Engineering alum designs, builds moon truck
Lake Superior State University engineering alum's latest project for NASA has been unveiled at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The "Chariot" is a prototype lunar utility truck that will let astronauts haul payloads across the Moon's surface within the next 20 years, if all goes according to plan.
It's the latest in a series of projects that Tom Waligora has thrown himself into since being hired more than three years ago by the space systems division (OSS) of Oceaneering Advanced Technologies. The Houston-based company designs everything from hardware for shuttle and space station astronauts to use on EVAs, to intricate mechanisms that eject satellites into orbit from the space shuttle or other rockets.
Other OSS specialties include thermal protection systems for rockets, and robotic systems for military, space, and biological research The company also supports astronaut training in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center in Clear Lake, Tex.
His first company project was to help develop a microsatellite deployment system for the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program, designed to fly in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay. It was used during a flight that Shuttle Discovery made to the Space Station last December.
Waligora spent most of 2007 working with a group of engineers on the Chariot concept. Designing a space truck that moves around in the Moon's 1/6 gravity is challenging. Should it have four wheels? Do astronauts sit on seats? Should it have a computer-controlled active suspension? Should it steer like a car? The Chariot project had to answer all of these questions in only eleven months.
A lunar architecture team first evaluated vehicle types against mission requirements, and then considered launch limits and cost constraints. Then it was up to Waligora and other engineers to build a working prototype.
The 5,000-pound vehicle moves 15 miles an hour. Waligora mentions that the team would like to up its maximum speed to 30. Each of the truck's eight wheels generate 600 foot-pounds of torque, four times that of an average SUV engine. It will carry tools, science equipment, and samples. An astronaut can operate it from on board or remotely, or the truck can drive itself.
Crews will ride inside their own spacesuits or in a small, pressurized cabin. Pairs of Chariots will easily extend a crew's work area beyond walking distance.
Next up is a series of tests that will evaluate the design, like inclines to gauge how well it climbs hills and rock gardens that evaluate how well it clears obstacles.
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