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Bradley students team up with NASA astronauts

Bradley students have yet again been given the opportunity to work with NASA. This semester, a number of engineering and interactive media students will be working on a project called the NASA SUITS Design Challenge, which will benefit astronauts directly.

According to interactive media instructor Heather Ford, SUITS (Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students) challenges college students from across the country to build digital programs that will be used with Microsoft HoloLenses, which are mixed reality smartglasses. The programs will then be used by astronauts going on spacewalks, and will help them communicate with ground control in seconds.

“[The] team was recently accepted to create an augmented reality experience on the Microsoft HoloLens for use in space environments,” Ford said. “Part of the project involves spending a week at Johnson Space Center in Houston to present and test our interface through a simulation.”

Ford said student teams from 11 universities around the U.S. were selected by NASA to participate in the challenge. Bradley’s team will work alongside students from schools including MIT while at Johnson Space Center in May.

“As students, we create designs that solve problems,” Ford said. “Being challenged with this practical application within space exploration, we have an opportunity to advance human knowledge through our design.”

Alanis Nash, junior electrical engineering major and SUITS team member, said she heard about the challenge while at a Society of Women Engineers conference in Austin, Texas, last October.

“NASA happened to be there,” Nash said. “When I talked to them, they handed out papers for a NASA SUITS challenge and other competitions for college students. I was looking through all the papers with [senior interactive media major] Kevin Mikolajczak when we got back, and this one piqued our interest.”

The team began working with a pair of Microsoft HoloLenses owned by the interactive media department in November, and were selected to compete at the Johnson Space Center in January. Before the group heard it had been selected to compete, Nash said it was stuck playing the “sitting and waiting game.”

“The day we were supposed to find out was [Martin Luther King, Jr. Day], so NASA postponed the announcements for the week,” she said. “That next week was during the government shutdown, so [announcements were] postponed again.”

But the chance to compete was worth it, according to Nash, as the students now have their excitement and adrenaline to keep them going until May.

“[It’s] awesome and terrifying,” Nash said. “Upon seeing the other schools chosen, we’re up against Ph.D. students at MIT, which is intimidating, but I’m excited to see what they do.”

Nash, who is co-project manager along with Mikolajczak, said she’s also thankful for all the hands-on experience this project has given her.

“I get to see both the technical and design sides start from the beginning and mesh together to form something easy to use, but incredibly in-depth technically,” she said. “My favorite part of this experience is just seeing both development sides come together, and really taking a leadership role on this project.”

With the next part of the challenge underway, Ford said being involved in this project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the students involved.

“Being selected to participate in this challenge is probably one of the most challenging and rewarding projects that any of us will undergo during our time at the university,” Ford said.

Bradley’s SUITS team is composed of freshman computer science major Zach Bachmann, sophomore computer science and math double major Jason Daluga, junior electrical engineering major Francis Levins, senior game design major David Matias, Mikolajczak and Nash.

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