NASA/NSF/ILC Dover Inflatable Habitat Blog - January 2008


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When NASA astronauts explore the moon starting in 2020, they'll stay for about a week to start out and then gradually lengthen their visits as an outpost takes shape. At first, they'll take everything they need in their lunar landers, but longer stays will require more support than one lander can deliver.

For that reason, engineers are starting to develop concepts for habitation modules that provide necessary protection and support in a package that's as light and compact as possible. That's because for every pound of cargo that lands on the moon, NASA will need to launch 125 pounds from Earth to cover fuel, engines and systems that ensure a safe journey. In addition, habitats will need to be as easy to construct or assemble as possible because the astronauts will be working in spacesuits.

One option being studied is the use of inflatable structures.

NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and ILC Dover of Frederica, Del., have joined forces in a NASA-sponsored Innovative Partnership Program to investigate inflatable structures technology as possible long-term habitats for future astronaut teams.

Image above: Team members from NASA, the National Space Foundation and ILC Dover install a weather station next to the inflatable habitat. The team is stationed at the McMurdo Complex in Antarctica. Credit: NASA

+ View more lunar exploration concepts

Image above: Team members from NASA, the National Space Foundation and ILC Dover fasten down the inflatable habitat at the McMurdo Complex in Antarctica. Credit: NASA

The overall objective of this joint project is to design, construct, and test a proof-of-concept inflatable structure, focusing on how easy it is to deploy and how durable it is in an extremely harsh environment - Antarctica. A team of engineers from NASA, the National Science Foundation and ILC Dover helped deploy the inflatable habitat in January 2008.

Larry Toups, habitat lead for NASA's Constellation Program Lunar Surface Systems Office, tells the team's story in the journals below.

For more information about the project, visit:

+ Living on the Moon: Inflatable Habitat Research (PDF 1 Mb)

Jan. 16, 2008

Wednesday, 16 January, was greeted with snow and fairly strong winds. It was interesting to see how the structure basically "shed" the accumulation as the day progressed. We finished the final sensor placements. There is a certain amount of calibration required once the sensors are in place, so that was also accomplished. The connection back to Johnson Space Center was also utilized during a good part of the day.

As far as the structure, we demonstrated the use of the "regolith bags." (Regolith is dirt and broken rock.) Some concepts for providing radiation protection on the lunar surface include using local resources (lunar soil) placed into containers and placed over the lunar habitat. Here at McMurdo we incorporated the same concept using the local resource (snow) on exterior bags that are attached to the Hab. The day was completed with our overnight stay using sleeping bags provided by Byrd Field Center.

Jan. 15, 2008

Tuesday, 15 January, was used to finish the installation of sensors, verify the connection back to Johnson Space Center in Houston, and further document the structure and our work. First, we monitored carbon dioxide (CO2) levels internal to the Hab with all six of us working inside the Hab. Readings were recorded every five minutes over a two hour period. We also recorded the interior temperature levels -- with no additional heating. The design characteristics of the structure -- the inflated structural tubes -- seem to provide a fairly good thermal insulation layer. Additional external sensors were put into place under the Hab, and we did some initial looks at the images from the thermal imaging done on Monday.

Late afternoon provided us the opportunity to document the Hab and some of its features using a high definition video camera. The last part of the day was spent organizing and starting to package the repair materials and spares that will be left here for NSF and Raytheon for the over-winter period.

Jan. 13, 2008

Monday, 13 January, was spent really turning the hab into a work area. We installed internal hardware including lights, heaters, cameras, computers, and air quality monitors (humidity, airflow and carbon dioxide sensors). We also started the installation of instrumentation (loop antennas and saw tag antennas) and established communications with the various temperature and pressure sensors. The weather station has been activated and connected to the habitat computer and most of the sensors have started monitoring and recording data.

Communication with the McMurdo Intranet was also established and verified.

Another key activity was using a thermal imaging camera to take readings not only of the inflatable hab, but also operational Jamesway huts at the Long Duration Balloon Facility at Williams' field. The Jamesway is a 1950s era plywood/canvas unit that has been used by NSF for a number of years and is comparable in size and functionality to our unit. This thermal imaging will help us understand what heat leak we experience with our unit, and we expect a significant improvement on thermal efficiency.

Plans for tomorrow call for completing additional sensor installation and calibration, CO2 monitoring of the interior while in use, and a "christening" of the hab with the six of us overnighting in it Wednesday night.

This blog entry is actually being entered while in the hab itself, so we have officially established a "home away from home!"

