From Leonardo to NASA and Back Again

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From Leonardo to NASA and Back Again


Austin Bridwell, SPS Member, McMurry University

They say good things take time, so the best things are finished last minute.

It was moments before the unveiling of the Leonardo da Vinci helicopter at our Sigma Pi Sigma chapter’s new member induction, and the final touches were being applied. Several of us were crowded around a three-foot box, stuffing in wiring and ensuring the connections to the motor were making good contact. We had started our project in the fall of 2020, but, due to a virus we all know and do not love, our true start date was the spring of 2021.

Shortly after starting the helicopter project (the first time), our SPS advisors stumbled across a NASA program aimed at assisting the Artemis mission, which will send the first woman and next man to the moon to conduct research and aid in the future exploration of Mars. The program, called MINDS—Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Innovative New Designs for Space (MINDS)—challenges undergraduate students and their faculty with designing and building technologies for the mission.

Our department’s class on the solar system had already created a proposal for a class project on electric charge mitigation on the shadowed side of the moon, so it was fitting for our SPS chapter to use this proposal to jumpstart a NASA MINDS project.
With this project we intended to find a solution for dissipating built-up static charge in lunar soil on the shadowy regions of the moon during the Artemis mission. Lunar soil is a jagged, crystalline structure. If statically charged it can cling to equipment, and if inhaled by humans it can lead to respiratory issues and increase the risk of cancer. The main objective of the project was to ensure astronaut safety. The task was difficult and required all hands on deck.

A view of the NASA MINDS project setup. Photo courtesy of the chapter.

We collaborated with students in the solar systems class, although several of the volunteers had no expertise on the topic, just personal interest and a willingness to help. The most challenging aspect was creating a vacuum of approximately 170 millitorr to emulate the lunar environment.

But as with most research undertakings, our challenges weren’t limited to just one aspect of that project. We experimented with a variety of possible solutions to meet an array of obstacles. Our final results, which we submitted to NASA, determined that the best way to keep static charge from accumulating on an astronaut’s suit was to attach a flexible conductive fabric to its exterior.

Jacob Williams discusses using a small craft model of Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter as the basis for a larger scale model. Photo courtesy of the McMurry Advancement Office.

After wrapping up the MINDS project, we turned back to our scaled model of a helicopter based on Leonardo’s historic design. As we watched the helicopter spin during the Sigma Pi Sigma induction, we felt a great sense of accomplishment. The two projects taught us how to look at problems from multiple angles, resolve challenges, implement solutions, and stick to a tight schedule. Our SPS chapter grew closer, and we gained experience applying what we’ve learned in the classroom. One of our graduating team members even went on to work for NASA!

Now that we’ve finished these two major undertakings, we’re excitedly searching for our next new challenge...

Joseph Watson fits the freshly cut canvas helicopter “blades” to the model. Photo courtesy of the McMurry Advancement Office.

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