Life on Mars – Where Mars is a Dome in Hawaii - is not only the title of Martha Lenio’s new blog, it also sums up where she’ll be for eight months.

Beginning October 15, the Waterloo Engineering graduate will be the first Canadian and first woman to lead the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission funded by NASA. She and her five-member crew will live in a dome located on the slopes of Mauna Loa, a Hawaiian shield volcano with an environment similar to the Martian surface. And like an actual mission, they’ll don space suits when venturing outside.

NASA gathers information on group interaction

“It’s a two-tiered program,” Lenio explains. “The main goal is for NASA to gather information on group interaction, cohesiveness and performance during an isolated mission. Members have their own research that we’ll conduct as well.”

Martha Lenio

For Lenio that research will include an energy and water audit of the dome, indoor gardening using LED lights and anaerobic composting.

“Composting was tried in another Mars simulation program, but it attracted rats, which is not a problem you’d find on Mars,” she points out.

Crew chose Waterloo grad to be commander  

Applying to be part of the HI-SEAS mission almost a year ago, Lenio went through a rigorous selection process that included interviews, aptitude testing and a camping trip in Wyoming where the crew received training similar to what NASA provides its astronaut candidates. It was at the end of last month’s trip that she was to be chosen by secret ballot to be commander of the mission.

Co-founded Waterloo’s Space Society

Passionate about space exploration since she was young, Lenio was a member of the University of Waterloo’s Free Flight Glider Team when she was approached to help launch the university’s Waterloo Space Society in 2001. The society’s first speaker was astronaut Chris Hadfield, now a Waterloo adjunct professor.

“It’s exciting to see the club still going strong so many years later,” Lenio says.

After graduating on the dean’s honour list from Waterloo’s mechanical engineering program in 2004, Lenio volunteered in Ghana for six months, completed her doctoral degree in photovoltaic engineering at Australia’s University of New South Wales and spent time in California’s Silicon Valley working for two companies.

Lenio founded smart grid company

With the goal of returning to Canada to start her own company, Lenio moved back to her hometown of Waterloo earlier this year and in May cofounded RALOS Solutions Inc., a renewable energy company focusing on smart grid solutions. Her business partner will keep the startup going while Lenio is in Hawaii. 

Crazy life of fake astronauts

Lenio is not concerned about being isolated for eight straight months in a two-level dome with living spaces, a lab and just one porthole window, or needing to ration energy, food and water – each crew member is limited to eight minutes of showering per week .

“Maybe the hardest thing will be to see the same five people every day for eight months,” she says with a laugh.

Along with her blog that will provide updates on the “crazy life of a fake astronaut” she will stay in touch with the outside world by making and posting videos. In keeping with the artificial environment, the Internet will be on a 20-minute delay to reflect Mars-like conditions.

Lenio dreams of becoming real astronaut

While looking forward to the simulated space mission, in the future Lenio would like to be part of a real one. 

“It’s the adventure and exploration that attracts me to space,” she says. “I think it would be a fantastic experience.”