PEORIA, ILLINOIS – Bradley University student Zach Bachmann didn’t grow up thinking he’d be an astronaut.
“I’m short, blind and asthmatic, so I can’t really be an astronaut if I wished to,” he said.
But a lifelong interest in video games and computers is putting him at the center of a nationwide effort to boost new space helmet technology for the next generation of astronauts going to the moon and, someday NASA hopes, to Mars.
“I’ve always been into sci-fi and tech, so it sounded like this was kind of a cool project,” Bachmann told VOA.
That “cool project” is NASA’s Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students, or S.U.I.T.S Design Challenge, which allows college students to design information displays astronauts could see without obstructing their view of what’s in front of them.
“You still see the world around, but you would just have overlays,” said Bachmann’s teammate, Abby Irwin. That means, she said, “the vitals would be an overlay, but they would still see the moon or whatever they are working on.”
Irwin is a design lead on Bradley’s S.U.I.T.S. team, which uses the latest Microsoft HoloLens to create and test their ideas. According to Microsoft, the HoloLens is a virtual reality headset that allows the wearer to see 3-D holographic images.
“We kind of got examples from flight software that pilots use and train with, but we also got like some ideas from the game Skyrim, how they do navigation in video games,” she said.
Providing more autonomy
While NASA has announced a new spacesuit for the upcoming Artemis moon missions scheduled later this decade, the next challenge is figuring out the final version of the technology embedded inside.
That’s where S.U.I.T.S. plays a role.
“The idea was, ‘Why don’t we put some funding toward having students contribute solutions to these technical challenges?’” said NASA’s Brandon Hargis, outlining how the S.U.I.T.S. program helps NASA solve several old problems, including how to handle the time delay communicating between Earth and the moon and the longer lag time for signals to reach Mars.
“The main technical challenge is providing more autonomy for the astronaut during a planetary EVA (extravehicular activity), in this case 250,000 miles away from Earth on the moon, or several millions of miles away on Mars,” he said. “There’s somewhat of a delay in communications, so if the astronaut has a little more autonomy to make some decisions based on the plan of the mission, augmented reality could help them do that.”
Hargis, who is the activity manager for NASA’s STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] Engagement, says, in a typical year, 10 teams from institutions of higher learning across the country would travel to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to demonstrate their designs in person. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the current initiative is being conducted virtually and remotely, which Hargis says gives more students a chance to participate.
“Because we are doing this in a virtual environment this year, we actually invited 20 teams to participate in our virtual course online,” he said.
Hargis adds that the students’ cumulative participation in the S.U.I.T.S. program has NASA ahead of schedule designing the technology.
“The original thoughts were it would be several years before some of these solutions might be incorporated into a prototype that might find its way into a spacesuit,” he told VOA during a recent interview. “The work they are doing has spurred research in the field. This has happened much faster than we had expected. It’s a testament to the work of the students.”
When the first woman and next men land on the moon, the design of the augmented reality, or AR technology influenced by students like those at Bradley, will be there —right in front of their faces — helping the astronauts boldly go, and do, what few have done before, something Abby Irwin wears as a badge of honor.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve come up with so far and where we could go.”