Tossed in Space

When Pathfinder lobbed a bunch of inflatable habitats onto the surface of Mars, it created new worlds for spacesuit maker ILC.

ILC’s Dave Cadogan (left) and Craig Scheir spent 10 days in Antarctica, culminating the first 15 years of work on a space habitat. Photography by Jared CastaldiNo matter how excited you get about the prospect of the next vacation, there’s always a better destination.

So imagine spending a couple days in a truly remote location, with only you and your family—or that special someone—with unprecedented views and the kind of sightseeing most people can only dream of. And the souvenirs—you’ll come home with things only a few people have ever seen.

That’s Mars, not some isolated island on this well-traveled rock. Though scientists continue to work on the journey, hoping to knock it down to a few months or so, engineers at ILC Dover have already prepared your accommodations.

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Long known for its work in the space arena, ILC has fashioned a habitat that provides safe living with little set-up and minimal maintenance.

“The moon may be closer, but Mars has an atmosphere, and we might be able to find water there,” says Dave Cadogan, director of research and technology at ILC and the lead engineer on the habitat project. “If you go to the moon, you have to bring everything with you. On Mars, you might not have to do all that.”

Those of you who have followed NASA’s Mars probes know Cadogan is a bit optimistic. It’s not as if Pathfinder and Viking have brought back bottles of Little Green Men Spring Water and photographs of vast Martian lakes. But there is some microscopic evidence of water, so those guided tours to Mars may be only decades away. The good news is that by the time Martian vacations begin, ILC’s current habitats will be even better.

Judging by the success of a test staged in Antarctica in January 2008, ILC has come up with a habitat that could withstand just about everything the moon or Mars could throw its way. While even the harshest Antarctic conditions can’t replicate exactly a space environment, Cadogan’s travels with fellow ILC engineer Craig Scheir served as an analog environment for space living.

Cadogan and Scheir were joined by representatives of the National Science Foundation at the bottom of the world for 10 days in January 2008, culminating more than 15 years of work on such habitats.

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ILC has worked on this kind of stuff since 1947. Its line of soft goods for space has many applications. ILC’s Lighter Than Air unit manufactures blimps that have military uses such as carrying radar packages and other intelligence materials. (The company won a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense in June to help Lockheed Martin field an aerostat-based radar system that provides real-time feedback to the warfighters on the ground to reduce improvised explosive device events.) And its Personal Protection line has products for law enforcement and first responder professionals who work in conditions with compromised air quality.

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But it’s outer space that gets the big headlines. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, he wore an ILC space suit. Since then the company has made significant advancements in the materials and technology used to construct such outfits, and it has turned some of that expertise into the habitat program.

The concept has an interesting past, too, dating back to the 1940s, when famous German physicist Wernher von Braun envisioned flexible space habitats. Since it was viewed as Buck Rogers stuff, it didn’t have much support. But by the 1980s the idea began to gain some interest as the U.S. military began to investigate space options as part of its Strategic Defense Initiative program. Like previous concepts, the habitat idea lived only on paper.

That changed in the mid-1990s, when ILC teamed with the Johnson Space Center in Houston to build an inflatable habitat prototype. ILC provided some of the technical knowledge it had developed over years of working with the space program, and the final product had potential. It didn’t, however, have NASA’s imprimatur. Part of the reason was budgetary. Another was that there was no need for such a habitat yet.

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That’s not to mention that some people looked down on the concept of inflatables. “What they didn’t understand was that these things can be made reliably and robustly, like car tires and space suits,” Cadogan says.

NASA climbed on board three years ago when it announced plans for its Orion program to visit the international space station, the moon and, eventually, Mars. “Now NASA had the impetus to develop space habitats,” Cadogan says.

So a team was formed in 2006 that included NASA, ILC and the National Science Foundation. The NSF had an interest in habitats that could survive on this planet, rather than space, but the joint venture allowed for a sharing of information, technology and funding.

And thanks to that partnership, Cadogan and Scheir ended up in Antarctica. “That’s a harsh environment that has its own quirks that are analogous to space,” Scheir says.

The two places aren’t exactly alike. The moon has wild temperature swings—between 250 and minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit—because of its absence of atmosphere. There are also major radiation concerns because the moon has no magnetic field to protect its surface. And the debris that comes flying across the landscape can be quite different than what’s found at the bottom of the Earth.

Still, heading to Antarctica would provide a good starting point. “The climate and the trouble that you go through to get there and set up the habitat does mirror what you would go through doing it on the moon,” Cadogan says.

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It was a sunny day when the scientists arrived at their site in January 2008. It had been snowing—not unusual, even in the Antarctic summer—but the temperature wasn’t too bad. A day later, things changed.

Cadogan and Scheir were scheduled to deploy the habitat, so Mother Nature dialed up a nasty blizzard. “We were glad for the snow,” Scheir says. “We said, ‘This is a true test. This is why we’re here.’ It had to be deployable in bad conditions.” The set-up took about 45 minutes, but Cadogan is quick to indicate that it could have gone much more quickly. “We were taking pictures, and it was the first time we did it,” he says, clearly upset at the performance. “We could do it now in 15 minutes.”

The habitat performed almost flawlessly during its Antarctic residence. It maintained proper air pressure, controlled the climate, handled flying debris and provided a strong base on jagged terrain. All testing at ILC beforehand had indicated the trip would be a success, and the result was quite promising.

In all, the trip was a validation of work performed over several years. Had there been any catastrophes, the habitat was created to break down easily, providing plenty of time for those inside to evacuate to a safer area. “You can do anything inside it except juggle knives,” Cadogan says.

It’s unlikely anyone will be looking to do that, but the next phase of the project is under way. Since ILC and the NSF have different goals for their habitats, the groups have split to pursue their separate agendas. ILC has begun construction of new prototypes that are even stronger.

“We’re learning about structural performance and how sturdy we can make it,” Cadogan says. “We want to see how it will face the weather challenges. Hopefully, NASA will have the budget to go to the moon with one of these, and we’ll build a real one.”

ILC is also working on better deployment methods so the habitats can be dropped to the ground and opened remotely. That means astronauts—or future space vacationers—will only have to anchor and connect the portions of the habitat rather than construct them completely.

Dropping a parcel on the moon or Mars, pushing a button and, five minutes later, having a place to sleep and play cards may sound crazy. But Cadogan reports that the Pathfinder craft dropped “between 50 and 100” inflatables onto the Martian landscape, and though they may have bounced on impact, they came to rest and were able to perform various exploratory tasks.

It makes sense ILC would be able to handle that successfully, since its Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment has created means to return rocket payloads to Earth safely. It’s part of the whole story that began with space suits and may end up with inflatable beachfront condos at the Sea of Tranquility. Of course, there will be one little catch.

“Even in a hundred years, it will still be for the rich and famous,” Scheir says.

Oh, well. The Caribbean is still pretty nice. 

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