Bright ideas from college students become solution to keep tools handy and help astronauts

March 04, 2001

Imagine working on a building project and your tools keep disappearing. Or part of what you're constructing keeps floating away.

That's the challenge facing astronauts as they work in the low-gravity environment created as the International Space Station orbits Earth. Equipment and tools can float away -- even disappear. Now industrial design students at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., have helped NASA solve the problem. The solution: the Payload Equipment Restraint System (PERS), which will enable Space Station crews to work more efficiently.

The system combines straps, mesh pockets, Kevlar®, Velcro® and a variety of connecting devices into a portable, adjustable system. PERS attaches to the Space Station's rack seat track system - similar to seat tracks used in commercial airplanes.

Originally designed to assist the crew when they exchange equipment and experiments on the Materials Science Research Facility -- a standardized payload rack that houses materials science experiments -- PERS will now be used throughout the Space Station.

"It is a win-win situation," said Ken Smith, the original PERS program manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "We anticipated a problem for the Space Station crews and we used our partnership with Auburn to get a solution."

"We got really great initiative from the students. They got so excited when they realized they were actually assisting and producing products that will fly in space and will be used by the astronauts," he said.

NASA presented the problem to the students in early 1998. Smith and Auburn professors supervised 36 students in 12 teams as they tackled the design and fabrication challenge.

The students submitted more than 360 innovative ideas. Ultimately 12 concepts were selected for prototype development. The teams presented their proposals and prototypes to program managers and engineers at the Marshall Center.

Managers selected three for further development and an integrated system was presented to the astronaut corps and Space Station program managers in 1999.

In late 1999, NASA directed fabrication of the development units that flew aboard NASA's KC-135 aircraft for testing and evaluation. The findings from the test flights in early 2000 resulted in the final design that was qualified for flight.

A NASA contractor, Sverdrup Technology, hired one of the students, Chris Barrs of Tampa, Fla., to work on the project during the development and fabrication stages. Barrs is now a graduate student and visiting instructor in the Department of Industrial Design at Auburn.

"It couldn't be more exciting," Barrs said. "I grew up watching the space program and could even see the Shuttle go up from my backyard in Tampa. To have the opportunity to make a difference and have a little piece of my effort go into the Space Station is phenomenal.

"I have learned that hard work and perseverance are the keys to realizing your goals," added Barrs. "My involvement with PERS has definitely helped open doors for me already, and I hope the success of the project will continue to provide opportunities."

The astronaut corps has enthusiastically received PERS.

"The astronauts have had an opportunity to work with and use the hardware," said David Reynolds, PERS Lead System Engineer in the Flight Projects Directorate.

at the Marshall Center. "Their response has been wonderful. They've actually requested that the hardware go up sooner than we had intended."

The astronauts have also requested more PERS units for Space Station and inquired about incorporating similar systems for SPACEHAB operations on future Space Shuttle missions, Reynolds added.

A handy, expandable system

The Single Strap and the H-Strap are the first PERS components to be used on the Space Station. The straps are designed to attach to opposing rack faces that are approximately 86 inches (218.4 centimeters) apart.

The PERS system will eventually include five separate elements for the Space Station crews. Both straps will be used with other PERS components -- the Belly Pack, the Laptop Restraint Belt and the Tool Page Case -- on future Space Station missions.

Crew members will use the straps to hold cables, hand tools, Space Station bungee straps, payload hardware, odd-shaped items, samples and large boxes.

The Single Strap is made of Kevlar®, used for bulletproof vests; Nomex® webbing, used for protective clothing; elastic and Velcro®. It can be adjusted for tautness to make it a firm, yet easily moveable restraint. There are several ways to attach items to the strap, including Velcro®, elastic loops, cable ties and D-Rings. The Single Strap attaches with a seat track stud into the Station's rack seat track system.

The H-Strap has the same attachment features of the Single Strap, but is wider with mesh pockets for more temporary storage. Both straps are easy to work with, as a crew member can unroll it, attach it and -- when the job is finished -- move to another work area.

The Single Strap can be rolled or folded for easy stowage. The H-Strap is rolled up to a storage dimension of 11 inches (27.9 centimeters) long by 10 inches (25.4 centimeters) wide by 4 inches (10.16 centimeters) tall.

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center

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