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HI-SEAS crew member and UH Hilo graduate Sophie Milam

On just another sunny day in paradise, six astronaut-like individuals have been living 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.

Since October 2014, the “astronauts” have lived in their dome, participating in the eight-month Hawaiʻi Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program, which is led by researchers at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and funded by the NASA Human Research Program. This HI-SEAS mission ends on June 13.

“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.

In addition to this over-arching research aim, each of the crew members inside the habitat brought his or her own personal research projects to complete over the course of the mission.

Two of these crew members are UH Hilo alumni, and one of these two will continue his studies at UH Mānoa this fall.

Teaching robots “how to walk”

Crew member 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.

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.”

“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.”

Tracking microorganisms in and on the body

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.”

Homecoming on June 13

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

This HI-SEAS 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 1 p.m. Download the event flyer for more information.

For more information, read the UH Hilo Stories article by Kara Nelson, a UH Hilo graduate.

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