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NE@The X-HAB Competition
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NE@X-HAB Competition

NASA X-HAB Competition 2011
- Tracy Gill
- Gary Spexarth
- David Akin
- X-Hab Competitors

If you're planning on adding a second level to NASA's Habitat Demonstration Unit (HDU,) you should talk to the finalists from NASA's X-HAB Competition. Three universities (Oklahoma State University, University of Maryland and the University of Wisconsin) were selected from multiple entries to design, build and deploy their concepts in competition. NASA EDGE went to NASA Johnson for a first hand look. We spoke to Tracy Gill (Project Manager for the HDU,) David Akin (Faculty Advisor for the University of Maryland,) Gary Spexarth (X-HAB Judge) and several of the student engineers. The winning team will deploy their Habitat Demonstration 2nd level on top of NASA’s HDU at this year's D-RATS analog field test in Arizona. One question still remains, will any of the teams design a Habitat that accounts for the Co-Host's bath toys?

CHRIS: Welcome to NASA EDGE.

BLAIR:: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: We’re at a top-secret location at NASA Johnson Space Center.

BLAIR:: Building 220!

CHRIS: Ah… here for the X-Hab Competition.

BLAIR:: Where we’re about to see the University of Maryland deploy their concept as part of the X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge.

CHRIS: Don’t fear the turtle.

BLAIR:: Why would you fear a turtle?

CHRIS: Let’s go check it out.

BLAIR:: Turtles are nice. They’re cute and they’re solid and robust and compact.

[Intro Music]

CHRIS: Hey, welcome to NASA EDGE.

JACKY: An inside and outside look…

FRANKLIN: At all things NASA.

BLAIR:: Oh, that’s going to leave a mark.

CHRIS: We’re here with Tracy Gill, Deputy Project Manager for the Habitat Demonstration Unit. Tracy, tell me a little bit about the X-Hab Competition.

TRACY: It’s an academic innovation challenge where we funded three different university teams to build a version of an inflatable loft. The loft is going to be a habitat for the Habitat Demonstration Unit. The Habitat Demonstration Unit hard shell has a laboratory. So together the habitat and the laboratory will make the first version of our deep space habitat configuration.

CHRIS: How were those three schools chosen for the competition?

TRACY: We had an announcement in the summer of 2010. We asked university teams to apply for how they would run a program to conduct the X-Hab Challenge. It’s not just that we’re going to build something. They had to integrate it into their curriculum and they had to follow a systems engineering process, and then they had to actually build the product and deliver it.

CHRIS: Gary, what are some of the criteria you’re looking for in judging?

GARY: It’s kind of a three-step process. First is the inflation.

CHRIS: Okay.

GARY: Timed inflation; how easy it will be to inflate out in the desert and so forth. Today, we’re in day two. The 2nd phase is the interior outfitting. How well do they utilize the space? How functional is it? Is it something that would be comfortable for the crew out at Desert Rats as well as future missions? How well did they incorporate that?

CHRIS: For example, there’s four beds in Maryland’s Hab. Would you go in there and sleep for an hour or two just to see what it’s like?

GARY: Um, that’s a definite possibility. That might not be a bad idea for the judges to do that, huh?

BLAIR:: I know you’re an intern here at NASA Johnson Space Center this summer but you are also on the Oklahoma State University’s design team. What are some of the challenges that you faced?

ZACK: One of the biggest challenges is how you get it to deploy without touching it or moving it. That was a big requirement for NASA. It has to be autonomous. We worked really hard to try to make that happen. For the most part it did work but our biggest challenge was when we were coming down. When we’re stowing, our beams wanted to bow out a little bit and that hindered the stowing process. But that was where our engineers were trying to figure out ways to solve problems like that.

CHRIS: This is a great way for your students to get the hands-on experience.

