Mars on Mauna Loa: Two UH Hilo alumni part of Mars simulation project

The longest space travel simulation ever conducted on U.S. soil — headed by UH Mānoa and including two crew members who are UH Hilo alumni — is nearing completion.

By Kara Nelson.

White dome, solar panels, Maunakea in background.
The dome of the HI-SEAS Mars project on Mauna Loa. Courtesy photo.
Sophie in white astronaut suit, on cinder terrain, giving thumbs up sign.
Sophie Milam, UH Hilo alumna and crew member of the HI-SEAS project, outside the dome in a MX-C suit. Courtesy photo.

On just another sunny day in paradise, six astronaut-like individuals continue to live in a 1,500 square- foot isolated dome at the 8,000-foot level on Mauna Loa, participating in a simulation of a space voyage to Mars. The six participants, including two University of Hawai‘i at Hilo alumni, recently answered some questions from UH Hilo Stories via recorded videos they sent from “Mars” (see videos below).

Since Oct. 15, 2014, the “astronauts” have lived in their dome, participating in the eight-month Hawai‘i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program, which is led by researchers at UH Mānoa and funded by the NASA Human Research Program. It is the third simulation of four planned missions studying the feasibility of sending humans to Mars. This mission is longer than the past two HI-SEAS missions, and the only simulation that has lasted longer is Russia’s Mars500 experiment.

Kim Binsted
Kim Binsted

“The purpose of this mission, as well as the one before it and the one after it, is to look at crew cohesion, and see how that predicts performance,” says Kim Binsted, principal investigator and associate professor of information and computer sciences at UH Mānoa.

But time in the dome can take its toll.

Arthur Cunningham in his office.
Arthur Cunningham. Photo by Kara Nelson/UH Hilo Stories.

“That third quarter, that’s the killer, because you don’t really have anything to look forward to in the third quarter,” says Arthur Cunningham, consultant for aeronautical science at UH Hilo and a HI-SEAS first-tier support volunteer. He explains that in the third quarter, “all the fun and newness has worn off the time you’ve gotten halfway through it. So, really the only thing you have to look forward to is the third quarter being done, so you can get into the home stretch.”

Life on Mars

Crew member Jocelyn Dunn says their days usually begin sometime between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. with coffee and breakfast, and then they do roughly 40 surveys per week for researchers, explaining aspects such as how they feel.

“So we do a lot of reflecting on how we feel and we journal and explain what’s going on here,” she says via video. “We also have to wear these badges that are sociometers that can measure our interactions with each other,” she explains, gesturing to a badge she wears around her neck. “So we’re heavily monitored.”

Group photo of the crew of six.
The HI-SEAS crew in a photo taken May 28 in the dome, (l-r) Sophie Milam, Zak Wilson, Neil Scheibelhut, Jocelyn Dunn, Allen Mirkadyrov, and Martha Lenio. Courtesy photo.

In addition, Dunn says they might do an EVA (Extravehicular Activity—exploring outside the dome in space suits), maintenance, or research tasks such as games or an interactive task to measure their team performance and individual states. The crew usually works out and eats dinner together. Each crewmember is required to cook at least one meal each week. They’ll end the day with a group activity like a game or do their own research, and then answer more surveys before bed.

As first tier support (FTS), Cunningham volunteers to be a contact point for the crew once a week. FTS passes on information or support, touches base with the crew, handles the crew’s needs or requests, looks at the habitat’s telemetry (checking levels and sensors, for example, asking the crew what’s going on if there would be too high carbon dioxide). FTS also approves or denies requests before sending them to second-tier support, for example, approving an EVA. The highest level after second-tier support is primary investigator Binsted.

Communicating with the crew on “Mars” has some challenges. There is a 20-minute delay in internet communication each way to simulate communication from Mars. Cunningham explains that first-tier support, second-tier support, and the primary investigator all use a program called Basecamp as an interface with the crew, who can also request TV shows, football games, and movies, which are delivered via Dropbox or streaming.

In addition, Cunningham says that when the crew periodically needs supplies, he or someone else will do a “bot mission.” The crew needs to put blinds on their windows so they don’t see anyone while someone drops off their supplies, “to simulate a lander coming from orbit around Mars to drop off a supply drop.” Sometimes the crew’s supplies will be dropped at a different location, to simulate a problem, and then they have to go out in spacesuits to get their supplies.

The crew is in good hands. “There’s rarely any problems—but if there are, we would catch it,” says Cunningham.

Two crew members are UH Hilo alumni

Crewmember Sophie Milam earned her bachelor of science in astronomy and her bachelor of arts in physics from UH Hilo. She is earning her master of science in mechanical engineering at the University of Idaho in Moscow and works with the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames. Milam was recently listed as one of “30 under 30” by Forbes Magazine.

Many of her projects are outreach based with students in the Las Vegas area. Her research in the dome is focusing on Tensegrity robotics.

“Tensegrity is a form of soft robot where there aren’t any hard connections—they’re all compression members suspended within a tension network,” Milam explains. Tensegrity robots have no joints—instead, one must rely on manipulating a tension network to shift gravity and make a rolling motion, or manipulating lengths of tensile members to make a crawling motion. In her project, basically, five little pyramid shapes connected by strings inch along, and she’s aiming for “forward inchworm motion.”

