While pursuing a master’s degree in aerospace guidance, navigation, and control theory at UT Austin, Terry Hill got an opportunity to work at NASA JSC as a primary investigator on a project his educational advisor was conducting. This led to him being accepted into the Aeroscience and Flight Mechanics division as a graduate co-op in 1998, and an offer of full-time employment in 1999. Since then, Hill has worked on a variety of projects including the Orbital Space Plane, the STS-114 Return to Flight mission, the navigation software for space station assembly missions, and the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle. He is currently developing NASA’s next-generation spacesuit as the Engineering Project Manager for the Constellation Spacesuit System.
NASA Tech Briefs: How did you come to pursue a career with NASA?
Terry Hill: I originally was in college and part of the graduate co-op program. My professor had gotten me in the door at NASA through a contract he had at the Johnson Space Center. Through the process of working here under contract, the powers-that-be liked the work that I did and encouraged me to get into the graduate co-op program. Upon completion of my graduate co-op program they had me converted to a full-time employee. That’s how I got in. It was not part of the grand, master scheme of things in my life; it was a very pleasant surprise.
NTB:What year was that?
Hill: I became full-time in the spring of 1999.
NTB: You have a master’s degree in aerospace guidance, navigation, and control theory, and in your 12-year career with NASA you’ve worked on a variety of projects including the orbital space plane, developing and testing tools for the STS-114 Return to Flight mission, navigation systems for the space station assembly missions and X-38 Crew Return Vehicle (CRV), and avionics hardware for the space station and CRV. How did you go from that background to designing spacesuits?
Hill: That’s a very good question. Actually, my career was a very torturous path mostly driven by programatics – as one program wound down, I would be transferred to a new program. A series of events after the tile repair activity for the return to flight missions concluded, that was when the ESAS (Exploration Systems Architecture Study), which was the precursor to the Constellation program, was going on. The branch that I was working in developed EVA tools and spacesuits, and at that point in time they had a need to start supporting their next-generation spacesuit development project. So, given my skills with project management and experience with hardware development over a ten-year period, management decided to place me on this spacesuit task.
Actually, given my aerospace background, you get a broad education on all of the different engineering disciplines, which is ideal for spacesuit development because, you know, a spacesuit is a vehicle. If you get a leak, you’ve got propulsion [laughs]. But given that background of all different systems, they thought it would be a good match, and it was.
NTB: I imagine you’d have to be knowledgeable about a broad range of disciplines – fabrics and materials, pressurization, thermodynamics…
Hill:That’s correct, yes
NTB:How different are the spacesuits worn by today’s astronauts from those worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they walked on the moon 41 years ago ?
Hill: Well, as you know, there’s a guiding design principle that form follows function, so in a lot of respects they’re the same. But in some respects they’re a lot different. For example, the lunar suits that were used by the Apollo crew all had pressure, they all had radios, they all had life-support systems, they all met thermal requirements. Now, some of the key differences are the type of material that was used for thermal management, and also some of the mobility elements. For example, the Apollo suits didn’t have a lot of bearings and joints, per se, so that’s why you saw them kind of loping across the lunar surface. They found that much easier than trying to force the suit in 1/6-gravity to try to conform to their natural walking motion.
Today’s suits, where we are allowed to deal with weight constraints or mass constraints, we add in a mobility element, which allows a much more natural movement for their bodies. Of course, for the next-generation suits we’re looking at advanced materials for fire protection and protection on launch, thermal management on Abort to Earth-type environments, and also next-generation thermal management for, like, Mars.