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From the Earth to the Moon, Plan B

"The Space Exploration Architectures Concept Synthesis Studio is all about speculation and visualizing future applications for space technology."
Newly Paul
November 04, 2008 —

Former students Dr. Anita Sengupta (blue shirt - foreground) and Gina Pieri (white shirt - right) return to review midterm projects along with retired professor Dr. Robert Brodsky and veteran fighter/test pilot William Haynes, who managed crew systems for the Skylab Program.
The US government has tasked NASA with an ambitious human exploration program to align critical technologies and systems and chart out very specific, aggressively paced missions to the Moon, leading to returning humans back to the lunar surface by 2015.

Madhu Thangavelu’s ASTE527 class in space architecture uses current NASA studies and ongoing projects as a baseline to create alternative system architectures (both robotic and human) for lunar exploration and interplanetary mission technology development and verification.

“The Space Exploration Architectures Concept Synthesis Studio is all about speculation and visualizing future applications for space technology. The aim of this synthesis-oriented program is to encourage and refine programmatic and conceptual design synthesis skills for the creation of complex high technology projects,” wrote Thangavelu in his introduction to the course.

His class is all about ideas—the more creative, the better.  Think lunar cargo delivery systems, dust-free spacesuit helmets and global solar electric power networks. These and a host of other ideas were presented by students earlier this month at the midterm mini concept architecture presentations, part of this course which Thangavelu started some 15 years ago.

“I want my class to fire students’ imagination and trigger their confidence, so they can think of new possibilities in space
Madhu Thangavelu: 15 years of alternatives
architecture,” said Thangavelu.

Many students in his class are from the industry. Some are young project managers looking to create a new world view of ideas by delving into a pet idea they developed in class or they thought of before, but didn’t have time to explore.

At the presentation, student Corey Harmon spoke about lunar water ice utilization. She presented a “power friendly” design which could be used to extract water from sunny rims of craters through sublimation. She said her design would eliminate the high cost of transporting water from the earth to the moon.

Jody Enomoto’s project dealt with the hazards of meteoroid impact that earthlings might face in a lunar environment. She proposed a moon-based radar system that could detect meteoroids and sound warnings.

Amit Patel proposed a lunar Transformational Satellite Communications System based on TSAT proposals now being proposed for Earth.

Chun-Yih Hsu proposed a lunar cargo delivery system to provide an alternative way to let cargo land on the moon surface without using fuel. Medical doctor William Stuppy discussed a plan to monitor astronauts’ health while Rajeev Shreshtha suggested a method to supply cheap, abundant and clean energy through a global solar electric power network.

Melissa Doyle brought along a model of her project: a dust mitigation space suit helmet. Her concept was a device that clips on to the exterior of current space helmets and is based on the VHS tape concept of spooling, using a film that will lie across the helmet visor connected on either side of the astronaut’s head. When the film becomes so dirty that the astronaut can no longer see well, he will advance the film via a push button to get a dust free clean film that he can once again see through.

Invited reviewers judged the projects on a number of criteria, including originality of ideas, rationale, presentation, depth of research and viability. While the projects on the whole were appreciated, reviewers felt students should work on their presentation skills. “Public speaking is as important as the idea being presented,” commented one speaker.

According to Thangavelu, it is very important to study space technologies in this age because some of the biggest nations of the world, like some of the biggest economies of the world — US, Europe, Russia, China and India — have great plans in space. “By bringing the best and most curious people of these nations togethe,r one can make a community that perseveres for peace. The ultimate end for any research is to bring peace and progress,” he said.

Space exploration is an interdisciplinary arena. “Anybody who is curious can have an important part in it,” said Thangavelu. Which, he said, may account for the way traditionally different branches of science and technology are becoming intermeshed today, with chemists, physicists and biologists working with each other.

Have there been any changes in the program in the past 15 years? “Not much,” said Thangavelu, “except that entry to the course has become tougher and more competitive.”

The class is not for everybody, he explained. Usually those who get accepted have a very deep interest in the future of humanity. “Students have to be an expert in some area and have a kernel of depth of understanding in their area of expertise. A generalist may find it frustrating or difficult at first to come up with a concept for this class,” said Thangavelu.

For next year, he plans to offer his course over the Distance Education Network, which will allow students all over the country — or around the world — to participate.  In another 15 years, perhaps there will be students studying in space,