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NASA Asks Students for Help in Protecting Future Space Explorers From Radiation

NASA's Orion capsule, right, a cornerstone in future U. S. deep space exploration plans. Image Credit/NASA Image


NASA and Lockheed Martin, the space agency’s aerospace company partner in the development of the Orion crew vehicle, asked students in kindergarten through high school on Monday to assist them in the development of critical radiation shielding for the four person spacecraft that will one day start human explorers on missions to asteroids, Mars and other deep space destinations.

Orion capsule designated for unpiloted 2014 test flight arrives at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for assembly. Photo Credit/NASA TV

The “Exploration Design Challenge” partners are hopeful the experience will serve as an inspiration to students to pursue studies in science, technology,  engineering and mathematics and careers in high tech that will strengthen the nation’s economy.

Student assistance will play a role quickly:  the 2014 space test flight of an unpiloted Orion capsule launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told students and colleagues gathered at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to kick off the Design Challenge.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden unveils student Exploration Design Challenge. Image Credit/NASA TV


Under current planning, Orion crews launched on NASA’s new Space Launch System will explore an asteroid by 2025 as a stepping stone toward the exploration of Mars in the mid-2030s.  The first launch of astronauts aboard an Orion capsule atop an SLS super rocket is planned for 2021.

“The 2030s — think about it — that’s about you, not me,” said Bolden, looking at a youthful Houston area audience gathered before an engineering mock up of an Orion capsule.

“This will require new technologies including new ways to keep our astronauts safe from deep space radiation. That is the purpose of this challenge, and we are excited that American students will help us to solve that problem,” said Bolden, a former NASA shuttle astronaut.

Bolden and his contemporaries flew their missions in low  Earth orbit, where they are shielded from deadly solar and cosmic radiation by the Earth’s magnetic field. That protection disappears once explorers travel deeper into space, like NASA’s lunar bound Apollo astronauts.

As part of the design challenge, students in grades K-4 and 5-8, will analyze different materials that simulate space radiation shielding for Orion and recommend which materials are best at blocking harmful radiation to protect astronauts.  Students in grades 9-12 will learn about radiation and human space travel in greater detail.

Using what they have learned, they will be asked to think and act like engineers by designing shielding that protects a sensor on the Orion capsule from space radiation. “Hands on experience fuels your curiosity,” Leland Melvin, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Education told the gathering.

Student participation vital to future human exploration, says Leland Melvin NASA's top education official. Image Credit/NASA TV


“What we are doing with Orion and the exploration design challenge  will help you find that curiosity, solve problems to help our astronauts and maybe even you one day to fly on Orion to Mars,” said Melvin, a two time shuttle astronaut. “So, the work you are doing to create radiation shields  to help us go to Mars may be the radiation shield that saves your life one day.”

The national demand for scientists and engineers is growing as more and more U. S. professionals reach retirement age, Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin’s CEO and president, told the Johnson gathering.

Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin CEO and President. Image Credit/NASA TV

“Space exploration has inspired and fascinated young people for generations. The Exploration Design Challenge is a unique way to capture and engage the imagination of tomorrow’s engineers and scientists,” said Hewson. “Innovation is the engine of American progress and STEM education is the fuel that fires that engine.”

Without more young men and women entering the science and engineering professions, U. S. leadership could suffer, she warned.

“We need bright, creative leaders for these fields.  We need them to ensure that the innovation engine continues to drive our country’s leadership, national security and economic strength,” said Hewson.


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