When Stacy Cusack ENG’95 saw Star Wars more than 30 years ago, she announced to her mother that space travel was what she wanted to do. She hasn’t quite made it into outer space yet, but, as a specialist at NASA, Cusack has visited a facsimile of Mars. Cusack spent last July on a weather-blasted island in the Canadian arctic, part of a simulated Mars mission sponsored by the Mars Society, a private research foundation dedicated to encouraging a manned mission to the planet. She and five scientists worked on Devon Island, which is, according to the society, “the closest habitat on Earth to Mars.”
“The island is uninhabited: no roads and no signs of people,” says Cusack, who received a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Rutgers and a master’s degree in planetary geology from the University of Houston. “The habitat, on the edge of a crater, really looked like you were on another planet.” Cusack, donning a mock spacesuit and helmet, collected rock samples and struggled with her bulky field backpack. She communicated with mission support on a 20-minute delay as if phoning home from Mars. And she became resourceful at punching tiny LED screens with unwieldy space gloves while briefing the society and NASA on the progress of astronauts’ preparation for manned space missions. In such conditions, technology isn’t always the biggest challenge, says Cusack; it’s a thing called human nature. The mix of astronauts living and working together for months or, as in the case of a mission to Mars, years at a time puts an extra onus on the competence of the commander.
Since returning from Mars, more or less, Cusack has been assisting as a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she has been for more than 10 years. As a space station training leader, she had been preparing astronauts for a launch to the International Space Station in May. By day, she must challenge astronauts-in-training, exposing them to everything from mock module fires to shuttle depressurizations in order to gauge their performance under pressure. By night, she dreams of manned missions to Mars, something, hopefully, that will take place in her lifetime. “If they asked me,” says Cusack, who lives near Houston with husband Robert Cusack RC’94, “I would go in a second.”
— Wendy Plump