Skip to content
Academics Alum Features

Saint Ben’s alumna plays role in NASA research for deep space travel

Kim Knish ’93 has been fascinated by science since she grew up in the small southern Minnesota farming community of Le Center. As one of fewer than 50 students in her high school graduating class, she fostered aspirations of a career in biology, physiology, archeology or geology.

Space exploration, while exciting, was some fantastic out-of-reach notion that she quietly nurtured beneath her pursuit of a biology degree on a pre-med track at the College of Saint Benedict – something that led to a long career in the medical device industry.

In her spare time, she read books written by astronauts and devoured NASA newsletters to which she subscribed. Now, 30 years after she graduated from Saint Ben’s, she realized a dream of sorts – without ever leaving the ground.

Knish was one of four members of a NASA crew that simulated a trip to the Martian moon Phobos earlier this year. The expedition – officially Campaign 6 Mission 4 of the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) – stretched from Jan. 27 to March 13. During those 45 days, Knish and her crewmates never stepped outside a 650-square-foot, 2½-story capsule at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Inside, they lived and worked like astronauts, conducting experiments to analyze rock samples in a glovebox, testing augmented reality capabilities and technologies to help astronauts be more autonomous. Their experience was nearly identical to what it would be like during a real mission to Mars, right up to simulated views out of their windows showing the moon, planets and stars changing in perspective. Communication delays increased as they traveled farther from Earth.

“It’s not a vacation,” said Knish, back home in Minnesota and returned to her role as president and principal advisor of VitaMedical – a consultancy that gave her the flexibility to volunteer for the mission in the first place. “All told, it was almost three months of long and exacting work. What’s in it for me? I think it was mostly because I knew it would be a challenge, but I knew I could make a contribution and see it through, and my husband, family and friends were very supportive.”

Knish has certifications in clinical research and regulatory affairs and has led global teams responsible for product approvals in more than 100 international markets. Her projects have included the first MRI-compatible heart pacing systems, wireless telemetry pacing and defibrillation systems, and percutaneous structural heart repair devices. That’s a different but not invaluable background from her crewmates, who included a software engineer who has worked eight years for NASA, a marine lab specialist with expertise in imaging systems and software testing, and a materials engineer with experience at NASA and SpaceX.

“NASA uses many different types of medical technologies and needs continue to evolve as missions travel farther from Earth,” Knish said. “In the quest for developing capabilities, countermeasures, and technology to support long-duration space flight, NASA looks to a variety of different sources for research data such as prior missions, active missions on the International Space Station, and analog missions, among others.  The way NASA identifies and establishes mitigations for known risks of extensive space travel is very similar to how we approach design, control and risk management for medical devices. That was striking and unexpected, and made it easy for me to see how each study mapped through their overall risk mitigation plan. Once I had a better understanding of how the research would contribute, I had a strong desire to participate.”

It’s not like she hasn’t been an explorer, and perhaps a bit of a daredevil, either. She has sailed and raced on the ocean, which also involves thriving in confinement and navigating crew dynamics, many forms of discomfort, resilience and isolation from your normal life as well as the potential for dealing with unplanned events.

Knish first learned about research analogs in a visit to the Johnson Space Center as part of the Conrad Challenge Innovation Summit, a competition for teen entrepreneurs during which she was a judge for the event. She applied and was selected for the crew last October. The team participated in weekly video conferences during November and December to familiarize themselves with what they were about to do – even designing a mission patch just like any other NASA exploration. The members arrived in January for three days of quarantine and acclimation, 16 days of pre-mission training, the 45-day mission itself, and a seven-day post-mission debrief.

Kim Knish in airlock

Kim Knish ’93 is shown in an airlock on the Human Exploration Research Analog capsule at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Living in confinement, with no Internet

The first level of the simulated craft had a main workspace, hygiene module and an air lock. A second level contained work desks, a galley, workout space, food storage and kick-back space. A loft above that included sleeping bunks, each with a foam mattress, sleeping bag and pillow. They had no Internet access, although they could watch Netflix and listen to Apple Music. They had a small capacity for personal items and could bring books as long as they fit in the space.

They used standard voice protocols to speak to Mission Control Center, and charted data from an electrocardiogram and wrist-worn sensors as well as the results of blood, saliva and urine samples. NASA further studied how the crew members adjusted to isolation, confinement and remote conditions like what they would find in space. They underwent exercise and cognition testing several times each week and completed daily surveys on habitation, adaptation, resilience, mood, energy and sleep. While they grew lettuce and shrimp on board, food was mainly single-serve items eaten from a pouch or rehydrated with hot water.

