Two UH Hilo alumni selected for 8-month Mars simulation

Sophie Milam and Neil Scheibelhut have been selected to join the crew of the next Hawai‘i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission.

Sophie Milam
Sophie Milam

Sophie Milam grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and from an early age enjoyed playing soccer and other team sports. She now specializes in robotics. Born in Mishawaka, Indiana, Neil Scheibelhut has always had an interest in space, and mankind’s desire to explore it. He’s a combat veteran who now studies microbes.

The two are graduates of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo — Milam received a bachelor of science in astronomy and a bachelor of arts in physics, and Scheibelhut received a bachelor of arts in cell and molecular biology. Both have been selected to join the crew of the next Hawai‘i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission.

Neil Scheibelhut at lava flow.
Neil Scheibelhut

Starting October 15, the team of six crew members will be isolated in their dome habitat on Mauna Loa for eight months. This mission is twice as long as any previously completed at the Hawaiʻi site, and second only to Russia’s Mars500 experiment in total duration.

The HI-SEAS crew are part of a human performance study funded by NASA. UH Mānoa researchers and their collaborators will be studying the group’s cohesion over time, gathering data on a wide range of cognitive, social and emotional factors that may impact team performance.

During their eight months inside the habitat, the crew will be continuously monitored using surveillance cameras, body movement trackers, electronic surveys and other methods.

“The HI-SEAS site presents a remarkably high-fidelity environment for this type of long-duration space study,” said UH Mānoa’s Kim Binsted, the principal investigator for the study. “Looking out the single porthole window, all you can see are lava fields and Maunakea in the distance. Once the door is closed, and the faux airlock sealed, the silence and physical separation contribute to the ‘long way from home’ experience of our crew members.”

After high school, Milam moved to Hawai‘i to attend UH Hilo. While earning her two undergraduate degrees, her work with the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems or PISCES led to an internship with the NASA Academy program at the NASA Ames Research Center in California where she worked on rapid climate changes at the High Altitude Lakes project.

Currently pursuing her master of science in mechanical engineering at the University of Idaho in Moscow, she works with the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames. Her research while in the dome will focus on evolutionary algorithms to create different gaits for her 3-Tensegrity structure. After the dome she plans on going into STEM outreach in the Northwest and sharing her robotic projects.

Scheibelhut is a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom III, serving as an infantry medic. After receiving a medical discharge, he became a medical assistant instructor in Cleveland, Ohio, and eventually returned to school, receiving his degree from UH Hilo.

During his time in Hawai’i, he volunteered at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, and was involved with research that included NASA’s RESOLVE moon rover analog test, USDA research on rat lungworm disease, and the first HI-SEAS mission. He is currently working as a microbiologist in Los Angeles, California, and plans to pursue a master of science in molecular biology and bioengineering from UH Mānoa, beginning in the fall of 2015.

Scheibelhut’s research interest focuses on the power of microbes, bacteria, in particular, to perform specific tasks. In the same way bacteria is used to perform human insulin (by inserting the DNA sequence that produces the life-saving protein), the belief is that other tasks can be performed as well, such as hydrolyzing water to produce oxygen and hydrogen, two gasses that are extremely useful for say, a mission to Mars. It is his hope, that if he is not able to go to Mars himself, he can help his fellow man get there through his research.

Learn more about HI-SEAS. 

This story is adapted from UH News press release and HI-SEAS press release.

Correction, Oct. 16, 2014: The mars simulation takes place on Mauna Loa, not Maunakea.

More on this story:

Oct. 15, 2014: National Geographic, “What Will It Be Like to Live in a Dome for 8 Months, Pretending It’s Mars?”

Oct. 13, 2014: NPR, “In Hawaii, NASA To Launch ‘Fake Mission To Fake Space'”

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