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Three UND grad students start lunar living experiment

Inside the confines of the moon rover, mission commander Travis Nelson grabbed a metal bar overhead, pulled himself up and stuck his feet into a hole that led to the inside of a spacesuit.

Tiffany Swarmer, a graduate student in Space Studies at UND, waits as she is fitted into the NDX- 2AT space suit during training this weekend at UND. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Inside the confines of the moon rover, mission commander Travis Nelson grabbed a metal bar overhead, pulled himself up and stuck his feet into a hole that led to the inside of a spacesuit.

The back of the suit is attached to the outside of the rover, but the boot isn't attached to anything. Nelson's left foot got snagged inside somewhere above the ankle, and no amount of pushing or twisting would get it in, especially because when he twisted his foot the boot turned as well.

Outside, in the parking lot by UND's Clifford Hall, two fellow graduate students came to his aid, holding the boot for him.

The awkward moment finally over, Nelson looked up, grinned and gave a mock salute.

"They're not used to this yet," said Tiffany Swarmer, one of the students who helped him. "They just need practice."


There will be plenty of that this week as Nelson and two other graduate students embark on a simulated moon mission on the west end of campus. They'll live for 10 days in a moon base, drive around in a moon rover and explore in space suits, all the while reporting on their mental and physical conditions.

The goal is to find out what it would be like if people lived on the moon, what problems they might encounter, what solutions might work, Nelson said.

Along the way, he and the other simulated astronauts hope to answer questions such as: How much food and water would an astronaut require if he or she had to spend half the day in a bulky, heavy spacesuit? How would people react to living in a windowless home with practically no privacy? How easy is it to back a moon rover into position to hookup with the airlock if all you have is a little rear-view camera?

And maybe, how easy is it to don a spacesuit if you have to hang onto a bar and lower yourself into it?

Playing pretend

The moon base is down by the railroad tracks, and it looks like a giant pale caterpillar. Inside is something like a trailer home held up by a metal frame that's six times stronger than it needs to be. Outside is an inflated nylon shell. On the moon, another four feet of soil will cover the shell, to protect astronauts from radiation, said Pablo de Leon, the UND aerospace engineer who runs this project.

Like a tent, it's lightweight and can be packed into a small space but it's strong where it needs to be. Weight and size are key because it costs about $1,000 a pound to get into orbit these days, according to Nelson.

The astronauts will live for 10 days inside, starting this past Sunday.


During the daytime, two astronauts will tool in the moon rover, a minivan like vehicle that's just a bit larger than a golf cart. Here and there, one will hop out in a spacesuit to take in samples of soil or rocks. The third astronaut will be back at base, keeping in touch with mission control.

At night, they'll write reports about how the mission has gone and keep themselves entertained with Nintendo Wii and DVDs. On the play list are Apollo 13 and Armageddon, mostly because they say they like to tear apart the scientifically implausible script.


The volunteers selected for the moon-base project need to be older -- grad students, not undergrads -- and "well-adjusted," de Leon said, because that's what the mission requires.

They have to be able to live and work together in confined spaces with little assistance from outside. While this phase of the project is just 10 days and located on campus, de Leon is planning a 30-day mission in an isolated setting somewhere near Walhalla, N.D.

The three selected also share a love of space exploration. No doubt that's the kind of person who would volunteer for such a project.

Nelson, a grad student in UND's Space Studies Department, said he's been fascinated with space exploration since he got a space-shuttle Lego set as a kid growing up in Devils Lake. "I believe space is the ultimate frontier," he said, chuckling self-consciously at what must sound to others like a cliche. "Exploring the unknown is very important for us to grow as a species."

Tim Buli, another space studies grad student, said he hopes to work in the space industry some day. He quit his job as a school teacher in New Jersey a few years ago to pursue his dreams at UND, he said. "Everything about space has to be fun," he said with a toothy grin.


The odd woman out is Erica Dolinar. Unlike the other two, she loves space exploration but is looking for a career in atmospheric sciences, not space.

