Martha Lenio’s Waterloo Engineering experience is taking flight as the first Canadian and woman to command the eight-month Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation mission funded by NASA.

More than halfway through the HI-SEAS mission, Lenio, a mechanical engineering ​graduate, is using the knowledge and leadership skills she gained from being a student, a class rep, and a member of the University of Waterloo’s Free Flight Glider Team, and the University’s Space Society, which she helped co-found in 2001. The society’s first speaker was astronaut Chris Hadfield, now a Waterloo adjunct professor.

Martha Lenio in full space gear outside the Mars dome in Hawaii.

Martha Lenio is the first woman to command NASA’s Mars dome mission in Hawaii.

“I also really appreciate the engineering student machine shops and receiving practical hands-on experience building things properly,” says Lenio, who at the end of 2014 was named to a CBC list of the 10 innovative and influential former University of Waterloo students.

Waterloo Engineering undergrad experience helped

Learning how motors work as an engineering undergraduate student has particularly come in handy.

“One of the first things we had to do here was fix the motor on the treadmill. Sophie, one of the other engineers on the mission, and I took apart the motor, figured out where the trouble was, fixed it and put it back together. It involved sanding down the magnets and cleaning up the rotor. It worked and was incredibly satisfying,” she says.

Since October 15 of last year, Lenio and her five-member crew have been living 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 don space suits when venturing outside.

NASA is gathering information on group interaction, cohesiveness and Martha’s mission project performance during the isolated mission and members have their own research that they’re conducting. Lenio’s involves an energy and water audit of the dome, anaerobic composting and indoor gardening using LED lights.

Although admitting she doesn’t have much of a green thumb, Lenio has produced a sustainable source of cilantro and provides salads for the crew every few weeks.

“Mars on Mars” — where Mars is a Dome in Hawaii

The crew is creating outreach videos for schools to help children become interested in science and Lenio is writing about her dome experience on her blog entitled Mars on Mars — where Mars is a Dome in Hawaii. In keeping with the artificial environment, the Internet is on a 20-minute delay to reflect Mars-like conditions.

Applying to be part of the HI-SEAS mission over 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 during a training session last September that she was to be chosen by secret ballot to be commander of the mission.

After graduating on the dean’s honour list from Waterloo Engineering 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 moved back to her hometown of Waterloo last year and in May 2014 co-founded RALOS Solutions Inc., a renewable energy company focusing on smart grid solutions.  Her business partner is keeping the startup going while Lenio is in Hawaii.

Passionate about space exploration since she was a child, Lenio says it’s exciting to know that she and her crew could be paving the way for people to go to Mars in a few decades.

“Hopefully what they learn from us is how to build a great crew that will do well in autonomous, long-duration space situations.”