North Dakota has hit a celestial home run with a project simply dubbed NDX, or “North Dakota Experimental.”
NDX is a space suit project that has already launched a working prototype, NDX-1. Now, a new version — NDX-2 — is in the works.
“It takes a lot of imagination and creativity, along with engineering and scientific savvy, to make a good space suit,” said Pablo de Leon, NDX project director and research associate in the Space Studies Department of the University’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences (UND Aerospace).
“Our mission is to develop state-of-the-art space suit components and a fully functional space suit — actually a planetary exploration suit — and extra-vehicular activities (EVA) technologies,” said de Leon, an aerospace engineer and space suit expert from Argentina. He led the school’s previous space suit effort through a successful public test program in the Badlands of western North Dakota and at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.
The space suit project is an effort sponsored by the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium, a multi-institution project funded by the Space Grant College Capability Enhancement Grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
NDX-1 was created as a research project for students of the consortium, starting with $100,000 from NASA’s Space Grant Workforce Development Competition. It was a joint effort of students at the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University, Dickinson State University, the North Dakota State College of Science, and Turtle Mountain Community College.
“This was one of the most innovative and creative proposals that we funded under the competition,” said NASA Space Grant manager Diane DeTroye.
At its core, the NDX project is, in fact, about designing, building, and eventually deploying a real-life space suit to be used by future astronauts as they explore new worlds, said de Leon.
“To be sure, we’re not totally reinventing the wheel,” de Leon explained. “Part of what we want students to learn with this project is how to look at the technical challenges and problems, ask questions, and figure out if someone in the past has already solved the challenge.”
The NDX-2 project’s main technical goal is to create a suit that astronauts will use to explore the Moon, by turns a very hot and extremely cold, inhospitable, and rocky place. It will be similar to the gear worn by America’s Apollo program astronauts.
However, Mars — the target for NDX-1 — and the Moon are as different from each other as the Moon is from Earth, and designing a lunar suit will require many innovations, de Leon observed.
On the Moon, astronauts need, above all, mobility and very reliable life support systems. Those are likewise requirements on Mars. But while the gravity on Mars is one-third of the gravity felt on Earth, the Moon’s gravity is one-sixth of Earth’s. That’s a big difference and will significantly affect the design parameters of NDX-2, de Leon said.
NDX-1 weighed only 50 pounds, not including the life support and communication equipment, de Leon said. NDX-2 will likewise be pressurized within several layers of protective fabrics and other materials, including new materials that were unavailable when NDX-1 was built.
“The astronaut will have to manipulate tools and objects on the surface of the Moon with Earth-like dexterity. That means building a suit with highly flexible gloves,” he said. “Our students are very inventive, and we also have access to the superb machining capabilities at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, which is part of the consortium.”
Paul Hardersen, consortium director and associate professor of space studies at UND, points out that the collaborations going on within the NDX project are key to the consortium’s overall objectives.
“One of the successes of the consortium is providing opportunities for students at our two-year and tribal colleges to be involved in research projects that are typically not available at their respective institutions,” he said.
And that, ultimately, is part of the voyage to the Moon that the NDX-2 might make some day.