In 2020, Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Wilson School of Design students and faculty built an Extreme Cave Habitat One (ECHO) prototype for astronauts to use in lava tubes on Mars.
As part of the 2020 product design class, Sue Fairburn, a KPU design educator and researcher, connected with colleagues in Iceland who work with the Technology Transfer Office, European Space Agency, and EuroMoonMars.
“There was going to be this mission of a group of young scientists, and architects, and others coming to Iceland. This mission was called an analogue mission, meaning it’s kind of an opportunity for them to practice and to try different technologies but in an earth environment where it’s safer and not nearly as costly as taking them,” says Fairburn.
From there, 10 third-year students were enlisted to design a structure that could withstand conditions in a volcanic tunnel. KPU students and faculty collaborated to create an inflatable habitat that would last three days and two nights on Mars.
Students experimented with Schrader valves and various inflatable tools. The challenge with inflatable materials was to push its capabilities without destroying it.
“We had to make sure that all the seams were completely sealed, so we used a heat-seal crimper. I think what we realized was that we were going too fast, and then you can’t go over it with too much heat anymore because it will degrade the material,” says student project manager Bailee van Rikxoort.
Finding holes in the prototype nearly doubled the amount of time it took to finish the habitat.
“It gradually got better, but finding the holes [that are] so small…you’d have to go into a room, and then you can slightly hear it, and that’s where you would find the hole,” she says.
As the project manager, Rikxoort was tasked with organizing a Gnatt chart timeline to present the deliverables. The design students were organized into different roles to collaborate on ideas. The first two weeks of the semester were used to research the terrain on Mars, and what started as a seven-week project became postponed by COVID-19.
KPU faculty continued the project in 2021 with the knowledge the design students had gathered from trial and error. The design faculty used their previous industry experience to add to the prototype and strengthen any weaknesses in the structure.
The final prototype used Tyvek material, a paper-like material made of lightweight, resistant fibres. The thin material proved challenging even for the faculty as they had to check for air leaks manually.
“It’s the tiniest leaks that undo you in the end. The size of the inflatable members for this habitat were about six and a half meters long. So what you have to do is, inch by inch, immerse them in a pot of water and just look for any bubbles,” says Fairburn.
In addition to refortifying the inflatable habitat, the KPU design faculty also had to consider falling basalt rocks and weather. In a lava tube, dust is the most common irritant, but the volcanic rock’s condensation can sometimes create cave rain.
In the end, the design faculty had to opt for a more durable shape for the final prototype.
“We went with more of what’s called a barrel, vaulted barrel vault and meaning it’s like a tube that’s been cut in half,” says Fairburn.
“It didn’t feel small. It felt more spacious. But we were able to use the air members that the students had designed for their dome into this vault.”
The Wilson School of Design has won international awards for its student projects in the last two years. KPU students and faculty share a sense of accomplishment and gratitude and aim to create even more ambitious designs now that the COVID-19 pandemic is reaching its end.