University of Vermont

University Communications

UVM One of Five Institutions Selected by NASA to Design and Create Deep Space Technology

Deep space habitats — an outpost on Mars, for example — wouldn’t be complete without a well-designed airlock to allow astronauts to enter and exit safely. UVM has been chosen by NASA to develop technology to do just that. (Image: John Frassanito and Associates for NASA)

The frontiers of innovation for UVM engineering majors’ senior projects have been varied and far-reaching, impacting real-world places and products from cheese caves to golf clubs. In the coming year, a team of undergraduates, with mentorship from three engineering faculty, will create a prototype designed for use in the farthest-reaching frontier yet: deep space.

Through its Exploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge, NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation have awarded UVM with a grant to develop technology in support of its deep space mission. UVM’s winning proposal, submitted by professors Darren Hitt, principal investigator, Dryver Huston and Mandar Dewoolkar, outlines a smart-structure deployable airlock — an inflatable chamber made with “smart” materials that might be able to self-heal in the event of a small puncture, for example, or to return to its original shape when subjected to environmental loadings. The airlock is intended to move people safely from one pressurized environment to another — think transfer from a spacecraft to a habitat on Mars, for example.

The prototype will be designed and built here on campus in close cooperation with NASA’s Exploration Augmentation Module concept team, which is creating systems in support of spacecraft Orion's extended deep space missions, among others.

The prototypes developed over the next 14 months by the five winning schools (including UVM, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; the University of South Alabama; Oklahoma State University; and the University of Colorado at Boulder) “likely will become heritage to actual systems and technologies that will be flown in space in the years and decades to come,” NASA says.

“This is the fifth year of the X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge, and we continue to be impressed by the innovative university proposals to advance capabilities for spaceflight," said Tracy Gill, NASA lead for the X-Hab Challenge. "We look forward to lending our experience to the teams, to learning from their fresh approaches and to guiding the efforts through the systems engineering process."

The project will be part of UVM’s existing Senior Experience in Engineering Design (SEED) program — a capstone on the undergraduate engineering curriculum. The NASA prototype will be one of several projects engineering students can choose as the focus for their senior year. The SEED program structure, says Hitt, was likely an important factor in UVM being chosen for the award, as one of NASA’s goals for X-Hab is to connect with senior-level curricula that “emphasize hands-on design, research, development and manufactur(ing).”

“It’s very exciting to have been picked for such a competitive award,” says Hitt. “We’re going to teach students engineering, we’re going to teach them design principles, and we’re going to give them a tangible project that’s really kind of exciting and unusual — not your typical design project.”

Hitt also serves as director of the Vermont Space Grant Consortium, a NASA-sponsored state organization comprising academic institutions, professional and community organizations and the private sector working to promote STEM and aerospace careers. “How do we get students excited about these sorts of careers? We get them working on neat projects, and we get them working with NASA people,” he says. “It makes a huge impact.”