Alumna thrives on space life, exploration
March 17, 2020
An eight-minute shower once a week.
A 20-minute communication delay with Earth.
For two weeks in January, Erin Bonilla, a Virginia Tech alumna, lived as if she were on Mars.
But she was on Earth at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) habitat, a white domed tent, on the side of a volcano, on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Bonilla and five other women were the first all-female crew at the HI-SEAS habitat while participating in SENSORIA, a 14-day research mission to simulate life on Mars.
The purpose of SENSORIA, the first in a future series of missions focused on women in space, was designed to highlight women’s roles in traditionally male-dominated fields.
“The whole mission was centered on putting women at the forefront of space exploration and research,” said Bonilla, who lives in Arizona and is a co-founder of Flight Ready Systems, a business that specializes in education, training, and field research for space-simulated environments. “It’s not that men won’t be in future [SENSORIA] missions, but it’s that women will be in leadership roles. Historically, women are few and far between when you start getting into senior leadership roles [at NASA].”
Each crew member joined the mission with a different space-related research project.
Bonilla’s individual research was to explore the ways that women respond mentally and physically to space life and to study overall crew cohesion.
“It’s as close as you’ll get on Earth to simulating what it will be like to live in a habitat on Mars,” said Bonilla, the crew’s vice commander, and one of many Hokies featured in the spring Virginia Tech magazine story, "Hokies and Space."
In the mission, the crew ate freeze dried and dehydrated foods for every meal and donned spacesuits each time they stepped outside of the habitat for an extravehicular activity. Only four crew members could leave at a time to ensure consistent habitat communications in the event of an emergency. Because of rain, several crew members had to stay indoors for eight days straight.
“Being stuck indoors was pretty challenging,” Bonilla said. “On day four, I could already feel nature deprivation.”
SENSORIA is just one of Bonilla’s numerous space-related exploits since she graduated from Virginia Tech in 2004. She majored in graphic design and initially worked in fashion design as a creative director at a fashion advertising firm. But after four years, the work was not as fulfilling for her, she said.
She learned of an opportunity to run a NASA website for a federal contractor based out of NASA's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She landed the job, and that’s when she caught what she calls the “space bug.”
“Once you are into space, you want to know more,” she said. “Being at NASA pretty much decides that for you. Once you’re a part of it, you’re contributing to that greater mission. There’s a culture there that’s pretty special.”
A few years later, in 2014, Bonilla and her husband moved to Arizona. Bonilla continued to explore her space passion, and she began participating in analogs, which are environments that simulate outer space. She was part of several space-related analogs, including a Zero G parabolic flight, in which participants float weightlessly while flying, and a Mount Everest Base Camp expedition, which allowed her to observe the impact of elevation on her body.
Bonilla also graduated from the PoSSUM Citizen Scientist Astronaut Candidate Program, where she learned about conducting research aboard a suborbital spacecraft, participated in mission simulations wearing a pressurized spacesuit, and trained in a chamber that creates a low oxygen, high-altitude environment.
To feed her thirst for adventure, Bonilla also enrolled in an online master’s degree program for adventure education at Prescott College, where she designed her academic study to include a concentration in spaceflight training administration.
In 2019, Bonilla started Flight Ready Systems LLC with Sian Proctor, also a member of the SENSORIA crew and a geoscience professor at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix. The two make a good team, said Proctor.
“I can activate, but she’s a finisher,” said Proctor about Bonilla. “She comes in and achieves the objective. She can literally lay out the plan in a step-by-step process and is really good at keeping everyone on track.”
As vice commander and medical officer of the SENSORIA crew, Bonilla was responsible for helping to lead the mission and provide medical care for the crew.
Her other activities while in the Hi-SEAS habitat included exploring lava tubes, which are caves formed by hardened lava flows. Bonilla described the experience as similar to caving.
Meanwhile, Bonilla and Proctor plan to use their research from the mission to further develop their crew cohesion, communication, and leadership programs. They plan to propose the programs to NASA as pre-training activities for astronauts and mission control. This is an area that NASA has identified as one of its human performance research gaps.
“The goal is that this program develops into something that NASA could use,” said Bonilla, who is working towards a career in commercial spaceflight training.
By Jenny Kincaid Boone