Jonna Ocampo didn’t know she wanted to be an astronaut until she moved from Jersey City to Texas. In New Jersey, she didn’t see many stars. Not so in the Lone Star state, which seemed like a misnomer. The skies were full–and below them, in the heart of the space industry, she started meeting people who worked in spaceflight. Flying to space is a thing actual people do, she realized. And maybe she could be one of them.

Since then, Ocampo has trod a tortuous path toward that dream. Right now, she is at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, training for the agency’s 12th Human Exploration Research Analog crew. Starting this Monday, she and three others will spend 30 days inside a three-story habitat meant to mimic one that could someday sit on the surface of Mars. Although crew members and staff aren’t allowed to talk about specific research aims, the recruitment flier said that “researchers will collect blood, urine and saliva; study personal behaviors; and evaluate team cohesion, cognition and communication.” Like other experimental habitats–including Hi-SEAS and the Mars Desert Research Station–HERA aims to isolate people from the terrestrial world and see how they hold up.

Ocampo feels calm and ready, she says, prepared both by her previous spacey experiences and by, you know, life. She started out as a small-town kid and became a dancer and singer, then a world-class powerlifter rightly called one of the strongest women on this planet. She’s done high-altitude training, underwater training, and devised her own medical experiment for a parabolic flight. The diversity of her experiences could suit her not just on this earthbound mission but also far off Earth’s surface.

Mission Training

Ocampo left her rural Pennsylvania home at 17, and, in 1987, enrolled first as a dance major and then a music major at a New Jersey university. It was in New Jersey that she met her husband–and where they both briefly ended up homeless. They found space at the Port Authority, where they took turns sleeping and going out for food with their $100. It was a pretty rocky low point. Craterish.

They climbed back over the lip, though. And the experience has left Ocampo zen about hardship–a quality that lends itself to simulated space missions like HERA. “Once you hit that low point, there’s nothing you can’t do,” she says. “People say, ‘Going into isolation–are you going to have a problem with that?’ I say, ‘No, I will be sleeping on a Tempur-Pedic mattress.'”

There’s a roof, running water. What’s not to like?

Later, she and her husband–a military man–were transferred to Texas. “That’s when I started to get hooked,” she says. The stars, the skies, the people at Johnson Space Center: They pulled her into their orbit. She went back to school, at Brookhaven College, and became a Texas Aerospace Scholar, spending two days at Johnson building a miniature Mars rover and meeting astronauts.