Science, but no fiction
UND Space Studies student researchers conclude two extraterrestrial weeks sealed in Inflatable Lunar/Mars Habitat
Just west of Interstate 29 and the University of North Dakota campus, there’s a series of five white inflatable modules connected by tunnels. Antennas stretching skyward and the futuristic rover vehicle parked nearby give the area the appearance of a science fiction movie set. What happens at this site is connected to science, but is far removed from fiction.
For two weeks in April and May, three UND Space Studies graduate students were isolated in the facility known as the Inflatable Lunar/Mars Habitat (ILMH). They emerged Wednesday to discuss their experience, as well as the experiments and exercises they conducted to help advance NASA’s plans for future space exploration that includes scientific expeditions to the Moon and Mars.
Completing the seventh NASA-funded ILMH mission, the team was comprised of mission commander Stefan Tomovic, Pretoria, South Africa, and mission specialists Peter Henson, Carrington, N.D., and Jared Peick, Penacook, N.H. Although highway and train traffic were a short distance away, Henson said it wasn’t difficult to feel isolated, especially at night when nothing could be seen out the windows. “Your imagination explores the idea that you’re far out in orbit somewhere,” he explained.
Travis Nelson, a research assistant with the Department of Space Studies in John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, served as mission control – the person who most frequently communicated with the team as it ran experiments related to geology, microbiology and horticulture. Team members were also monitored daily for mental, physical and cognitive abilities.
“Most of the research is geared toward future human space flight,” Nelson said. “Since the Apollo era, there hasn’t been a planetary mission since 1972. Getting back to the moon and getting onward to Mars is going to be critical. UND provides a foundation to this research and to answer some of the more challenging questions.”
The team ran exercises know as EVAs – extravehicular activities – requiring them to leave ILMH to perform tasks that included gathering soil and rock samples, simulating repairs on habitat panels and driving the electric-powered rover. During the EVAs, one team member remained in the habitat while the other two donned spacesuits developed by Pablo de León, director of UND’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory.
“The habitat is about the same size as the International Space Station or around the size of a 747 airliner,” Tomovic noted. The ILMH has five modules, which include a core module for eating and sleeping, a plant production module, an exercise module, a geology and microbiology lab module and an EVA module with a workshop.
“We’re isolated, but we’re not confined,” Tomovic said. “We’re able to walk around and get away from each other if we want to be left alone. We can eat our lunches and dinners together and then spread out to do our separate tasks.”
While each member specialized in certain scientific and technical areas, they assisted one other as a team when necessary. “We created a strong team, and I thought we worked really well together,” Peick said. “If you’re going to send people to Mars – which takes six months just to get there – you need to make sure they know how to work together, understand each other and complete tasks.”
Tomovic, who participated in the fourth ILMH mission, was responsible for engineering, which included preparing the spacesuits and the maintenance and repair of the habitat and its equipment. Peick’s background in biology and chemistry tasked him with running the lab where geology and microbiology experiments were carried out. Henson ran experiments in the plant production module related to insitu resource utilization, growing plants to supplement the team’s diet and attempting to determine if Martian or lunar soil could be modified for growing crops.
All three team members emphasized that the two-week mission was a group effort, receiving assistance and support not only from the Space Studies program and the Aerospace School, but also from around the UND campus, North Dakota’s EPSCOR program and Space Grant Consortium, and NASA’s Johnson, Kennedy and Ames space centers. “ILMH is a proof of concept; it’s a test bed,” Tomovic said. “NASA can work out all the kinks here before moving to a higher fidelity research station.”
Nelson emphasized UND’s focus on opportunities for students. “At the university, our goal is to teach the young people so that they are at peak performance once they get out into the professional field,” he said. “UND provides a foundation to this research and to answer some of the more challenging questions. It’s nice to be able to provide the students with that, as well as reach out to some of the professionals at NASA and the larger contractors looking for these types of meaningful platforms and research capabilities.”
Tomovic views his experience with ILMH as a launch pad for his career. “It provided me with a nice base and an opportunity to get my foot in the door working with space-related projects,” he said. “I see myself working in the space industry, either with habitats or spacesuit engineering.”
Peick and Henson also plan to pursue careers in the space industry. Both will serve internships this summer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Peick will explore the use of invertebrates – oysters – to purify water while Henson will study how to freeze carbon dioxide in a reactor that converts it to methane for rocket fuel.
Nelson noted that two $750,000 grants from NASA enabled de León to build the ILMH system. “The neatest part is that the students built it,” he said. “There were a few things we subcontracted out to local companies. Otherwise, the students did the finishing, all the structural interior and the exterior. They can say on their resumes that they worked on a space habitat system.”