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Lockport’s Ronald Franco to take part in astronaut experiments in Houston

LOCKPORT – It might be the closest one could get to becoming an astronaut without leaving the ground.

Ronald A. Franco, an Air Force veteran and airline pilot, will take part in an experiment at the Johnson Space Center in Houston this spring, in which he and three other men will be sealed for 30 days in a small structure meant to simulate spaceflight conditions – except for weightlessness. Abolishing gravity on Earth is still beyond the capability of science.

Other than that, the mission is designed to be part of testing the health effects of long stints in space as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration prepares for a possible future manned flight to Mars or to an asteroid.

For Franco, 52, of Lockport, and his fellow crew members, a month in the capsule called the Human Exploration Research Analog, or HERA, will enable them to play a part in the space program without actually being part of the astronaut corps.

“I was five years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon,” said Franco. “I believe the next year, my Uncle Phil sent me a telescope and an astronomy book. It took off from there.”

He was bitten by the space bug in the glory days of NASA, from 1969 to 1972, when six three-man crews rode the mighty Saturn V rocket to land on the moon, while three other crews circled the moon without landing. NASA, incidentally, no longer has the capacity to do this even once.

Back in those days, “Who didn’t want to be an astronaut?” Franco asked.

He and his brother showed their differing interests in the 1970s. “For every picture of Gordie Howe or the French Connection he put up, I put up an Apollo mission picture,” Franco said. “The kids all had the GI Joe Mercury capsule, and we all had the command module-lunar module models built. It was an exciting time to grow up. I think people will remember the 20th century for man first walking on the moon.”

Although Franco was briefly involved in Lockport politics last year – he was appointed to a vacant seat on the Common Council, but found his pilot schedule made it too hard to attend the meetings – his Lockport home boasts more space artifacts than political souvenirs. His study includes a model of the Apollo spacecraft that flew to the moon, autographed by Apollo 16 moonwalker Charles Duke, and a photo of Franco with space hero John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth.

“The space program is starting to gin up again. NASA is getting serious about manned exploration to Mars, and an asteroid,” Franco said. “There is political interest in an asteroid redirect mission, which in some sense is what we’ll be simulating on HERA during this campaign.”

That means a mission that would be able to prevent a stray asteroid from striking the earth.

NASA spokesman William P. Jeffs said those interested in applying for HERA may call 866-572-8378. “We take applications continuously and then screen them, and determine their availability for a particular mission. We’ve had more than 40 applicants for the campaign so far, with more applications coming in,” Jeffs said.

HERA candidates need to have post-graduate degrees and professional technical skills.

Franco, who has been flying for American Airlines since 1999, and also was deployed in both Gulf Wars as a member of the 914th Airlift Wing at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, was able to use that experience to make up for having only a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Syracuse University. He was in the Air Force Reserve for 22 years, retiring in 2009.

Franco said in the 1990s, he started filling out an astronaut application, but was stymied by the qualifications at the time, which mandated a master’s degree and a stint in test pilot school.

After two rounds of strict screening that included the same psychiatric testing given to would-be astronauts, Franco is ready to spend 30 days in almost-solitary confinement, preceded by two weeks of mission training and followed by one week of medical testing.

He and the others on the 10th HERA mission – Oscar Mathews of Virginia Beach, Va., Casey Stedman of Olympia, Wash., and Chris Matty of Houston – have been conferring every Monday night via the Internet, getting set for their adventure in a 47-foot-long, two-story habitat in Building 220 at the Johnson Space Center.

NASA started these simulations in 2014 with seven-day missions, gradually lengthening them to an eventual maximum of 45 days.

The last mission, in January and February, had a four-woman crew, although NASA’s goal is to split crews equally between the genders.

Franco said efforts are made to make this as much like actual spaceflight as possible. For “liftoff,” the crew of HERA, which used to be called the Deep Space Module, will wear flight suits and be treated to realistic sound effects of a rocket launch.

The “windows,” really video monitors, will show views of Earth receding and turning to the darkness of space.

As the mission goes on, voice communications with Mission Control will be delayed to simulate how long it would take a signal to reach Earth from deep space. A spoken message won’t be answered for as long as 10 minutes.

Also, the men will have no computers, no television and no phones, except for a 20-minute call home once a week. They will be under round-the-clock video and audio surveillance.

The crew will use the work schedule now used on the International Space Station, which includes 16-hour days five days a week, followed by two days doing the minimum needed to keep the “spacecraft” functioning.

Besides behavioral and medical studies, the HERA crew will be tested before “liftoff” for the amount of calories they need to consume. Franco said NASA, worried about saving space and weight for food storage on a real mission that could last two years, will be using them to test nutritional bars that are supposed to contain all the nutrients they’ll need.

The team will simulate an attempt to land on an asteroid called Geographos. Two of the four men will perform a “virtual reality” spacewalk, Franco said, retrieving soil samples from the asteroid and examining them under a microscope.

The mission will include some sleep deprivation to test their responses in an emergency, Franco said.

In case of illness, there’s a “medical table” in the capsule. “Anything short of a major medical emergency, they want us to handle it as a crew,” Franco said.

Is 52 too old for this? Franco said Scott Kelly, the astronaut who just returned to earth after a year on the space station, also is 52.

“The ironic thing is, he was born the exact same month and year I was born,” Franco said.