. This not only built our strength and endurance but also contributed to forging strong bonds with each other. As exercise equipment will be provided in the habitat, albeit on a limited scale, it is important to have a firm baseline to propel us through the mission.
How does HERA contribute to NASA?
The purpose of HERA is to assess behavioral health and performance, evaluate human factors, study communication, autonomy, and medical capabilities, in order to lay the foundation to effectively handle long duration spaceflight missions to the Moon and Mars in the coming decades. A major benefit is that what is studied now, does not need to be studied in the future, enabling astronauts to primarily focus on their missions.
What do you expect to be your biggest challenge during the 45 days "in space?"
Being isolated from family and friends. The genesis for developing coping techniques can be traced back to our Sea Year, when we, as Cadets, had to contend with limited sleep and maximum output. From there, one refines those skills. As merchant mariners, we are used to being off the grid, and in the grind. We know to expect "Groundhog Day" during this period. That is no different from shipping out or being on a military deployment. Lack of connectivity to the outside world is an adjustment but not an insurmountable one—again, as mariners we are used to being cut off from the outside world. Like shipping, we have to contend with close quarters. These are inherent stressors that, we as mariners, have found a way to cope with over time. The main thing is to maintain a balance of staying busy while still interacting with your fellow crewmembers. This is part of being in a high OPTEMPO environment. We will enter the Habitat on Feb. 15, and exit on April 1.
What will you do in your spare time?
I plan to bring a couple of books, as well as a Capoeira musical instrument. The musical instrument is called a berimbau. It is essentially a percussion instrument that governs the songs annunciation in an evolution, which ultimately governs the game of Capoeira. Since space is limited to perform martial arts based movements, I will have time to focus on the musical aspect of Capoeira.
What do you hope to learn over the next 45 days?
I hope to learn more about myself. I have endured challenges in the past, such as training to be a surface rescue swimmer, operating in an expeditionary environment like Afghanistan, or running marathons. This experience will be unique in its own right, and I look forward to the opportunity to learn more about myself.
How will this experience further your personal career goals and aspirations?
Certainly, this experience gives me a small taste of long duration space flight. I view the experiences gained and research data developed as providing a small contribution to the greater scientific body.
Can this experience lead to a career as an astronaut?
Being a realist here, the Astronaut class of 2017 had over 18,300 applicants! Assuming similar numbers, my chances for the next NASA application cycle are slim at best. While I do not think this experience will directly lead to a career as an astronaut, I think that it couldn't hurt either. Being a small part of something greater, that is the most rewarding aspect of this opportunity.
You show a lot of humility in saying that your chances are slim, but look at how much you have accomplished already. We will be thinking of you during your 45-day mission and look forward to seeing where this journey takes you in the future. We are sure with your background and determination the sky is the limit - Acta non Verba!