PEOPLE Program Grad Aaron Olson Has
an Eye on Space
Aaron Olson did several internships with NASA and worked
as a part of a team that won a NASA X-Hab competition in
Houston, Texas last summer.
an internship the summer after his sophomore year.
“I was out at Goddard Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland close to Washington, D.C.,” Olson said. “The way they treat it at NASA is
that once you are in the pipeline, they like to keep you in the pipeline. Over their history of internships, they’ve always had the problem
where a student will have an internship at NASA and then they will end up getting the job as a contractor for some company instead o
working as a civil servant for NASA. And now it is difficult to get any position at NASA because it is hire by attrition. One guy will go
and then a young guy will be able to get in. So even though it is hard to get a position, they like to keep you in the pipeline as long as
possible. So when they see you have one internship already on your resume, the next guy likes to see that and you are more attractive
to the next guy.”
During the spring semester of his junior year, Olson was headed to Toulouse, France and studied for six months at an institute called
ISAE. But instead of coming back to Madison that fall, he took a coop position at NASA-Langley Research Center in Virginia. He worked
on inflatable habitat technology. It proved to be invaluable to Olson when he returned to the UW-Madison campus.
Olson and 11 other students entered the X-Hab Competition in which NASA invited three schools — the University of Maryland,
Oklahoma State and UW-Madison — to design a prototype lunar habitat. They had one semester to design the habitat and one semester
to build it.
“They had universities develop a habitat prototype that NASA could test out in the desert as a type of analogue for something they might
want to use on the moon, Mars or potentially an asteroid sometime in the future,” Olson said. “We worked on that for an entire year. A
lot of the research that I did at Langley correlated directly with what we were doing, so that really helped. We spent essentially a
semester designing the project and another semester actually building it and then in the summer of 2011, we actually took our
prototype out to Johnson Space Center and tested it against the other teams’ actual prototypes and fortunately enough, we won the
competition. And because of that, our habitat was actually taken out to the desert near Flagstaff, Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. A few
students who are a part of the project here got the chance to go out. I was able to go out there for a couple of weeks and missed
classes to do it, but it was a good experience. I don’t regret that. They tested out the habitat, put it through a whole bunch of different
scenarios. It worked pretty well. It did exactly what they wanted it to do.”
The UW team created BXL, short for Bucky X-Loft. It was a two-story structure made of fabric and metal that would have to be viable in
the harsh realities of space.
“Really what is going on in these inflatable habitats is they are multi-layer systems,” Olson said. “You’ll have a layer, which is called a
bladder. It is the layer that actually blows up. But then you have to think about you’re in space and there are a lot of threats or
environmental issues of being in space that you have to take into account. One of those things, for example, is the radiation
environment. You have to find a way to protect your astronauts from radiation that the Earth protects us from on an everyday basis that
once you are in Outer Space, you don’t get that protection. So your habitat has to have those types of layers on it to protect from that
radiation. Second, you have to protect from micro-meteorites. So there are specialized layers that go around the initial bladder or layer
that blows up that protects you. A micro-meteorite travelling as fast as a bullet hits this habitat, you have to make sure it isn’t going to
puncture everything and all of the air in your habitat just goes away in a second. They are actually very complicated systems of many
different layers of specialized fabrics and specialized materials that come together to make these habitats. And also, you have to attach
these things to rigid structures, aluminum or steel. That makes things even more complicated because whenever you attach two
different types of materials, there are always issues. It sounds simple and it is an interesting concept to throw around that you would
be living in a bubble out in space. But there is actually a lot more to it.”
During his senior year, Olson was involved in two other projects. The first had him back in the desert of the southwest. He had
definitely been bitten by the space bug.
“I was part of something called the Mars Desert Research Station,” Olson said. “Students and faculty from around the country are
essentially solicited to submit proposals for research that they might want to do at this station that the Mars Society keeps out in Utah.
You propose a list of experiments that you want to do. You go out there for 1-2 weeks and perform the experiments and pretend that you
are actually on Mars the entire time. So very time that you go outside, you have to put on this mock space suit and you have to go
through this list of procedures to make sure that you aren’t violating the laws of going in and out of a pressurized environment on
another body. We did that for a week. My specific project was a 3-D mapping project. I took pictures of the surrounding area of the
habitat that we stayed in and turned that into a 3-D model of the area using a program that Autodesk actually has free on the Internet.”
And then, this past spring, Olson and some student colleagues had a zero gravity experiment accepted, an experiment that got them
aboard the “vomit comet,” the airplane that the astronauts used to train for weightlessness 20 seconds at a time as the DC-9 took steep
dives and climbs to induce weightlessness.
“Through this zero gravity program, students can propose a project that you would potentially use in the International Space Station or
anywhere where there is no gravity,” Olson said. “We did a dust cleaning study essentially. It’s been known since the Apollo program
that the dust on asteroids or the moon can be very abrasive on space suits. It can be very damaging to any type of system. The dist is
very fine and because of the different effects of it being in its environment for so long, it becomes very sharp and electrostatically
charged. It is very difficult to get off of anything. And once it gets in the middle of a couple of gears turning against each other, it is very
abrasive and it will wear down the gears after a long time. It makes machines not last as long. And it just gets in the way of doing
things efficiently. We wanted to do something that is achievable in one semester, so we picked that as the topic and we went ahead
and designed a glove box and a couple of cleaning tools to go inside the glove box to test how well we could clean some of these
things in zero gravity. Our experiment worked pretty well and we had a great time floating around in microgravity.”
Olson isn’t done with space yet. He will be taking up engineering physics for his Master’s program at UW-Madison. Then he will see
which way the space program is headed. Will it be a public venture, a private venture or a combination of the two? Whatever way it
unfolds, Olson wants to be a part of the space program.
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 1 of 2
Space, the final frontier. Those words have inspired generations to look
toward the moon and beyond. For Aaron Olson, space may someday
become a reality. Olson, a PEOPLE Scholar, recently graduated from UW-
Madison with a degree in mechanical engineering. And while UW-Madison
may not be viewed as a portal to space, it was engineers at UW-Madison
who helped design the Hubbel telescope possible, which allowed
humankind to take a closer look at the universe. And it is UW-Madison that
has allowed Olson to dream of space.
Shortly after enrolling at the UW-Madison School of Engineering, Olson
decided that he wanted to become involved with space-related projects.
He applied for a NASA internship his freshman year and was turned down.
But that didn’t discourage Olson. He applied again and was accepted for