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UND teams with NASA for paradigm shift in space exploration

Space Studies Department’s three-year project will focus on developing, manufacturing spacesuits using advanced 3D printing

Professor Pablo de León, chair of the Department of Space Studies and director of UND’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory, is leading a new project funded by NASA to develop a spacesuit prototype created through 3D-printed materials. UND archival image.

The spacesuits of the future are being designed at the University of North Dakota, in the Human Spaceflight Laboratory.

Pablo de León, Professor and Chair of UND’s Department of Space Studies, recently won a NASA grant for $750,000 to develop a new 3D-printed spacesuit prototype for Mars and beyond. De León is leading a three-year research and development effort to create spacesuits using advanced 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing.

De León, who also serves as director of the Human Spaceflight Laboratory on UND’s campus, has long researched spacesuit technology on behalf of NASA.

The $750,000 grant was awarded by NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) as part of the program’s $11 million award to 15 schools and organizations across the country. Each year, NASA EPSCoR distributes funding for research and technology development projects in areas critical to NASA’s mission.

For UND, this is the third such grant that the University has received. Two previous NASA ESPSCoR grants supported the development of one of the nation’s few livable space habitat systems, located just west of campus.

De León hopes to produce a fully 3D-printed spacesuit that could potentially “change the paradigm” in matters of extended, manned space exploration.

“I’m somewhat going back to my roots of developing spacesuits, and now we’re using a completely new system that we developed in the lab,” he said. “We devoted the past year to making a lot of improvements in our techniques and methods, and NASA recognized that improvement. Now we are ready for action.”

This conceptual image shows the aims of de León’s prototype project. He said nearly everything comprising the suit’s design will be manufactured in his lab on campus. Concept art by Martin Demonte/HSF Lab/UND.

Answering material questions

The “system” to which de León referred is a series of 3D printers capable of transforming plastics into flexible, durable materials suitable for space.

A fully formed suit would need to be pressurized and resistant to the extreme temperatures and abrasive conditions associated with space travel and planetary exploration.

Holding a glove from a conventional spacesuit, de León made the case for 3D printing’s huge potential.

“Building any portion of a spacesuit takes literally thousands of hours of manual labor by extremely skilled textile workers,” de León said, pointing to the latticework of layering and stitching required to keep the glove in one piece. “That’s why a spacesuit ends up being so expensive.”

Not only is the expense of manufacturing immense, but also as human spaceflight moves away from Earth, astronauts will need to be able to repair and maintain their spacesuits – perhaps even manufacture pieces – on their own, said de León. The skill and material currently required to create space-worthy garments cannot easily be transferred to outer space.

“We’re trying to build a prototype spacesuit that could eventually be manufactured on Mars, or any other destination, thus cutting the dependence we have on today’s spacesuits,” said de León.

Such manufacturing is regarded by NASA as “in situ resource utilization,” which means finding and using resources on other planets that allow for continued life and potential settlement by humans. While established space settlements are still distant, the material questions being addressed by de León are key to moving forward.

De León then exchanged the conventional glove for a variety of 3D-printed, flexible arm joints and glove digits.

“While 3D printing is still in its infancy, we were able to find a number of materials that, when formulated in the right way, can be used to print flexible plastics,” he said.

During their September 2019 visit to UND’s NASA-funded Inflatable Mars/Lunar Habitat, Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator (right) and Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. (center) are greeted by a student wearing a space suit designed by Pablo de Leon (left), head of the UND Human Spaceflight Laboratory. In the background is Jim Casler, then-chair of UND’s Space Studies Department. UND archive photo.

High-profile, hands-on research

Now funded to pursue the project, de León intends to provide a number of scholarships for students to work with him. So while the Human Spaceflight Laboratory at UND advances the state-of-the-art in space technology, the NASA EPSCoR grant will also provide a workforce development opportunity for UND’s students in the Department of Space Studies, located in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

Companies and organizations take high interest in students with experience and knowledge beyond theoretical coursework, de León said. The Human Spaceflight Laboratory goes above and beyond in the practical, hands-on experiences it offers.

Graduates of the program have gone on to jobs across the space industry, including places such as NASA, SpaceX and Blue Origin.

“We have applications from students from all over the country to work with us on these new technologies,” he said.

Paul Lindseth, dean of the Odegard School, said he is proud to have de León on the UND Aerospace faculty.

“Dr. de León’s innovative idea of using 3D printing technology for spacesuit development is another example of why Pablo continues to be recognized internationally in this dynamic field,” Lindseth said.

Most of the manufacturing will take place in the lab, according to de León, although NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama is home to the organization’s leading 3D printing experts, who are supervising the UND project. De León also plans to collaborate with UND’s own BiPed Lab, a motion-capture studio that will help the development team compare movement capabilities between conventional and 3D-printed suits.

“At UND, we established ourselves as one of the prime developers of advanced spacesuits, and we’ve done that through the years,” said de León, who has led multiple spacesuit projects on campus. “There are only a handful of places in the country that do what we do. This new award is a demonstration of confidence by NASA in the things we have done before, and the interest in continued development.”