NASA conceptual image of human landing system and its crew on the lunar surface with Earth near the horizon.
Torin Clark has landed a major grant from NASA to investigate ways to help protect astronaut safety and performance during lunar landings for upcoming Artemis Moon missions.
An assistant professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, Clark is leading a three-year, $800,000 project to study ways to improve how astronauts respond to gravitational cues when landing on the Moon or even Mars.
When humans travel into space, our bodies’ internal sensorimotor systems adapt to microgravity, but upon arrival on the Moon, they need to be able to rapidly readjust to the presence of gravity once again in order to safely maneuver and land.
“It is a pretty substantial concern that astronauts could misperceive their vehicle’s position and motion,” Clark said. “We’re trying to come up with countermeasures to mitigate that risk.”
Although Neil Armstrong and the other Apollo astronauts who landed on the Moon more than 50 years ago were able to overcome these issues, NASA wants to ensure disorientation is not a problem in the future.
“There is some evidence several of the landings were closer calls than we would like, and we also only landed there six times,” Clark said. “In the future, we don’t want go six for six. We want to go back to the Moon many, many times and make it increasingly safe.”
The research will include initial testing at CU Boulder using Clark’s Tilt-Translation Sled, which is a moveable chamber used to study how human test subjects respond to motion. Additional work will follow at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, which has a large centrifuge that allows researchers to investigate effects of weightlessness and acceleration on humans.
“We have done computational modeling to predict when a human might be disoriented based on the motions they’re experiencing,” Clark said. “If we can predict it, and our model has been fairly successful so far, we can trigger an active countermeasure, like a heads-up display with orientation information to help astronauts keep the vehicle properly oriented.”
The project also includes Eric Vance, an associate professor of applied math at CU Boulder. His background is in using statistical analysis and data science to inform decision making.
“I helped design the experiment to test the effectiveness of the countermeasures, and I and my students will also help analyze the data and interpret their results, so Dr. Clark and the other team members can transform this evidence into action to improve space pilot performance and safety,” Vance said.
The project originally grew out of PhD dissertation research by Jordan Dixon, one of Clark’s students.
“It’s exciting to see this work come to fruition,” Clark said. “NASA’s objective is to send humans back to the Moon. We hope some of these countermeasures will be available for upcoming lunar landings.”
In addition to Clark, Vance, and Dixon, additional researchers involved with the project include Tristan Endsley and Sherrie Holder at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory.