UW-Madison undergrads to design a room that’s literally out of this world

Sept. 15, 2010

Think of it as a high-tech screened porch for astronauts.

A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate students from majors across the university is among three teams selected to design, build and test an inflatable habitat that will integrate with an existing NASA operational hard-shell prototype, providing a space crew with more livable room.

The students will participate in the first NASA and National Space Grant Foundation inflatable loft competition, along with teams from Oklahoma State University and the University of Maryland. In June, the three teams will compete at NASA's Johnson Space Center as part of the first eXploration Habitat Academic Innovation Competition (X-Hab).

The National Space Grant Foundation will award the three teams $48,000 each to build a prototype of the approximately 4 meters tall and 5 meters in diameter habitat. The prototype designs have to allow the habitat to be transported inside the astronauts' vessel and then inflated at the mission destination, whether that be orbiting Earth, the Moon or Mars. When the astronauts prepare to return to Earth, the habitat can either be deflated or simply released.

The winning collegiate team will receive an additional $10,000 to cover costs for monthlong testing with NASA.

As part of the competition, Frederick Elder, a UW-Madison adjunct professor of mechanical engineering and engineering physics, will lead a dozen students in a two-semester course. The first semester is dedicated to design and in the second semester, the students will build a full-size prototype. Among the students are engineering mechanics and astronautics, business, mechanical engineering and interior design majors.

Elder says the idea is rooted in student initiative.

"They found the competition and did the work to enter," says Elder. "It's a great opportunity for them to learn NASA procedures and standards and merge together NASA's technological history with the next generation of workers."

One of the students who approached Elder is Nathan Wong, an engineering mechanics and astronautics senior with a passion for space exploration. Wong found the competition announcement on Twitter in July and quickly assembled a team to write a proposal, which outlined design, budget, outreach, class integration, materials and recruiting.

"This is a great opportunity for a NASA project to come to Wisconsin — and even better is the chance for us to design something useful for NASA," says Wong. "To build and test a prototype in nine months will be a challenge, but we're hoping to succeed by drawing from all over the university and outside as well."

Wong aspires to own his own company that builds habitats and rockets to increase human exploration in space.

As part of its outreach mission, the UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) will provide financial support to connect the students with various in-house experts and a private systems engineer from Bjorksten | bit 7.

"This project will allow us to improve upon an already excellent educational design course model, specifically in the area of systems engineering, while attracting a broad range of organizations," says Fred Best, SSEC technical director. "I think this group of students is going to be very successful and I hope to see more collaboration like this in the future."

Other groups supporting the project include the UW-Madison departments of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Physics, the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, Orbitec and Boeing.