“The most challenging thing was that we expected the science would be harder, that it would demand more of us intellectually,” Knish said. “We talked to NASA after the fact about that. For long duration space flights, we need to be thinking about intellectual stimulation. As time goes on and you’re getting into a repetition of data collecting, when you’ve done the same experiment over and over and over again, it gets pretty boring. Keeping morale up and astronauts engaged is really a key issue they’re working on.

“Most rewarding was sticking it out until the very end. We were fully scheduled through the very last day. Doing your best and showing up – whether you were tired or not, whether you feel well or not – was something that became a point of pride.”

They could communicate with family once per week at a prescheduled time – by voice for half an hour at first and later, as the mission seemingly took them farther from Earth, only via two sets of written messages once per week. Knish said that experience was hardest on her husband, Herman Klaas, who graduated from Saint John’s University in 1993.

“It was hard for him to be the conduit of information for our families and friends, and during the debrief we discussed with NASA that it likely would not be reasonable for longer duration missions to be structured this way,” Knish said. “He didn’t mind for 45 days. But would he want to do this for six months? As these missions get longer and farther from Earth, bandwidth allocated to personal communications is a key concern in terms of minimum reasonable frequency, duration and format.”

Kim Knish sampling microbiomes

Kim Knish ’93 samples microbiomes as part of environmental health sampling. These same measures are taken on the International Space Station and contribute to knowledge of the astronauts’ environment.

Another small step contributes to giant leap for CSB and SJU

Knish doesn’t expect her HERA experience to lead to more. She’s just proud to have played a small role in what someday will be an effort to return to the moon and to reach Mars for the first time. It’s also not lost on her that she’s added her name to a long list of Bennies and Johnnies with connections to NASA. For example, Nicole Kessler ’08 became an environmental systems flight controller, and Christopher Roberts ’05 had a similar experience with HERA in 2021. Molly Fahey ’05 worked for NASA as an engineer, and Lynn Wilson ’05 went on to become a research astrophysicist. Aric Katterhagen ’96 is a lead operations engineer and has occasionally worked with Mark Vande Hei ’89, who did two tours on the International Space Station and set a U.S. record for longest continuous space flight.

“We did this for the sole purpose of contributing, just as Mark and everyone else in the program,” Knish said. “The mission continues now as the research teams have the task of analyzing and interpreting the data. There is much more to learn from this mission. Future missions and research teams will continue to build upon these learnings.”

And she said current and future students as well as younger alums should consider getting involved in the space program, too.

“You might think that, because of your chosen field, you don’t have a lane to contribute,” Knish said. “But NASA isn’t just astronauts. There are engineers, project managers, trainers, web designers, content writers, mission control staff, STEM outreach and so many other types of people who are needed. If you have an interest in space, consider doing more research and you might find – like I did – that you have a skill set to contribute.

“You’ll gain resiliency and a different perspective on humanity,” Knish added. “You’ll learn about the importance of caring for the Earth. Anywhere we go, even as close as the moon, conditions are going to be harsh. This experience just gave me more appreciation for the Earth and our responsibility to protect it. We need to assess our own patterns of behavior and consumption and how we’re teaching those to our children. Earth is unique and precious.”

Kim Knish and Hermann Klaas

Kim Knish ’93 (right) and her husband, Hermann Klaas ’93, enjoy sailing — whether on lakes or the ocean. She likens the confinement on board a small sailboat to what it was like living in the HERA capsule for NASA.

Kim Knish

Kim Knish ’93

Knish NASA patch

Above is the mission patch representing the time Knish spent in HERA to advance NASA’s knowledge of the effects of deep space flight on humans.

Kim Knish with capsule

Kim Knish ’93 pauses in front of the HERA capsule at Johnson Space Center in Houston. She spent 45 days inside as part of a research mission for NASA.

Kim Knish growing shrimp

Kim Knish ’93 takes steps in a process to grow shrimp on board the HERA capsule.

Kim Knish and her team

Kim Knish ’93 (second from left) was one of four crew members. The others included (from left) Katie Koube, Vanesa Gomez Gonzalez and Sandra Herrmann. Koube specializes in modeling, synthesizing and testing simulated lunar soil for a Texas company that creates 3D-printed habitats. Gomez Gonzalez is a software engineer from Madrid, Spain, who has worked for NASA for eight years. And Herrmann is a marine laboratory specialist at the International Ocean Discovery Program.