Peter Homer, an engineer from Southwest Harbor, Maine, won NASA's first-ever Astronaut Glove Challenge

Tariq Malik
Staff Writer
SPACE.com Fri May 4, 3:00 AM ET   WebLink

WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. -- An astronaut glove stitched together on a Maine engineer's dining room table won a cool $200,000 Thursday in a NASA competition.

Peter Homer, an engineer from Southwest Harbor, Maine, won NASA's first-ever Astronaut Glove Challenge after a two-day competition here at the New England Air Museum near Bradley International Airport.

"It feels good," said Homer, whose two home-built spacesuit gloves beat entries from two other teams to take home the top prize. "It took a lot of sitting at the sewing machine."

A total of $250,000, split into two separate prizes, was up for grabs during NASA's Astronaut Glove Challenge, one of several Centennial Challenges offered by the space agency to spur interest and innovation in spaceflight technology. Entrants were charged with constructing spacesuit gloves capable of meeting, or exceeding, the specifications of NASA's current Phase VI glove. Of six possible contenders, three teams presented their gloves for the competition.

"If you're looking for innovative ideas, evolutionary steps and better gloves, you can't beat it," Bill Spenny, shuttle spacesuit subsystems manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said of the Astronaut Glove Challenge told SPACE.com between tests.

The smaller $50,000 award, reserved for any team to successfully demonstrate a Mechanical Counter Pressure glove that protects its wearer without using a pressurized bladder akin to those found in current spacesuits, went unclaimed and will rollover to next year, event organizers said.

We have a winner

Homer's prize marks the first time NASA has doled out a cash prize under its Centennial Challenges program despite five previous meets over the last two years. The space agency's separate Power Beam and Tether challenges, held annually in 2005 and 2006, have twice ended without winners. The Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge also went unclaimed last year.

"The finger mobility is the thing that I thought was most critical," Homer said of his Dacron-covered glove, which featured blue, off-the-shelf kitchen cleaning gloves for internal bladders. He attended the glove contest with his 14-year-old son Matthew.

To win the space glove challenge, teams submitted two prototypes -- one for demonstration and the other for destruction -- for a barrage of endurance challenges. Those tests included dexterity measurements, flexibility checks and a burst test that pumped one glove from each team full of water until it reached its breaking point.

Homer's glove won out over an entry by the three-person team MDLH, which included spacesuit mobility expert Gary Harris, aerospace engineer Pablo de Leon and Nik Moiseev, who until 2005 served as engineer with the Russian firm Zvezda that designed that country's current and Soviet-era spacesuits.

"We're interested to know what the differences were between the gloves," de Leon told SPACE.com after Homer's victory, adding that his team may compete in next year's contest. "We came to this competition knowing what the chances were."

Artist Theodore Southern, of Brooklyn, New York, also entered a seamless glove made of polyurethane with internal fabric layers, though the design failed to pass a mandatory burst test early in the two-day competition.

"Each of the entries was very different, very unique," said Alan Hayes, CEO of the Owings, Maryland-based Volanz Aerospace that oversaw the competition for NASA. "And you want something out of the box."

The contest marked the first of a three-year series of NASA Astronaut Glove Challenges. A $350,000 purse is slated for awards in 2008, with $400,000 available in 2009, NASA said.

Phase VI and beyond

NASA's current spacesuit glove, the Phase VI unit built by Hamilton Sundstrand and ILC Dover, sports adjustable fingers with their own heaters and is designed to attach to the agency's Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit via wrist joints.

David Graziosi, a spacesuit design engineering manager at ILC Dover, said new gloves are custom tailored to their specific astronauts.

Despite pains taken to ensure performance and comfort, working long hours in what fundamentally is a pressurized balloon can be grueling on the hands and body, astronauts said.

"It's more important to have a good fit that's not going to hurt you," astronaut Mike Massimino, who performed two spacewalks during NASA's STS-109 mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, told SPACE.com. "If you get them too tight, you can do damage to your hands."

Massimino is training for NASA's next, and final, Hubble servicing mission to fly in 2008. Working with the Phase VI glove, like toiling in a spacesuit in general, can be tiring due to the physical demands of fighting a stiff spacesuit filled with air to perform tasks in Earth orbit. Tight grips on handrails, for example, can tire an astronaut's hands out unnecessarily since only light touches are need during spacewalks.

"You only need a fingertip touch," Massimino said. "The glove could tire out your hands if you let it."

Meanwhile, NASA officials and space hardware competitors are gearing up for another Centennial Challenge on May 12 -- this time in Santa Maria, California -- where entrants are expected to showcase robotic digging machines.   That competition, the 2007 Regolith Excavation Challenge, calls for competitors to demonstrate machines capable of autonomously digging through mock lunar surface material during a preset time limit.