Purdue Is Engineering the Future of Life in Space
Initiatives born on campus will lead to the world’s next great breakthrough
It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, but in the not-so-distant future, a whole separate society — complete with its own economy and governance — could be thriving on the moon.
The full scenario — with established human settlements and buzzing tourism, manufacturing and mining — is several decades away. But the early percolations of this way of life will begin arriving much sooner. NASA’s Artemis program aims to have sustained human presence on the moon by 2028. And many people at Purdue Engineering share in the optimism. Purdue Professor of Mechanical and Civil Engineering Shirley Dyke, for example, envisions a small habitat established on the lunar surface in the next 10 years — perhaps a fueling station or a scientific colony. A dozen or so people will spend several months at a time there, she says, and robots will keep things humming during their absences.
Fifty years after Apollo 11, when alumnus Neil Armstrong (BS ’55) took humankind’s first steps on the moon, Dyke and others at Purdue are acknowledged leaders in studying the questions that will lead to human civilization beyond Earth’s orbit.
To say that there is a lot going on would be a cosmic understatement.
Orbital infrastructure is developing rapidly, and the private sector has leaped into space technology. The miniaturization of technology is bringing new spacecraft and launch vehicle developers and operators — from universities to startups to IT companies — into the fray. And just as Purdue has been there since the dawn of the Space Age, it is putting renewed institutional energy into this latest world-changing quest.
Earlier this year, with $15 million from NASA, the University launched the Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats, or RETH, institute, a project to study how to keep people alive in space settlements. And now, Purdue — the “Cradle of Astronauts,” home to the world’s largest academic propulsion lab, and alma mater to countless engineers, managers, and contributors to the space industry over the past half-century — has launched Purdue Engineering’s Cislunar Initiative, with Kathleen Howell, the Hsu Lo Distinguished Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, as one of the people at the forefront. This University-wide effort aims to create a hub for the science, engineering and math needed for the next big leap, not just in space exploration but also in human settlement in the great beyond.
“When you mention science fiction, we all see the end, right?” says Dyke, who leads RETH. “But we never see the transition to living in space: How do we get from now to then? There’s a long, hard road between now and the ‘Star Trek’ world, the ‘Star Wars’ world.”
Modeling Life Beyond Earth
Dyke and others at Purdue are excited to make the journey. At RETH, Dyke and her colleagues will use a scaled habitat as well as simulations to test potential habitat designs and materials over the next five years. Most of the testing to date has been via simulation. But Dyke and her team — which includes partners from the University of Connecticut, Harvard University and the University of Texas at San Antonio — will soon conduct “hybrid simulation” experiments, using a model that combines advanced computer simulation with physical tests in labs.
Dyke spends her days considering various disaster scenarios humans living in space could face, such as a meteor punching a hole through a habitat. People could experience a rapid loss of oxygen, endure drastically changing temperatures, and be exposed to the moon’s strong radiation.
Much of what humans need to know about learning to live beyond Earth’s atmosphere, Dyke says, can be gleaned from our millennia of building terrestrial settlements. Her team is working to create habitats that will be resilient and automated, able to deal with any combination of things going wrong. Robots will be the last line of defense, ready to rebuild an emergency shelter or patch a meteorite hole.
“We need to understand which problem to deal with first” in any possible situation, Dyke says. “If we test the systems in isolation, we might get the wrong answer. We have to look at how all these pieces work together.”
Moving to Our ‘Natural Neighborhood’
Purdue Engineering’s Cislunar Initiative is taking a similarly holistic view in its pursuit of a blueprint for space travel and habitation.
“If we’re going to advance space travel, researchers across the university and people in the public and private sectors need to work collaboratively,” says Howell. She co-leads the initiative with David Spencer, director of the university’s Space Flight Projects Laboratory.
To foster collaboration and bring the future to the present, Purdue Engineering’s Cislunar Initiative will establish:
1. An incubator program to develop collaborative research centers, small satellite science and technology missions, and new cislunar infrastructure technologies.
2. A consortium that brings entrepreneurs, private industry and government agencies together for industry workshops and short courses.
3. An online hub that provides the global space community with simulation tools and online resources for space system design, analysis and modeling.
4. A Space Policy Fellows program, whose participants will attempt to determine what form of governance will ensure diplomacy, safety and security in space.
5. K-12 education on space exploration, to nurture the next generation of space scientists and explorers.
Howell, as much as anyone, knows how far we’ve come in 50 years. She remembers, as a high schooler, watching the Apollo 11 landing with her father, and immediately wanting to know how NASA got those astronauts in space. She went on to become one of Purdue’s first female tenured engineering professors and a pioneer in studying how to efficiently move spacecraft using the solar system’s gravity fields.
Compared with five decades ago, today’s superior computers and improved knowledge about space mechanics make so much more possible, Howell says. She thinks we should get comfortable with the idea of broader horizons.
“Rather than going to some far-off destination, waving and coming home, I’m more of an advocate of expansion,” she says. “I want [us] to move on this new frontier, and I would like to see it become our natural neighborhood.”