Jan. 12, 2008

Saturday, January 12, started with preparation for our three demonstrations (9 am, 1 pm and 7 pm). We also started sensor installation, and finished the ground anchors. The weather station installation was completed (in pictures it shows as the 2-inch diameter pole adjacent to the hab). This will allow those at Johnson Space Center to remotely record weather conditions with the structure use while it is deployed for the year. A drill was brought in to make sure it was securely anchored (again thanks to the personnel here at McMurdo).

For the three demonstrations of the structure deployment, we started inside the hab for a short briefing describing plans for lunar habitats, the structure itself, and how the innovative partnership between NASA/NSF/ILC Dover will benefit all parties. After this we exited the structure and deflated, then reinflated. Each time it took approximately 6 minutes for each. We had over 100 people (total) for the three demonstrations - it has become a topic of conversation around McMurdo. Not only was there large attendance, but also we benefited from the feedback we received from those that came from those that have stayed in field camps to fire and rescue personnel to scientists. There was even a middle school science teacher from Blanco, Texas, who is here on an exchange program for teachers. We ended the busy day with making sure we were prepared for Monday's (14 Jan) sensor installations. Sunday will be a break day for us and we plan on a few hikes and a tour of the Oden, the Swedish Icebreaker, which plowed its way to the Ice Pier this afternoon.

Jan. 11, 2008

Today started with the Inflatable Habitat fully inflated on the site. Most of the morning was spent making sure the anchors were in place properly and outfitting the interior. Work continued on the preparation of the sensors and the "weather station" was installed. This will help folks back at JSC monitor the actual conditions at the structure's site after we leave and during its one-year deployment. The floor was also installed.

We ran a "deflate, then reinflate" demonstration for a few key McMurdo Station facility management folks at 12:30 pm. It took approximately 6 minutes to deflate, and 6 minutes to reinflate. The response from people who have visited it has been extremely positive - we have even had feedback from experienced people with South Pole Station.

Tomorrow, Saturday, we are demonstrating again at 9 am, 1 pm, and 7 pm. This will give personnel working the various shifts here an opportunity to see it. We also worked in a terrific hike after the demo today and saw a seal and the ice breaker working (it will reach McMurdo on Monday).

Jan. 7, 2008

Today we made it to the International Antarctic Center at the Christchurch Airport. Here we were given our cold weather gear. It basically comes in two orange duffels. It includes undergarments, gloves, wind pants, parkas, etc. Most of us feel we are in pretty good shape to weather anything now, given we brought things with us as well from Houston. Everything needed to be tried on and made sure it is "serviceable" - no broken zippers, etc. We basically got through this in about 2 hours. There are about 60 people deploying to the ice on our flight. We need to report back tomorrow morning at 6 am for the flight. It will take about 5 hours to travel to McMurdo (weather dependent). You will notice that we have our "mascot" penguins in tow and you will see them again in the future. That way those of you who said "...hope you see penguins....." will not be disappointed.

Jan. 6, 2008

Today was a day used to adjust to the time difference and see a bit more of Christchurch and the surrounding area. We took a bus ($2.50 round trip fare) ride to the port town of Lyttelton, about 25 minutes from Cathedral Square. The port is used by the NSF (National Science Foundation) to send cargo to Antarctica, and a berth for some of the ice breakers used there as well. The Palmer was in dock there and will be traveling to McMurdo while we are there.

Ended up the day with a nice dinner and a visit to the square before returning to the hotel (which is right on the square). There was a lone flute player who was playing when the church bells started - pretty cool. Even though we expect continuous daylight at the Pole, the sun sets here about 9:30 pm. Tomorrow we go to the staging center at the airport to get our cold weather gear. Ironic in that it was probably close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit here in Christchurch today.

Jan. 5, 2008

Arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, from Los Angeles after a 13-hour flight. In the process we lost a day (04 Jan.) by crossing the international date line. First thing you notice is that the security here is concentrated on bio-hazards rather than the normal security concerns we have in the U.S. You have to declare bringing hiking boots into the country and any other snacks, etc., you bring with you. They take anything to do with potential pollution of their country very seriously.

After a few hours' layover in Auckland, we flew to Christchurch where we were greeted with mid 70s, low humidity, "Californiaous" weather. It is the middle of their summer here. After arriving at the hotel a bit before 11 am, we left our luggage at the hotel to do some sight-seeing (and stay awake). We were able to check in shortly before 3 pm.

We will have Sunday to ourselves, and then go get our cold weather gear Monday prior to deployment to the ice very, very early Tuesday, 08 January.

Jan. 3, 2008

We leave Houston today for Christchurch, New Zealand via Los Angeles and are scheduled to arrive early morning Jan. 5 (NZ time). We are then scheduled to leave from Christchurch for McMurdo Station on Jan. 8 It will be a bit strange to pack for a cold (although summer) Antarctica and a mid-summer New Zealand.

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