Aug 312010

Astronaut Airbags

Should the astronauts living on the International Space Station (ISS) ever need to evacuate, the plan is that they will be able to board the station’s resident escape spacecraft, which will then take them back to Earth.

That escape craft, called Orion, is currently under construction. Like the Apollo spacecraft that it resembles, Orion is intended to land at sea. If it should happen to come down on the land, however… well, those astronauts could be in for a rough landing. With that in mind, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics is developing an air bag system to cushion Orion’s occupants in the event of a dry landing. The system, interestingly enough, was inspired by the structure of seeds.

NASA originally proposed a 499 kg. (1,100 lb.) shock-mounted rigid structure upon which the astronauts’ seats would be mounted, but decided the system would be too heavy for dry landings. MIT student Sydney Do, however, came up with a smaller, lighter alternative: a reusable, 317.5 kg. (700 lb.) air bag system that could inflate during launch and landing, deflate for storage purposes, and partially inflate to provide seating while the vehicle is in space. His system is also purely mechanical, so it wouldn’t be subject to the whims of buggy or misinformed computers.

The origins of the system date back to 2008, when NASA astronaut Charlie Camarda helped students from MIT and Penn State explore how the physics of seeds could be applied to engineering principles. In the case of Do’s air bag system, each astronaut is surrounded in an individual “cushion of air,” just as protective fluid surrounds the embryo in a seed.

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