One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind rings true for a manned-mission to Mars — and some small steps toward reaching that goal are happening right in Orono.
“We’re helping NASA develop what they call the HIAD – the hyper-sonic inflatable atmospheric decelerator,” says Bill Davids, an engineering professor at UMaine.
The HIAD, with a stacked donut structure, was developed by NASA in the 1960′s. They believe it’s one of two technologies that could be viable for a manned-trip to Mars.
“Its kind of like a badminton birdie,” Davids explains. “Think of the nose cone of the spacecraft as the little rubber ball on the birdie and the donuts are like the feathers that slow it all down before it hits the atmosphere.”
But before sending anything up in space NASA needs to put the technology to the test – that’s where Umaine’s advanced structures and composites center comes into play.
“We have a really unique facility here. We have unique capabilities that’s why NASA’s here and we work very closely with them.”
The research engineers work to test the HIAD’s design – reporting back to NASA with information on inflation pressure, weaving patterns and other relevant quantities.
“We’re playing a pretty small role in this but as it turns out it is a pretty important role for them.”
Plus, select students get exposure to a national program as they work on engineering disciplines.
“I rely heavily on the graduate students and the undergrads they really figure out a lot of the details. They do the heavy-lifting.”
Predictions so far show that the system will do pretty well – but there are more refinements to be done as tests branch out into a larger scale over the next few years.
And as for that manned-mission to Mars…
“From what I’ve been told by the folks at NASA, interest is on the upswing. They see this as a real possibility in the future. There’s still work to be done. We’re talking decades probably before it happens and this may be part of it some day.”