The project is part of a $100,000 NASA Workforce Development grant awarded to UND and the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium to build a prototype for the next generation of planetary suits that NASA will need to realize its vision. Several patents have already been applied for.
“College students in North Dakota can do amazing things. This project showcases this local talent with a cutting-edge, high-tech project,” said Shan de Silva, former chair of the Department of Space Studies in UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. A volcanologist who recently accepted a position elsewhere, de Silva also was director of the NASA-North Dakota Space Grant Consortium.
“A lot of people thought we were crazy to undertake this project,” said de Silva. “But its success unequivocally testifies to the hard work, perseverance, creativity, and ingenuity of North Dakota’s young people.”
The UND-led project aimed to economically and quickly produce a suit that could be used in the rough surface terrain on Mars, where gravity is about one-third that of the Earth. The team’s effort was widely noted. Four-time Space Shuttle astronaut Thomas Jones, writing in Popular Mechanics, pointed out that the UND-led effort resulted in a suit that cost just $100,000 to build — and it was accomplished in just 14 months by a team of mostly undergraduate students from the five North Dakota colleges and universities.
Building the suit required a lot of new engineering with new materials. But it also demanded a look back at designs, methods, and technologies developed in the slide-rule era of the Mercury and Apollo space programs.
“A space suit is essentially a self-contained spacecraft,” said de Leon, the author of several Spanish-language texts about aerospace engineering. “It has to be rugged and able to withstand all kinds of punishment. But it also has to accommodate the kinematics of human movement.”
In other words, de Leon explains, an astronaut has to have maximum mobility while wearing this lightly pressurized suit. “Without this specially designed flexibility, the pressure inside the suit would make it so rigid that you couldn’t move at all. The pressurized suit becomes hard as metal.”
“But it’s not rocket science to build it,” said de Leon. “What it takes is a lot of very painstaking work. Really, it’s more of an art than engineering.”
For example, all of the composite parts, including the molds for components such as the suit’s torso, were fabricated by hand by a team of UND students. A protective layer was built by a UND Theatre Arts garment expert (see sidebar).
The new space suit, which is actually made up of several layers, is woven from a reinforced, highly tear- and flame-resistant fabric that currently costs about $70 a yard. This material, manufactured by a U.S. company, also is used in applications such as firefighting gear. The suit is outfitted with a light rubberized fabric bladder system coated with latex in a process that was developed at UND by de Leon and his team.
One member of the team was Mark Williamson, Fairfax, Va., a UND graduate student in space studies, who lived and breathed the making of the Mars space suit for over a year.
As the designer of the composite and the metal components of the suit, Williamson constructed the suit’s torso, helmet, and mock life-supporting backpack. He also had to understand how the fabric parts were going to be joined to composite and metal parts he had created. He played a part in coordinating the sealed and pressurized spacesuit which weighs 50 pounds without the life-support backpack.
|Worldwide audience for a Badlands premiere
It could have been a scene out of Hollywood. The actor emerges from his trailer and strides to his mark in the alien landscape of the North Dakota Badlands. There are cameras, lights, action, and even props, as the actor lumbers along, pulling the little red wagon for collecting samples on the “Mars” surface.
But the actor is not the star. The star is his costume, the royal blue Mars space suit over the tiger-striped undersuit.
Flash back several months: Lynn Liepold, foreperson in the UND Theater Arts Department, receives an unexpected call from the UND Department of Space Studies. A seamstress, costume designer, and all-around tailor with 20-plus years of experience in fabrics, Liepold says it’s one of the most unusual calls she’s ever received.
“It was from Suezette Bieri (North Dakota Space Grant Consortium coordinator),” Liepold recalled. Soon thereafter, Liepold, who’s been sewing all her life, was chatting with Pablo de Leon, the Argentine-born aerospace engineer and faculty researcher at Space Studies who is managing the North Dakota Experimental Planetary Space Suit project. De Leon explained the space suit project requirements and called upon her wide-ranging knowledge of fabrics, sewing machines and methods, and her technical expertise as a designer.
“Pablo showed me all the stuff they’d been working on and told me I’d be working on one of the outer layers for the space suit,” said Liepold, who holds a degree in home economics with an emphasis in textiles and clothing from the University of Minnesota-Mankato. She noted that her early experiences in a Mankato dry cleaning store shaped the skills she needed for the exacting work on the outer layer of the space suit.
“The boss’s wife was very particular about how everything looked; if she didn’t approve, she’d rip it out at night and we’d have to put it back together in the morning. I learned to do it perfect the first time because putting it together two or three times was no fun.”
The outer layer’s material, a blue polyester gabardine, is lined with a prequilted cotton inner layer. “The part I built is a two-layer suit in two pieces, pants and a separate top, all fastened with Velcro so that the person inside can get out quickly.”
Liepold said it took her about 40 hours spread out over several weeks to assemble the garment.