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Gear-head nirvana: U-Md. space center is voted one of nation's 'most awesome college labs'

By Michelle R. Davis
Sunday, November 7, 2010; W16

On a bright September day outside a barn at the University of Maryland in College Park, graduate student Andrew Ellsberry held what appeared to be a remote control for a battery-operated toy car. But as Ellsberry twisted and turned the knobs, he was taking a full-size moon rover for a test drive.

The silver, three-wheeled RAVEN moon rover is the size of a golf cart, weighs 800 pounds, and is powered by two super-size car batteries. Its "brain" is the same kind of computer processor found in a netbook. Students in the Department of Aerospace Engineering's Space Systems Laboratory built the rover, which won a NASA design competition.

As a smart, mobile assistant for astronauts, the rover and its robotic arm theoretically could follow instructions to bore holes into the moon's surface, collect rock samples and even carry an astronaut to safety in an emergency. Space systems lab students also designed a companion spacesuit to allow an astronaut to give the rover voice and keypad commands remotely.

"Somewhere else, I'd barely be able to touch the controls, but here I'm working with robots and spacesuit simulators," Ellsberry said, maneuvering the vehicle over a pile of sand.

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For gear-heads, childhood Lego fanatics and devoted "Star Trek" fans turned college students, the University of Maryland's Space Systems Lab is nirvana. It was recently voted one of the top five most "awesome college labs" by Popular Science magazine, and students often go on to work for NASA or companies that develop space exploration products. "When I first toured the lab, it seemed like something between a candy store and Disneyland for me," said Ellsberry, who is working toward a master's degree in aerospace engineering. "My eyes were huge."

In the lab, graduate student projects often mix mechanical and electrical engineering with software design, robotics and simulation technology in two sites on campus. In the Advanced Robotics Development Laboratory, located in the main building of the engineering school, students tinker with robot manipulators designed to perform specific tasks.

Then, there's the Space Systems lab's piece de resistance. the Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility. Housed in a separate building, it has a gigantic water tank that simulates the weightlessness that astronauts and robots experience in space. It holds 367,000 gallons of water, weighs 2 million pounds and is the only tank of its kind on a college campus; the only other one in the United States is at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Such tanks provide "the best long-term simulation of weightlessness you can get on the surface of the Earth," said David Akin, director of the laboratory and an associate professor of aerospace engineering.

Students test spacesuits in the water. They sink robotic arms to the bottom to determine how they will perform a task, such as identifying and picking up specific objects in a zero-gravity environment.

On the top floor of the Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility, the tank is a perfect circle of aqua blue water, an open cylinder 50 feet across and 25 feet deep, with a concrete deck around it. Because of its size, the tank sits on a reinforced 24-inch foundation. In fact, the tank is so large that it was built first, then the brick building was constructed around it. Up on the deck, the air smells faintly of chlorine. Wet suits, oxygen tanks and other gear are jumbled along the edge, because students who want to test equipment in the tank must be certified as scuba divers.

Graduate students are using the robotics lab and the tank to test the Samurai robotic arm, designed to collect samples 6,000 meters below the ocean's surface, where the water pressure is 8,000 pounds per square inch. Students are also testing a black spherical vehicle called SCAMP (Space Camera And Maneuvering Platform), which simulates a free-flying camera platform. The goal is to develop a robot that can be equipped with a camera to fly around a space station, for example, searching for meteorite damage.

Students also work on projects that are designed for space but aren't tested in the tank. Behind the research building is a mock-up of an astronaut "dorm." The Space Systems Lab garnered a contract from NASA to design a "minimum function habitat" for four astronauts living on the moon for two months. Though the grant only required designers to create a theoretical habitat, graduate students turned an empty water tank into the real thing. Four students lived in it for a weekend, cooking in the galley kitchen, sleeping in the narrow bunks and using a chemical toilet.

The Space Systems Lab is the brainchild of Akin, who always dreamed of going into orbit. As a kid, he was glued to the television when John Glenn blasted off for his first flight into space, and Akin became even more enthralled with space travel after his family moved to Titusville, Fla., in the shadow of Kennedy Space Center.

Sitting in his office, surrounded by unruly stacks of books and magazines, Akin recalled writing a letter to NASA when he was in second grade, recommending that children be sent to space instead of adults. Kids would use less oxygen, he argued, allowing for a smaller, less expensive spacecraft. Akin got his undergraduate degree and doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in aeronautics and astronautics. As a professor there in the 1980s, he studied how astronauts maneuver in weightless environments, and he began to probe how robots and humans could best work together in space. To test his creations, he used the college swimming pool in the middle of the night, when it was closed.

Then, in 1990, he got a grant from NASA to build his own neutral buoyancy tank. U-Md. agreed to chip in on the $1.6 million cost, and he moved his operation south.

Throughout his career, Akin applied to NASA to be an astronaut at least a dozen times and came close to making it, but in hindsight, he said he's better off in the lab. "I would have greatly enjoyed getting to fly in space, but I wouldn't have enjoyed the overall lifestyle of astronauts," he said. "You're flying other people's hardware instead of building it yourself."

Graduate students such as Kate McBryan said Akin encourages them to follow their interests, get their hands dirty and work in teams. For her PhD thesis, McBryan is developing a camera system for the Samurai arm that will allow it to identify an object on the ocean floor, get its position and pick it up.

Akin's approach is somewhat different, said Dave Lavery, a program executive for solar system exploration at NASA, who has known Akin for two decades. Instead of having students focus on one project or facet for their degree, Akin's students might apply their skills to a dozen projects. "They're learning through application development rather than pure research," Lavery said.

Many graduates often find their new bosses surprised at the level of hands-on experiences they've had, said Shane Jacobs, a design engineer at the Worcester, Mass.-based David Clark Co., where he works on the next generation of spacesuits. When the company was awarded a NASA spacesuit contract, officials called the lab and asked whether anyone was graduating soon. Jacobs received his doctorate degree last year and went straight to Worcester, where he leads a team of engineers.

At U-Md., Jacobs wore a spacesuit during testing in the neutral buoyancy tank. "You get a feel for this incredible challenge the astronauts go through when they do a spacewalk," he said. "But then you realize that we designed those systems ourselves and built and integrated them. You'll never get that experience at any other school."

Michelle R. Davis is a freelance education writer. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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