NASA Turns to College Students to Design New Suit Technology

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 autonomyWhile 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 ...