Steve Chappell Dives Deep for NASA Space Missions

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At the underwater lab off the coast of Florida, Steve Chappell tests next-generation spacesuits for NASA.
Steve pauses after descending from the summit of South Maroon Peak.
An active volunteer with Rocky Mountain Rescue, Steve performs a vertical evacuation on the face of Boulder's Second Flatiron, with Katie Johnson (PhD ElecEngr '04).

Ever since he was a kid growing up in Lake Orion, Michigan, Steve Chappell (MS AeroEngr '03, PhD '06) has dreamed of being an astronaut or a scientist studying spaceflight. Through the years he has gone to great lengths pursuing that dream, from climbing some of the world's highest mountains to walking on the ocean floor—activities that have helped prepare him for a space-oriented career.

"I've been interested in spaceflight since I was a kid," says Chappell. "This is my dream job. It combines all my interests—scuba diving, mountaineering, and exploration—with my passion for human spaceflight and helping humans perform well in space."

Chappell's passion for space, combined with a love of adventure sports and two graduate degrees in aerospace engineering from CU-Boulder, earned him a coveted spot on the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 14 crew. NEEMO is a NASA test program conducted in the Aquarius Undersea Laboratory in preparation for future space exploration.

As a research scientist on the NEEMO 14 crew, Chappell studied how human performance can be optimized in next-generation spacesuits while living in the underwater lab off the coast of Key Largo, Florida.

Chappell works for Wyle Integrated Science and Engineering Group of Houston, Texas, which conducts bioastronautics research for NASA. Bioastronautics is the study of the biological and behavioral effects of spaceflight on humans and includes equipment design for use in space or for planetary habitation.
Chappell works out of his Louisville, Colorado, home most of the time, traveling to the Johnson Space Center in Houston as needed. He has led and participated in studies to evaluate next-generation spacesuit and operations concepts in analog locations.

"I like to explore the different ways humans can live," says Chappell. "It's about getting away from what we're used to and figuring out how to survive, thrive, and perform in extreme environments."

NASA conducts tests of equipment in field locations that present challenges similar to those that astronauts will face during space missions. Test sites in such locales as oceans, deserts, the Antarctic, and volcanic environments provide astronauts with a realistic approximation of situations they may encounter in space or on other planets. NASA's test site for NEEMO is in the Aquarius lab owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

An expert scuba diver with multiple diving certifications, Chappell was one of six team members who lived aboard the underwater laboratory for NEEMO 14 in May 2010. He ventured outside the habitat to test different simulated spacesuit configurations during numerous undersea "moon walks" conducted 60 feet below the surface. Results of the tests will be used to refine new spacesuit designs.

Adding different weights to his suit while under water allowed Chappell to experience what gravity is like in space, on Mars, and on the moon. He evaluated how the suits performed while conducting tasks similar to those that astronauts will perform in space, such as testing equipment, unloading cargo, and taking samples.

"The challenge is to look at the different types of tasks we think we'll be doing with the future spacesuits and find the optimal balance of stability and mobility that will let astronauts perform all those tasks well," he says.

A favorite pastime for Chappell during his two-week stay in the 43 x 9 foot space, when not performing science experiements, was watching sea life stare back at him through the window of the undersea lab.

"Fish would come up to the window and hang out and look in at us," he says. "It was like we were in a fishbowl."

After graduating from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering sciences, Chappell designed aircraft and weapon simulations for use by combat pilots. He later developed an interest in becoming a physician specializing in aerospace medicine. This led him to CU-Boulder to take prerequisite classes in preparation for medical school and to be near the mountains.

An avid mountaineer, Chappell got involved with the Boulder-based Rocky Mountain Rescue—one of the busiest rescue organizations in the country—and participated in rock, snow, and ice rescue missions. He soon realized that being a member of the volunteer rescue team fueled his desire to help people while pursuing his mountaineering hobby. He decided to stay in engineering and get graduate degrees in bioastronautics through CU-Boulder's aerospace engineering sciences department to study human performance in simulated moon and Mars gravities.

"I wanted to be in the physiological side of engineering—studying how humans work in space or other extreme environments," he says. "I would not have been nearly as well prepared and maybe not even have been offered this job if I had not been involved in CU's bioastronautics program. At the time, in the late 1990s, only CU, MIT, and Stanford had bioastronautics programs. The education I received here directly correlates with my ability to do this type of work for NASA."

When asked if he would like to go into space and wear the spacesuits he's helping design, Chappell doesn't skip a beat as he emphatically answers, "I want to be an astronaut. I want to go to the moon or to Mars or to an asteroid.

"It's exciting to think about how we'll change the way we think about life and our place in the universe if we were to find evidence of fossilized life on Mars," he says.

Chappell remains active with Rocky Mountain Rescue and serves as president of the organization. He is working on climbing all the top 100 highest peaks in Colorado and he has been on international climbing expeditions up to 19,000 feet. And he's looking forward to taking part in the NEEMO 15 mission. Chappell will be part of the team that defines the objectives and procedures that the crew will perform and will help lead the execution of the next mission.

"As a species we need to push out and explore and learn as much as we can," says Chappell. "If humans stop exploring and expanding, that's when we will stop growing as a species. A hundred years from now, who knows what will be possible or where we'll be?"

With Chappell's desire to contribute to human spaceflight as strong as ever, he will have aided in those new possibilities.

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