Jan. 6, 1999
Contact: Chris Curran

[Lester in front of TransHab]

Cincinnati -- While two unmanned Mars probes wing their way toward the Red Planet, engineers on Earth continue to plan for the first manned mission to Mars. A University of Cincinnati alumnus is working hard today to make sure that trip is a safe one and as comfortable as possible given the rigors of space flight.

James Lester has spent the last 20 months as a key designer on NASA's TransHab project, developing a module which would serve as the astronauts' living quarters during the 400-day trip to Mars and back. TransHab would be launched in a compressed state, then inflated in low-Earth orbit before the final send-off toward Mars.

The difficulty came in finding a material that is flexible enough to fold up, but durable enough to withstand impacts from micro-meteroids and other debris orbiting the Earth.

"Since we are an inflatable vehicle, it's imperative that our outer layers be able to take direct hits ... without a failure," said Lester.

"We have come up with a great design for this that will withstand an impact from a 1.5 centimeter particle traveling at 7.5 kilometers/second. There is a very low probability that a particle this size will hit our vehicle. But, through testing we have proved our design can handle it."

One round of safety testing was featured in a Scientific American special on Mars exploration recently, and another round of testing wrapped up in late December. In addition to impact protection, TransHab was also designed to provide radiation protection, climate control, advanced life support, and basic crew accommodations. Lester said the TransHab project has made so much progress that NASA might consider using the module as the living quarters for the new international space station as well.

Lester currently works as a design and analysis structural engineer for NASA. His previous projects include designs for a Mars Lander and the X-38, an emergency return vehicle for astronauts housed on the space station. Lester's work with NASA began as a UC engineering co-op. During those assignments, he worked with Mission Control in Houston and with the jets used in astronaut training. Lester is a graduate of Miamisburg High School near Dayton.

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