DR. AKIN: Yes. At the University of Maryland, we’re always trying to find ways to get our students hands-on because for a lot of students that’s a prime learning mode. You learn by doing as opposed to having someone tell you how to do it. So we’re always looking for student projects and this was a wonderful one.

MAX: There’s going to be many parameters on which we’ll be judged, some of them more obvious then others. The main parameter is the stowed volume. So when the Habitat is all closed and collapsed versus when it’s completely expanded, the ratio between these two volumes is important. Also the mass that the Habitat weighs on Earth is a critical parameter.

BLAIR:: I think I read something where it does have to maintain the inflated state for a certain amount of time.

MAX: Leak rate is probably what you’re referring to. Which means, once you inflate the habitat and you cut off the air supply, how long does it stay up? That is going to be probably one of the most challenging parameters which we’ll be judged on.

BLAIR:: Do these noises in the background make you nervous when it comes to leak rate?


MAX: Ah, no because I know pretty well where they’re bolting. If they were bolting anywhere else, I would be nervous.

BLAIR:: Are there other rules like don’t run with scissors in the Hab when it’s inflated?

MAX: Actually, there’s a fun fact. When there was a discussion on safety exits and we were a little bit undecided on where to place our safety exits. Someone on our team proposed that we give a knife to the astronauts. And in case of an emergency, they’ll just cut their way out. Obviously, that would never work but it was fun enough.

TRACY: Each of the teams has the same basic parameters to satisfy but they’ve solved them in different ways. For instance, the Oklahoma State team last week built a two-floor loft. This team has built a one-floor loft that’s a little more compact.

CHRIS: I don’t know if you know this but you said there are three teams, three schools. So, next week is Wisconsin. Oklahoma State went first. Maryland is this week. There’s a fourth week that was added to it. And I believe that the co-host is actually right now in the works building is own Hab, 2nd floor. Do you think there’s room to maybe look at his?

TRACY: It’s probably a small one if it’s for him. So it’s probably okay.

CHRIS: It wouldn’t take that long to build, would it?

TRACY: No, no, no. Piece of cake.

DR. AKIN: Next year, we’re going to build another habitat.

CHRIS: Wonderful.

DR. AKIN: But not inflatable this time.

CHRIS: Okay.

DR. AKIN: They’ve asked us to build what they call HDU-Lite, which is like the habitat on the bottom.

CHRIS: Right.

DR. AKIN: This one is one piece and it takes special convoys to get it from here to Arizona. So, they’ve asked us to design a habitat that can fit into a standard shipping container in pieces.

CHRIS: Okay.

DR. AKIN: We have a modular design where you can unbolt it into three sections, fit it into one shipping container, put it on a truck and go.

BLAIR:: One question I do have through the rumor mill, I have not confirmed this. What were you guys thinking when you included a disco ball on the inside of your Hab?

ZACK: We do have some pretty eccentric people on our team. I think it might have even been the professor’s doing.

BLAIR:: This is highly questionable.

ZACK: I don’t want to speculate on anything but I think it was just a last minute deal to show a little bit of humor.

BLAIR:: And they will also be debuting the polyester spacesuits as well.


ZACK: Yeah, parachute pants and all. We’re throwing back. Yep.

CHRIS: Well, the X-HAB Challenge is a wrap.

BLAIR:: It’s been a great week seeing the University of Maryland deploy their Habitat Demonstration Unit.

CHRIS: And we want to congratulate all the schools that submitted designs for the challenge.

BLAIR:: And let’s run through the finalists one more time.

CHRIS: We have Oklahoma State University, University of Maryland, and the University of Wisconsin.

BLAIR:: And the winner is….

CHRIS: The University of Wisconsin.

BLAIR:: The next time we see their habitat deployed it will be at Black Point Lava Flow, Arizona for Desert Rats 2011.

CHRIS: So until next time, you’re watching NASA EDGE.

BLAIR:: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: Do badgers live out in the desert?

BLAIR:: That might be a little tricky. We’ll have to check on that. Talk to a zoologist.

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