She's less familiar with the moon-base project, but that can be an advantage, she said. "I like to think that I'm the unbiased one here, just letting them test me basically."

Low tech

This week's project is the end result of four years of work, de Leon said. He and his team, using a $740,000 NASA grant, designed and built all three components: the base, the rover and the suits, he said.

Though it's a lot of money, it's actually not very much when it comes to designing a moon base.

De Leon said his team used a lot of off-the-shelf components that wouldn't ever qualify to be sent to the moon. The toilet, example, is from a home-improvement store. He said a space toilet would cost as much as the whole project.

That's why living conditions inside the moon base are rather Earth-like. The communication system is a CB radio. The airlock is basically a small anteroom with doors at each end; Dolinar said they just have to make sure one door is always closed to simulate the airlock. The fridge was bought at a store, too, and it's filled with frozen pizza and other treats; Nelson said every calorie and every ounce of water used will be counted.

But the goal isn't to test the technology but the concept of an interconnected base and how people might live and work in it, according to de Leon. Just like the suit can be accessed from the inside of the rover via a hatch, the rover itself can be accessed from the inside of the base via another hatch. That way, astronauts need never worry about contamination from the lunar or Martian dust, which can happen if they bring a dusty spacesuit into the base.

Lunar dust is comprised of tiny, sharp particles that have never been worn smooth by air and water. If inhaled, NASA scientists worry that it could harm the lungs. Martian soil could be worse because it could be caustic, burning the skin.

The spacesuits, too, are a bit high tech and a bit low tech.

They're carefully crafted to give the astronaut a good range of motion, but there's no life support pack, just a fan in the back that blows in fresh air.

UND scientists explained in a research paper that a real life-support system that can withstand the rigors of space is complex and expensive, which makes it hard to develop new spacesuits. "Since the Earth has a breathable atmosphere, a simple pumping system can be used ... to pressurize the suit."

In other words, they're testing what it's like to move in the suit so the suit has to be real, but the life support system doesn't have to be.

And beyond

Back in the parking lot, Nelson was finally ready to go for his moon walk. From inside the rover, de Leon had just closed the back hatch on the spacesuit and given him the OK over the radio. He pulled an overhead lever to disconnect the suit from the rover and carefully stepped onto the ground.

It didn't take him long to start hamming it up for onlookers, making faces through the faceplate and standing with arms akimbo like Buzz Lightyear.

"To infinity and beyond!" someone shouted.

On the Web: To see updates of the moon-base project, go to spacesuitlab.blogspot.com .

Campus moon base

UND is developing a concept for colonizing the moon.

Here's what's being tested:

Housing: A 40-foot long, 10-foot wide and 8-foot high inflatable building with a metal frame will house up to four astronauts for six months at a time. Inside there are four bedrooms, actually they're more like closets, a kitchen, a bathroom and a laboratory. At one end is a long tube that hooks up with the rover. The frame was designed with help from Icon Architects in Grand Forks.

Transportation: The moon rover looks like a tiny minivan with two hatches in back for hooking up with the spacesuits. The inside contains air so astronauts don't have to be in the bulky spacesuits while driving around. Aircraft-maker Cirrus Design's Grand Forks factory helped build the fiberglass body.

Clothing: The lunar spacesuit, NDX-2, is designed with the necessary flexibility to walking around on the moon. Today's space suits are meant for use in space where wearers basically just float around. There's a hatch in the back to hook up with the rover.

A key feature of the project is everything hooks up to everything else so an astronaut can walk from the lunar habitat into the lunar rover and then don a spacesuit without going through an airlock.

Travis Nelson
UND Space Studies Graduate Student Travis Nelson tests out the NDX-2AT space suit in the parking lot near Clifford Hall this weekend. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Travis Nelson
UND Space Studies Graduate Student Travis Nelson tests out the NDX-2AT space suit in the parking lot near Clifford Hall this weekend. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

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