From Penn State Brandywine to Houston: grad lands job with NASA

When it came to life after college and her career goals, Sarah Huppman really reached for the stars. The Penn State Brandywine alumnus is currently a member of NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) Flight Analogs Project (FAP), which aims to better understand the physical, cognitive and behavioral effects that flying and living in space have on astronauts.

As a planning and integration coordinator at Wyle Science, Technology and Engineering group (a NASA contractor), Huppman works on-site at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where she is a part of two studies. Both take place in ground-based facilities that simulate spaceflight environments and scenarios that astronauts encounter during exploration missions. This gives researchers the ability to study the effects of space travel on the human body. Ultimately, the results of these studies will be used to keep astronauts physically and mentally healthy while spending long periods of time in space.  

"The overall goal of the Flight Analogs Project is to provide insight into an astronaut's safety and productivity," Huppman explained. "They may also be used to evaluate the challenges and issues related to deep space exploration."

"These ground analogs are utilized to reduce the requirement for spaceflight resources while efficiently addressing research questions for future manned exploration missions," added Joseph Neigut, who has been project manager for the Flight Analogs Project since 2007. 

Sarah Huppman standing in front of a rocket at NASA

One of the studies Huppman is working on is called the Bed Rest Study. This requires participants to lie in a bed with their heads slightly angled downward, 24-hours a day for 70 days without getting up for any reason. This closely mimics zero gravity, allowing the researchers to better understand the challenges of living in space. During the bed rest, crew members complete a specific exercise program to help support muscle size and strength, bone health and cardiovascular function while in extreme space conditions.

Huppman's other focus is a study called HERA, which stands for Human Exploration Research Analog. This study requires four research participants to live in a small two-story, 148-cubic-meter facility. Throughout the seven-day HERA mission, crew members live and work in the confined area, allowing researchers to study how isolation, confinement and remote conditions influence factors such as team unity, performance, attitude and general health.

"Our HERA missions will lead to a better understanding of impacts related to isolation, remoteness and confined habitation," Huppman said. "These are important factors to consider before sending astronauts on extended missions to the moon, Mars or an asteroid."

One of Huppman's main jobs is to communicate with various researchers to integrate their individual research requirements into one study. Since many of the researchers are often off site when their studies are occurring, Huppman also assists in writing procedures for each study to make sure that research participants fully understand their tasks and can complete each task correctly.

She also explained that she provides "real-time and on-call support for our HERA missions. During HERA missions we must provide 24/7 support, similar to how the JSC Mission Control Center supports the International Space Station."

"Sarah has been a great addition to our team," Neigut said. "She has very quickly engaged with our work and become a valuable member of the team. She has a wonderful attitude and is highly capable." 

Graduating in spring 2013 with a bachelor's degree in human development and family studies, Huppman credits Penn State Brandywine for giving her the foundation needed to perform at such a high-caliber organization.

"Teamwork, professionalism and communication skills are three of the most important things I learned while at Brandywine," said Huppman. "My Penn State education has given me the opportunity to succeed."

She will soon travel to the Florida Keys to start a new project beginning July 21 called NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO). The nine-day undersea mission will send aquanauts to the ocean floor to provide information for future International Space Station and exploration activities. The study will simulate life onboard the space station and will focus on learning more about astronauts' behavioral health, performance, physical health and habitability.

So what's next for Huppman?

"In the future I would love to assist in the planning of a real mission to an asteroid or Mars or support research being done on the International Space Station," she said.