Faux Mission to Mars


Sophie Milam sporting a NASA spacesuit. Image: Hi-Seas

Determined to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut, Sophie Milam is making sure she will be well prepared to be one of the first humans on Mars. That determination landed her an appointment as one of six crew members currently on an eight-month simulated mission to Mars.

The NASA-funded study, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (Hi-Seas), is being conducted to understand how a small group of people, isolated in a small space for a long period of time, can live and work together. Team members are monitored continuously with biometric trackers among other methods. A mission to Mars from Earth is likely to last more than two years since travel time will be about six months in each direction, and the planets must align properly for each trip.

Housed in a 1,500-sq-ft. geodesic structure more than 8,000 feet above sea level on the stark side of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, crew members have assigned jobs managing the habitat, switching positions every month or so. They also conduct research in their respective areas of expertise. Milam had one other priority: finishing requirements for her master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Idaho. She expects to be awarded the degree while she is on the mission that started last October and ends in June.

3D rendering of the Hi-Seas habitat building. Image: Hi-Seas

The two-level habitat has sleeping quarters and a bathroom upstairs, a lab, workspace, kitchen, dining, and exercise areas on the first floor. Milam currently serves as chief engineer after starting off as executive officer and then assisting engineer. “Everyone is becoming cross trained in all different aspects of the hab so that eventually we will all be experts,” she says.

Milam’s personal research involves controllers for a nested tetrahedron tensegrity. Her work follows up an earlier project building a tensegrity robot as a summer intern at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. This type of structure will be used instead of a parachute or retrorockets to mitigate impact forces when the vehicle lands and as it moves around Mars’ surface through manipulation of its tensile and compression elements (cables and struts), Milam explains.  

“My virtual robot is learning to move forward as fast as it can on flat ground,” she says. She looks at what components affect its pattern of motion and whether there are relationships between certain elements that significantly increase effectiveness. “A good analogy is whether leg length and body weight have a relationship that affect your walking gait,” she says. “If you’re very light with long legs, you’re going to move faster than someone heavier with shorter legs.”

A concept drawing of the Super Ball Bot structure. Image: NASA

Milam’s accomplishments at age 26 are not surprising since she had carefully plotted out her education and has capitalized on other opportunities to be ready. “I figured the one person NASA would always need on Mars is someone who knows how to build a habitat,” she says. “I decided that getting a big picture view of the solar system by studying astronomy and physics would be the best way to go, and in grad school I could focus on systems engineering.”

She chose the University of Hawaii because of its excellent undergrad astronomy program. While there, she got involved with the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems on Mauna Kea, which was doing analog test sites for space agencies. Surrounded by the world’s top ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) engineers, she did everything from pulling weeds, crushing rocks and digging holes, to delivering lunches, washing tents, and filling generators. “When Carnegie Mellon let us drive their rover, Scarab, and when [NASA’s] ROxygen Project team showed how their reactor made water from dirt, all the back-breaking work was worth it,” she says.

She graduated with degrees in both astronomy and physics and chose mechanical engineering for her graduate focus after learning how physics relates to engineering. “I really enjoy making things with my hands that function and being able to see the telescopes on Mauna Kea and walk around inside, while an engineer who explained how adaptive optics work really inspired me,” she says.

The choice of ME as her major was made even easier when the prototype she built at Ames was later used in a telerobotics test with astronauts aboard the International Space Station (and recently was given a NASA Group Achievement award). “It seemed like the universe was sending me a message and it didn’t take a genius to read the signs,” she says. “So my focus changed from Mars habitats to planetary exploration rovers. The tensegrity robotics really took my fancy because they are so new and different and potentially revolutionary.”

She believes her expertise in robotics will also be useful in installing sensors for a garden and possibly water tanks. While outside on simulated space walks, the crew must wear bulky simulated space suits. To further simulate life on a Mars mission, e-mail is the only method of communication to the outside world and even that is delayed 20 minutes to and from the crew. Additionally, they have limited internet access.

What’s next after a return to Earth this June? Milam wants get into outreach in Idaho to help students understand how far they can go in space-related fields and to get more students interested in space. “In terms of real plans, I haven’t thought much beyond an epic rafting trip, some fly fishing, eating all the fresh food I can with my partner, watching TV with [my hedgehog] Slim Pricklins, and sleeping under the stars with my dog,” she says.

To comply with Hi-Seas regulations, this interview was conducted by e-mail. More details on Milam’s blog.

Nancy S. Giges is an independent writer.


I figured the one person NASA would always need on Mars is someone who knows how to build a habitat.

Sophie Milam, Hi-Seas


February 2015

by Nancy S. Giges, ASME.org