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Legacy of cosmic research has eyes of the space world on the University of North Dakota

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

It’s true. There’s out-of-this-world research taking place at the University of North Dakota.

The space suits of the future are being designed at the UND Space Studies’ Human Spaceflight Laboratory.

The department’s Lunar/Mars Inflatable Habitat, located on the edge of the UND campus, also regularly trains future space explorers and informs UND researchers on the challenges and isolation of prolonged living and working in space.

The Habitat also has provided an Earth-bound space research platform for a myriad student and NASA-affiliated scientific experiments.

The NASA-funded Inflatable Lunar/Mars Habitat (ILMH) is a short distance west of the University of North Dakota campus and contains five modules, as well as a rover vehicle. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Buzz on campus

Buzz Aldrin

It all started in the early 1980s when John D. Odegard, the Dean and founder of the world-famous UND College of Aerospace Sciences (now the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences), invited Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, to come to UND to help organize a space education program within his College. There was no telling then that Aldrin would help launch what has become the oldest and largest multidisciplinary space program in the nation. Today, the Department of Space Studies has approximately 25 master’s-level students on campus and more than 100 students in its distance program. And nearly 800 master’s degrees in Space Studies have been awarded since 1987. UND Space Studies grads enjoy careers in a variety of different space-related disciplines, including government, business, science, law, medicine, education, military, and public relations — from NASA to the private sector.

In fall 2012 — the 25th anniversary year of Space Studies at UND — a Ph.D. program in Aerospace Sciences was established, in collaboration with the Department of Aviation.

UND Space Studies is also headquarters to two state-wide NASA funded programs: the ND NASA EPSCoR, which attracts NASA-relevant research capabilities to the state, and the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium, which promotes STEM education at the collegiate level through “hands-on” student projects, and provides scholarships and fellowships for students, seed research funding and summer internships at NASA centers.

This conceptual image shows the aims of de Leon’s prototype project. Concept art by Martin Demonte/HSF Lab/UND.

Suited for success

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

De León, who also serves as director of the Human Spaceflight Laboratory, has long researched space suit technology on behalf of NASA.

The new space suit grant was awarded by NASA 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.

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, the Inflatable Mars/Lunar Habitat.

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

“I’m somewhat going back to my roots of developing space suits, 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.”

At the NASA-funded Inflatable Mars/Lunar Habitat, on the western edge of the UND campus, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (center) and U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer (right) are greeted by a student wearing a space suit designed by Pablo de León (left). Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

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.

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.

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 space suits, and we’ve done that through the years,” said de León, who has led multiple space suit 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.”

During his October 2019 visit, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine posed for selfies with UND students. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

High-profile visits

UND Space Studies innovative efforts in next-generation space suits and other extraterrestrial research has caught the attention of several movers and shakers in the space industry. U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., has been the main driver of those visits. Most recently, it was Derek Tournear, director of the federal Space Development Agency, who landed at UND on Oct. 14. Tournear wants a global network of satellites in place by 2026, which is what brought him to UND in the first place.

With Tournear’s visit, Sen. Cramer has brought four high-level federal space officials to UND in just over a year. It started with Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, back in the fall of 2019, followed by Gen. John Raymond, who recently took command of the U.S. Space Force; and Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command.

All the visitors had their own reasons for wanting to visit — but they all boiled down to UND’s aerospace research excellence.

Tournear’s goal was to see how UND might assist SDA in the rapid development of a satellite system that detects, tracks, targets and counters spaced-based threats to national security.

“I’m really excited to see universities that lean into the practical aspects that are needed to drive defense forward, drive the country’s economy forward,” Tournear told UND Aerospace leaders. “I think this is an exciting time to see how that can come together.”

NASA Administrator Bridenstine also lauded UND for positioning itself as a leader in space research and the future of space exploration.

“The University of North Dakota is delivering — on behalf of NASA — technology that is helping us understand the earth, helping us understand the earth’s atmosphere, helping us better predict weather events and the climate,” said Bridenstine. “And now, because of the good work UND is doing with space suits, we’re going to have some capabilities and technologies that enable us to walk on another world.

“They are amazingly complex space suits; every space suit is a space ship.”