NASA Exploration Design Challenge To Protect Astronauts From Radiation
March 11, 2013

NASA’s New Launch: Exploration Design Challenge

Brett Smith for — Your Universe Online

As a way of inspiring the next generation of astronauts, NASA has launched a new program, Exploration Design Challenge, which asks students to think about and design ways to protect space explorers from deadly cosmic radiation.

"America's next step in human space exploration is an ambitious one and will require new technologies, including ways to keep our astronauts safe from the effects of deep-space radiation," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden upon announcing the program. "That is the focus of this challenge, and we are excited students will be helping us solve that problem."

The program is the result of a public-private venture, or called the Space Act Agreement, between NASA and Lockheed Martin Corp.

"Space exploration has inspired and fascinated young people for generations, and the Exploration Design Challenge is a unique way to capture and engage the imaginations of tomorrow's engineers and scientists," said Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson.

The design challenge is focused primarily on NASA´s Orion project, which is dedicated to deep-space exploration. The project is part of NASA´s expanding pursuit of longer space missions that will take humans outside the protection of Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere. Along with its private partners, NASA is already developing new materials and designs to better protect future space explorers from the dangers of space radiation.

The first Orion test mission, called Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), is set to lift off in 2014. One section of the design challenge website asks teachers and student to enroll “as honorary, virtual crew members” for the upcoming flight.

"Exploration Flight Test-1 is set to launch next year, so participating in this challenge will give the students a real sense of being part of the NASA team,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Education and former astronaut Leland Melvin. "They will be able to chart Orion's progress as it moves closer to the test launch. That's important because these students represent our future scientists, engineers and explorers."

In the challenge, younger students, grades kindergarten through 4 and 5 through 8, will analyze potential shielding materials that might be used to protect the crew inside the Orion craft. The student scientists will research and select materials that best block the harmful radiation.

High school students in the program will investigate radiation and human space travel in greater detail. After researching the necessary information, the students will then be asked to design a radiation shield that protects a sensor on the Orion capsule from cosmic radiation.

The space agency has a section on their website dedicated to the new design challenge where teachers can enroll their students and find educational materials, with separate sections for grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

The 2014 Orion test flight will send an unmanned craft into orbit to run a series of tests and potential scenarios. In 2017, NASA will continue the Orion program by launching a craft atop the Space Launch System rocket, which is currently in development. That flight will send an unmanned Orion on a test mission around the moon.