Photo: #StudentAstronaut contest winner Julia Velasquez and Xploration Outerspace show host Emily Calandrelli strike a pose with PISCES’ Helelani Rover outside the HI-SEAS habitat on Mauna Loa.

Hawaii’s continuing role in space exploration efforts came to the spotlight in late September when a national contest brought an aspiring astronaut to the Mars-like terrain of the Big Island to train like a Martian astronaut.

Julia Velasquez, a U.C. San Diego student and two-time NASA intern, won Xploration Station’s 2017 #StudentAstronaut contest, a national STEM TV show competition aimed at inspiring youth to pursue their science dreams. As winner, Julia claimed a three-part Hawaii training adventure with Emmy-nominated show host Emily Calandrelli.

With camera crews in tow, Julia and navigated a mock Mars mission with PISCES’ Helelani Rover, spent a night on “Mars” at the HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation) Habitat and toured the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. The pair got a first-hand look at the exciting space-related projects happening here in Hawaii as part of the third-annual TV show contest, which focused on Mars this year.

“Mars is the next major frontier for crewed space exploration,” Xploration Outerspace show host Emily Calandrelli said in a press release for the contest. “By centering this year’s contest around such an ambitious mission, we hope to really inspire and encourage those young people who will actually make it happen!”

Julia was the first deaf contestant to win the national contest. She was also the first individual to pilot the Helelani Rover at the HI-SEAS Habitat. With Emily as co-pilot, Julia remotely controlled Helelani from within the space dome, driving the 700-pound spacecraft over rugged lava terrain and capturing image data from the surrounding environment. PISCES Geology Technician Kyla Defore designed the rover-based site characterization mission. PISCES Intern Jack Andersen explained the controls and landscape hazards after configuring the software and hardware systems.

Later, Julia and Emily stayed the night at HI-SEAS accompanied by two Mission V crew members, Laura Lark and Brian Ramos. Laura and Brian, who knew a bit of sign language themselves and could communicate directly with Julia, recently emerged from an eight-month mission living in isolation within the confines of the dome.

The HI-SEAS habitat functions as a testbed for a continuing NASA-funded social and psychological study conducted by the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Researchers want to know the long-term effects of isolation on a group of humans in preparation for a future settlement on Mars, and how to make that ambitious effort a success. The next mission is scheduled to begin in early 2018.

During their adventure, Julia, Emily and the Xploration Station crew also ventured to the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope at sunset, situated at one of the world’s best places for astronomy.

We at PISCES were honored to support Julia’s dreams of becoming one of the future humans to boldly explore the new frontiers of space. Congratulations Julia! We wish you the best in your continuing space adventures!

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