University of Minnesota Alumni Association


To the Moon and Beyond

Alumnus Jerry Posey is building astronaut armor he hopes will ultimately enable a mission to Mars.

Jerry Posey wearing a version of the AstroRad vest in an Orion test mockup at the Johnson Space Center.

The life of an astronaut may seem glamorous, but it’s also fraught with danger. Just getting to space involves riding atop a giant, controlled explosion, but the peril hardly ends at the threshold of the cosmos. Once astronauts arrive in space, they have to contend with the ever-present threat of spacesuit malfunctions, leaks in the spacecraft, or exposure to high levels of radiation streaming from the sun.

Jerry Posey (B.S. ‘88) understands these risks better than most. As a chief engineer at Lockheed Martin Space, he has spent the last three decades working to keep astronauts safe on their perilous journey to the final frontier.

Posey joined Lockheed Martin shortly after graduating from the U of M with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. He started out working on classified aircraft projects in Texas, but soon transferred to Lockheed Martin’s space division, where he’s been ever since.

Posey’s engineering work has mostly focused on advancing human spaceflight systems. He’s worked on the International Space Station, the space shuttle, and the Constellation program, a President George W. Bush-era push to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 that was defunded before astronauts could stir up lunar dust. But all along, Posey never stopped thinking about the next great leap for human space exploration: a crewed mission to the Red Planet.

“For almost three decades I’ve been down here looking at how to get from where we are today on a space station to footprints on the surface of Mars,” Posey says. He may soon have the chance to make it a reality. These days, Posey is focused on building the hardware for NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s latest bid to establish a permanent human presence on the lunar surface as a stepping-stone to visiting Mars. He’s optimistic the Artemis program will finally make good on Constellation’s promise by crafting an “administration agnostic” mission to the moon that won’t get bogged down as a political pawn in Congress.

But before any astronauts depart for Mars, they’ll have to survive long duration missions on the moon, where they will be exposed to a host of unique dangers that aren’t found in low Earth orbit. A large part of Posey’s job is figuring out how to protect them.

One of the most persistent dangers astronauts will face on the moon is solar storms. These unpredictable bouts of space weather send high-energy particles from the sun whipping through the solar system at more than a million miles per hour. The most intense solar storms can carry radiation levels equal to 30,000 chest X-rays at once, well above the lethal limit for humans. But even during milder events, tomorrow’s lunar explorers can be exposed to radiation levels that greatly increase their risk of cancer.

Earthlings and astronauts on the International Space Station are mostly shielded from the sun’s fury by Earth’s magnetic field, but the moon lacks this planetary defense mechanism. But Posey and his colleagues at Lockheed Martin believe they have a solution: It’s called the AstroRad vest and it’s essentially a suit of astronaut armor that helps protect their vital organs from high doses of radiation.

The AstroRad vest was developed in partnership with StemRad, an Israeli company that makes protective gear for people working in high radiation environments, like nuclear power plants. As a co-investigator on the AstroRad vest project, Posey was tasked with adapting StemRad’s equipment for the unique challenges of the space environment.

Astronauts are, in principle, always at risk from radiation and generally work in tight spaces. This means that the vest has to be comfortable enough to wear for long periods without hindering an astronaut’s ability to perform science experiments, space station repairs, and other duties, while also providing a robust defense against radiation.

Last November, a rocket departed from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia carrying the AstroRad vest to orbit for a year-long sojourn on the International Space Station. Its first test in microgravity is mostly focused on ergonomics. Astronauts aboard the station are wearing the vest while they work and completing surveys that detail their experience. These surveys will help Posey and his colleagues on the ground further refine the vest to improve its comfort, range of motion, and other important factors. Although Posey has spent his entire career building hardware that has flown to space, he says it’s still “thrilling” to see photos of the technology floating in microgravity.

When NASA launches its Orion crew capsule on its first test mission around the moon in 2021, an updated version of the AstroRad vest will undergo its next big test. For this mission the Orion capsule will be occupied by two mannequins outfitted with sensors designed to measure radiation exposure during the trip. One mannequin will wear an AstroRad vest to measure its effectiveness at reducing radiation exposure to vital organs.

Although the vest appears to be a simple piece of technology, its design incorporates a complex range of factors so that it strikes a balance between form and function.

Posey says he honed his ability to tease apart complex systems as an undergraduate in the U of M aerospace engineering program. As NASA astronauts prepare for humanity’s next jaunt into the cosmos, it’s this Gopher’s skills that will help bring them back safe.

Daniel Oberhaus is a science journalist and the author of Extraterrestrial Languages, a book about the art and science of interstellar communication.

Read More