A visit to Mars is still the stuff of best-selling fiction and big-budget Hollywood movies. But an Idaho woman has played a real role in imagining the human experience on the fourth planet from the sun.
University of Idaho graduate Sophie Milam participated in a NASA-funded project that simulated a Mars mission and studied the biological, social and psychological challenges of being isolated and confined for a prolonged period. She and five others spent eight months living in a small dome on the slope of Mauna Loa, a volcano on the island of Hawaii.
“It was incredibly worthwhile,” said Milam, 27, a chemical analyst and systems engineer in Smelterville, near Kellogg. “I learned a whole lot about everything — not only about all the different robotics and systems needed to create that kind of an environment, but a lot about the social aspect of teamwork and getting to be co-workers and friends and family with the same group of people.”
NASA aims to send people to the red planet by the 2030s and is starting to recruit the next generation of astronauts for such a mission. And even though she grew up dreaming about becoming an astronaut, Milam is more intrigued by the potential for unmanned missions.
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“Although I’d love to be a part of the first mission to Mars, I think a bit more research is needed before we’re ready to send people,” she said.
Milam studied robotics during a fellowship at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. In the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation — Hi-Seas — dome, she conducted research on what are called tensegrity robots. The working parts of these “soft” robots are either in pure compression or pure tension, and the integrity of the structure depends on a jointless tension network.
Milam was chosen from hundreds of applicants for the third Hi-Seas mission, which ended last June. The crew of three men and three women was mostly confined to a two-story, 36-feet-in-diameter geodesic habitat in an abandoned lava quarry. When they ventured outside, they had to wear mock spacesuits.
Researchers monitored the crew using surveillance cameras, body-movement trackers and other methods.
“I don’t feel I’ve ever learned so much about myself,” Milam said.
The surprising part was the level of social activity that I found necessary to have a good quality of life in there.
She finished her master’s degree in mechanical engineering, taking online courses through U of I, during her Hi-Seas stay. “First graduate of the University of Mars,” she said.
Milam was able to communicate with friends and family via email, but messages took 20 minutes to send or receive, just as they would if she were 140 million miles from Earth.
When she and her fellow Martians ended their mission last summer, they celebrated with a tandem parachute dive with the U.S. Army Golden Knights team.
Milam works for SVL Analytical, which conducts environmental analysis for the mining industry. She is helping develop industrial automation of manual processes.
Forbes Magazine last year chose her for its “30 Under 30 in Science” list of young scientists discovering new worlds in space and in our cells.