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Just another day of spacesuit testing

UND researchers vet commercial spacesuit for NASA, as agency count down to future manned flights

Pablo de León, left, Space Studies professor, makes adjustments to a prototype commercial spacesuit undergoing testing at UND, while graduate student Tarun Bandemegala, speaks to the test subject wearing the suit. July 7, 2022. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today.

The UND Bi-Ped Lab is an interdisciplinary space used to integrate Kinesiology, Physical Therapy, Biomedical Engineering and Aerospace. The recent evaluation of a prototype commercial spacesuit adds Space Studies to that list. The lab, in the Clinical Education Center attached to the Altru Family Medicine Residency building, is also in the basement at the end of a long, narrow hallway.

Tarun Bandemegala, a graduate student in Space Studies, jokes about what it would be like to get caught in the hall with the lights off.

“It’s the stuff of nightmares,” he laughed.

But the research conducted in July was the stuff of engineering, imagination, and space travel. Bandemegala and Sophie Bielawski, a recent graduate of the space studies master’s program, were working with Pablo de León, chair of the UND Space Studies department, and Keith Crisman assistant Space Studies professor, to put a new spacesuit through its paces.

De León is no stranger to spacesuits. He’s worked on them extensively, including the design of a 3-D printed spacesuit for use on Mars and beyond, which was funded by a $750,000 NASA grant. This most recent spacesuit project is a bit different.

At the request of NASA, and with grant funding from the agency, de León and his team are testing the functionality of the new suit, designed out of the Paragon Space Development Corporation’s Houston, Texas location. When they finish the testing, the team will prepare an evaluation of the suit’s capabilities for potential use in future manned space flights.

In scrutinizing the new space suit, UND is functioning as an independent laboratory that can verify materials for NASA. Being asked to do so, de León said, only speaks to the confidence the U.S. space agency has in the capabilities of UND’s space researchers.

“We are part of the selective group of universities that can help NASA,” he said. “To do that is very nice; it is important for us.”

 An interdisciplinary approach

Jesse Rhoades, director of the Bi-Ped Lab, was assisting the team with motion capture work that morning. He said the laboratory bridges several different disciplines and sectors across the campus, including the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the Human Spaceflight Laboratory, UND Aerospace, and Rhoades noted that he is on staff with the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“We have a bunch of different disciplines in the lab,” he said. “Everybody needs a biomechanist.”

A test subject tries to manipulate a mock control panel. UND Space Studies professors are testing a commercial spacesuit under a NASA grant. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today.

All systems go

The spacesuit evaluation project has been going on for more than a year. Now in the final phases, the researchers have moved away from design schematics and product examination to working with human test subjects. That means people needed to don a suit meant to be used in zero gravity, and that meant pumping it up with an air compressor-like delivery system.

“What we’re trying to do is to determine how difficult it is for the test subject to be able to operate the suit while it’s pressurized,” de León said.

While Rhoades readied computers and other equipment, de León worked with the test subject – who must remain unnamed due to research protocols – in getting a feel for wearing motion capture sensors. They tried out sensors next to the skin on the subject’s hands and elbows. On a computer monitor in an adjoining office, points of light representing the data captured from those sensors moved in a manner that perfectly mimicked the subject’s hands moving, and fingers opening and closing. The same sensors were placed on the spacesuit.

Getting into the spacesuit takes about 10 minutes. In stocking feet, the test subject used a short ladder to enter the suit through a hatch in its upper back, while de León, Bandemegala and Bielawski stood by to assist. Once inside and with the hatch closed, team members communicated with the subject as to how they were feeling. They got the OK sign.

“All right let’s do this,” de León said.

Foam ear plugs in place, the room hissed when the air delivery system was attached. The suit puffed up to allow the subject to walk – though a team member said doing so is like ice skating as a novice.

Testing that day focused on evaluating what de León said is one of the challenges of designing a spacesuit: mobility and range of motion. Communicating through a radio, Rhoades guided the subject through a series of activities an astronaut would need to perform on a spacecraft, such as manipulating the controls on a mockup panel. Other tests gathered data about how the suit allowed the subject to mover their fingers, bend their wrists, or roll their shoulders, something that Bielawski said has been an issue in other spacesuits.

“Basic shoulders are pretty notorious and it’s just super hard to make these movements natural,” she said.

About 30 minutes later, and after the subject missed catching a small whiffle ball dropped from the ceiling, the testing was completed. With assistance, the subject walked back to the ladder, and after the compressor was disengaged, began the minutes-long process of exiting the suit, likely a much more difficult task in Earth’s gravity than in the zero-gravity environment of a space vehicle.

“You’re out,” said de León, “Great job!”

Space Studies Assistant Professor Keith Crisman, left, makes adjustments to a prototype commercial spacesuit being tested at UNBD, while Pablo de León Space Studies Professor, makes additional adjustments. Photo By Adam Kurtz/ UND Today.

To the moon again, and beyond

De León said the testing of the commercial spacesuit comes at a time when there is great interest by NASA in returning to the moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. NASA’s Artemis I mission, an unmanned mission around the moon and back, now is scheduled to launch on Saturday, Sept. 3. The mission will be the precursor to increasingly complex missions that will see astronauts return to the moon to establish a presence there. Those missions, he said, are the prerequisites needed to advance even deeper into space.

“It’s a very important program,” de León said. “The objective is to create a permanent presence on the moon, with lunar bases. That will be the beginning of a more ambitious a project to finally go and explore Mars.”

Pablo de León, left, Space Studies professor, wipes out the the interior visor of a commercial spacesuit that is being tested for viability at UND. Keith Crisman, assistant professor of Space Studies help, while Sophie Bielawski, graduate student, looks on. Photo By Adam Kurtz/ UND Today.