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Students design inflatable habitats for NASA astronauts

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Three universities -- Oklahoma State, the University of Maryland and the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- have been commissioned by NASA to design and construct inflatable space habitats for astronauts.

Three universities -- Oklahoma State, the University of Maryland and the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- have been commissioned by NASA to design and construct inflatable space habitats for astronauts. The student teams have until June to develop their prototypes, which they'll bring to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for a presentation and trial run.

I spoke last week with Frederick Elder, an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering and engineering physics, who is heading up an 11-student team at the University of Wisconsin.

What's the purpose of the inflatable habitat and what will it look like?

Its primary goal is to give added space to the astronauts in their living quarters when they're on the Moon or on some other outer space location. This would be deployed after they arrived. It looks like a very sophisticated tent rising above a hard shell lunar habitat. Think of it as a spare room.

Talk about how students are driving this effort.

I got an email from one of the students who had found this [competition] online. This was in mid-July. We had a couple of meetings and it became clear that we had a group of students who were very interested and willing to do some of the heavy lifting to get this done. They ended up writing the bulk of the proposal and I found them some extra resources. We have on our campus a group called Space Science and Engineering Center. They offered both technical and financial assistance. They brought on board a local systems engineering expert. We were also required to have an in-house technical consultant. We worked with [two of our students who were interning with NASA] and identified a NASA technical consultant at Langley. [The consultant] is in charge of one of our students who is there now as an intern. This gives us a lot of help because they can talk directly.

What challenges do you expect to face as you work on this project?

  • One of my concerns all along was that this is not a hard-shell device. It's primarily a fabric device -- and we engineers aren't as good at fabrics as we are at aluminum and steel. We're doing quite a bit of learning about that.
  • [Another challenge is] the physical scale. This is approximately five meters in diameter and three meters tall. We actually have to build it next semester. Just the size will create its own set of issues.
  • NASA wants this done in a method that follows their systems engineering practices. It's similar to the way one would normally go through the design process, but it's got its own set of jargon. We are learning that as we go.

Why is this an important project for your students?

It gives our students the opportunity to work in an actual atmosphere of lunar travel. They can actually design and build something that is not only destined to be used, but is being reviewed by people who are building the actual device. It also gives our students an opportunity to give back to their own communities. They're talking about the possibility of going back to their high schools and talking to their science classes. It's an opportunity for them to spread the NASA word in order to demonstrate their commitment and NASA's commitment to going outside of the Earth's atmosphere to learn things. It also gives them the opportunity to feel connected to a much bigger community -- meaning the whole aerospace community -- because we are working with vendors in that community. These are not just people who are talking about it. These are people who are doing it.

Image: Frederick Elder

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure