To IU students of the early 1970s, 1972 to 1976 were “dead years.”
And that’s not a ’70s band reference.
Spirited conversations with friends and classmates about how NASA had lost its focus defined the undergraduate experience of Dr. Ron Williams, lifelong space enthusiast and IU School of Medicine neuroscience professor.
“Real space exploration was kind of on hold,” Williams said. “I had always dreamed of somehow contributing to the space program.”
Williams said he remembers feeling disappointed in the national space program.
“Here, we had been to the moon,” he said. “If we had kept on that same track and same pace, we could have been colonizing the moon and making trips to Mars by the 1980s.”
At 60 years old, Willams will get a chance to reconcile those feelings of disappointment he once had with NASA during his college years.
Williams has been selected to take part in a NASA-funded study that will place scientists in Earth’s most Mars-like conditions.
He and five other scientists will spend four months in a white-walled, domed facility in Hawaii designed to simulate a space mission on the red planet, Mars.
Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, will study the human factors that contribute to astronauts’ functioning and performance during lengthy “space travel,” according to a press release.
Williams will research the psychological effects of confinement as the group conducts experiments inside and outside the geodesic dome.
Williams spent years fostering a passion for the stars as a child, he said.
“I grew up during the space race, that was the golden era for space exploration,” Williams said. “I knew every mission and collected newspaper articles. I still have a lot of newspapers from that time.”
He said this is the closest he’ll ever come to being in space.
“It’s truly an honor,” he said. “I never thought that at 60 I’d be able to do this.”
The other five researchers are mostly in their upper twenties, with the oldest being 34 years old, Williams said.
“I think it’s cool that, despite his age, he still does things like this,” said Williams’ son, an IU sophomore, Nick Williams. “This has been a bucket list item for sure. I’m really happy for him.”
Williams said he hopes that, as he learns about life on Mars, interacting with the younger scientists will keep him entertained.
“I’m a little nervous about getting cabin fever,” Williams said. “I hope that my love for getting to know other people and my passion for learning about space will make the time pass quicker.”