“So what I’m trying to do is research how I can use central pattern generators to kind of adjust all the weights on different aspects of the nesta-tetrahedron system in order to create the most efficient forward motion.” She’s trying to create a memory system for the robot and manipulate the genes of the central pattern generator.

“It sounds complicated—it’s really not. It’s basically learning to walk,” she says, after explaining the project in greater detail. “I want it to learn how to walk in the best way it can given the terrain it has.” She’s trying to find the most efficient forward motion.

Milam says: “Doing my undergraduate research at UH Hilo provided me with a lot of opportunities to study in a diverse group of people, which is really what our social situation is here in the dome. There are people here from all different backgrounds and educational, national all of that stuff, so it’s really nice to be able to communicate with that much of a diverse population while still being confined and isolated.” In addition, she says that geology courses she took at UH-Hilo have come in handy with geological tasks the crew has to do.

Crew member Neil Scheibelhut received his bachelor of arts in cell and molecular biology from UH Hilo. He’s a combat veteran who served as an infantry medic in Operation Iraqi Freedom III and is now a microbiologist in Los Angeles, California. He intends to begin earning his master of science in molecular biology and bioengineering from UH Mānoa this fall.

During this “mission,” Scheibelhut is collecting data for the Astronaut Microbiome project.

“What that does is kind of track how microorganisms that live on and inside our bodies change over time while we’re all together in tight quarters,” he explains. “We’re doing it here because here we’re in a similar situation to the International Space Station where the actual data is being collected. So our data is going to act as a kind of a control.”

Although they’re still on earth, it allows further research data to compare to the astronauts in the space station to “see if the changes in microbiome are just regular changes that normally happen when you’re in an enclosed space or if it is due to the weightlessness and the radiation that they’re exposed to.”

Scheibelhut also does environmental monitoring of the habitat. He takes water and air samples and puts them on a special growth media so that bacteria and microorganisms will grow so he can count contamination. “And so far that’s proved relatively good.”

In addition, he’s been working on a microbial fuel cell. “It uses microbes that produce electrons in anaerobic conditions to create power,” he explains. In the video, he showcases and explains one of the fuel cells he has created.

“If I didn’t go to UH Hilo,” says Scheibelhut, “this never would have happened for me, so I’m quite grateful I did.”

His experiences at UH Hilo rekindled his interest in the space program. Big Island opportunities and connections he made through the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) program and NASA Institute Resource Utilization Analogues up on Mauna Kea helped lead him to this program. His major, cellular molecular biology, allows him to “take institute resource utilization to the molecular side,” he says. “So my passions for research are now how can we use microorganisms to process resources that we would get on the moon or mars and make them usable for humans.”

Other crew research

Jocelyn Dunn’s research focuses on an analytics project using jawbone wristbands worn by the entire crew, monitoring their sleep and activity levels 24/7, to measure sleep quality, steps taken, and active periods to “correlate that with our daily habits here and how it’s different from this confinement and isolation here compared to our normal lives,” she says.

Martha Lenio, this mission’s commander who has a PhD in photovoltaic engineering, has been working on a gardening project, composting unused food waste anaerobically (without air). The project met opposition due to fears it would attract vermin or stink up the dome, but such worries were unfounded. The project has proved successful, and Lenio explains it allows oils, meats, and spices to be composted, unlike regular composting. The waste becomes soil, allowing them to have a salad “once in a while,” she says with a smile.

Zak Wilson’s successful research project is 3-D printing, trying to print tools, replacements for broken parts, or “fun stuff” like game pieces. Wilson attained his master’s in composite materials from Imperial London College.

Allen Mirkadyrov’s research is on orbital mechanics. “Specifically, I’m working on the optimization analysis of a round-trip flight from earth to mars and looking for ways to cut down current travel time of about eight and a half months to something shorter,” he explains. He is halfway through his research, using the STK (Systems Toolkit) and expects to finish 75% of his work. Mirkadyrov is an aerospace engineer in the flight safety division at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA


What Scheibelhut misses most about Earth is cheeseburgers and Sophie misses milkshakes. After that, they have a long list of other things they miss, from sunshine to the Hilo restaurant Ocean Sushi.

“Overall this is a very tight-knit group and our personalities are not strong so that makes living (together) a lot more easier and magical for everyone,” says Mirkadyrov. “One of the things that we all can’t do anything about is lack of privacy and lack of sound-proof walls.” But, he concludes, “Overall, we’re getting along, we’re doing fine, and we’re great friends, and we’re going to continue ‘til the end of the mission.”

The mission ends on June 13. UH System News reports that the crew members plan to celebrate by taking a plunge from an Army Chinook helicopter, simulating their re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. Falling from the sky at 100 miles per hour over the Kona side of Hawaiʻi Island, the crew will be guided safely to Earth’s surface with the tandem support of the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team.

Members of the public are invited to watch this exciting re-entry at Old Airport Recreation Area soccer fields in Kona. The jumps will begin at 11 a.m. After landing, there will be opportunity to meet the crew and the Golden Knights until 3:00 p.m.

HI-SEAS on Twitter and Facebook.

About the author of this story: Kara Nelson recently graduated from UH Hilo with a bachelor of arts in English and a bachelor of arts in communication. While an undergraduate, she was a writer for UH Hilo Stories during the spring 2015 semester—this is her final story. Chancellor Straney and staff thank her for her good work and wish her all the best!

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