Photo of students in the BLISS Lab

Engineering for Astronauts: BLiSS Teams Win Two NASA Projects

Two student proposals from the University of Michigan were chosen for development by NASA to support future missions.

Expanding the potential ways humans can operate in space, NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation have selected two University of Michigan student teams to develop advanced and innovative design ideas that could solve Artemis mission challenges. Two teams in BLiSS (Bioastronautics and Life Support System) will design prototypes this year to address obstacles of human space flight.

The projects selected at the University of Michigan include an Autonomous Cargo Management and Distribution for Surface Logistics system, which would allow astronauts to easily retrieve tools and other items in a zero-gravity environment through robotic automation, and a Head and Body Monitoring Sensorimotor Assessment Tool, which would demonstrate how astronauts can mitigate motion sickness as their bodies are propelled toward the moon or Mars.

The Space “Vending Machine”

The Cargo Management system will deliver a functional prototype using a movable crane on a cross track that can operate in environments ranging from microgravity to 1g, to make it easier for astronauts to retrieve items in zero gravity. Catalina Garza, who graduated from U-M Climate and Space in April with a Master’s of Engineering in Space Systems Engineering, was on the BLiSS team that wrote the proposal.

“I think this project is really cool. It’s an astronaut technology — something they’re actually going to use — and it’s something that could make their lives easier in space,” said Garza. “They’ve coined it as the space vending machine. It’s a vending machine, just in space. So, you don’t have to bring everything out with you, they just dispense it to you.”

Garza pointed out it’s not easy for an astronaut to retrieve something they left behind, once they leave a capsule and enter the space environment. The Cargo Management system could help an astronaut retrieve a wrench easily, for example, once they are already working outside of a shuttle.

“We also chose the Body Monitoring Sensorimotor project, because it is very bioastronautics focused,” said Garza. “Although we don’t always have bioastronautics here on campus in our courses, it’s something we get to focus on through BLiSS.”

Training Astronauts on Movement in Space

The Head and Body Monitoring Sensorimotor Assessment Tool will deliver wearable head and body motion monitoring gear that can provide metrics and data to characterize human movements, using VR (virtual reality) and a visualization system.

“When an astronaut goes up into space, going up into space is very disorienting for them and it causes a lot of motion sickness and nausea symptoms,” said Chad Cerutti, who graduated from the University of Michigan in April with a major in aerospace engineering and a minor in business.

“NASA believes there’s a way to reduce either the time that astronauts experience those systems or even the severity of it, by hooking sensors up on different parts of the body and tracking how an astronaut moves their head or moves their torso and arms while they’re in space.”

Gearing up for this project, the students spoke with Jim Bagian, an astronaut who teaches at the U-M College of Engineering. They discussed motion sickness and learned about the effectiveness of space medicine, but space agencies are working to provide more solutions to ease human space flight.

“By tracking those things, NASA actually hopes to be able to recommend different ways for an astronaut to move their body and head so that the nausea and motion sickness lasts a shorter time. It might not even require medication at all.”

Cerutti said the main issue here will be sending an astronaut on a mission deeper into space. Taking any medication at all could become challenging, as the time period extends longer and medication begins to expire.

Sponsored by NASA’s Artemis Campaign Development Division, the projects were chosen in the 2022-2023 Moon to Mars eXploration Systems and Habitation (M2M X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge, which allows students and researchers to propose new innovations to meet specific needs for space travel and space exploration.

Photo of students in the BLISS Lab
Students give NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen a tour of the BLISS Lab in the Climate and Research Lab Building at the University of Michigan.

Engineering Across Disciplines

These projects are very multidisciplinary,” said Garza. She said one project notably involves biomedical engineering skills, while the other requires the use of mechanical, structural and software engineering as well as a heavy use of robotics.

Students worked on teams in BLiSS to imagine innovations and conceptualize new technologies that could help NASA overcome current challenges in space travel.

“NASA releases these projects because they just need fresh eyes,” said Garza. “These challenges are really to bridge the gap between NASA and student groups and industry and try to get us more prepared for the workforce.”

The student teams receive funding for design and development, and they will present the prototypes to experts in the field upon completion. Depending on the success of the design, NASA could incorporate aspects of the technology, or they could build a space-ready product to match the prototype exactly.

“From the NASA point of view, they are looking for out of the box ideas,” said Professor Nilton Renno, the advisor for BLiSS. He said one of the reasons U-M won two NASA projects when many universities didn’t win any, is the strong reputation of the university and its students. “They know our students. They know how hard they work. They know how creative they are, and they come up with real solutions. It’s a diverse group, too.”

Garza said she’s grateful to the many professors and advisors who offered their expertise and insight along the way, giving students tips on everything from proposal writing to engineering considerations.

“Our professors were very helpful,” she said. “They brought up some pain points and helped us understand what might be challenging in these projects.”

The BLiSS projects have inspired students in their courses and beyond, connecting their passion for space with real-world applications of engineering.

“For me specifically, the connection comes from this passion of wanting to explore and wanting to expand humanity out and believing there are things that a human can do that a robot’s not going to be able to, especially at this point in time,” said Cerutti. “We need to figure out the engineering to get someone there. We need to make sure that the human is going to be as safe as possible and is going to have a really high success of getting to where they’re going, with the rocket they’re on, and the capsule they’re in, and all the infrastructure and technology around the human to help support them and help them succeed in their mission.”