Day 6

Origami and NASA: how folding paper became rocket science

NASA is teaming up with a crowdsourcing site to find origami experts who can help design a compact, foldable radiation shield. NASA technologist Doug Hofmann explains why the shield is so important, and why the space agency is seeking outside expertise to build it.
Illustration of two explorers on Mars. NASA is working to make such a vision a reality by the late 2030s. (NASA / Pat Rawlings)

NASA plans to send humans to Mars by 2030 but for that to happen, the space agency has to figure out how to fold and pack a giant blanket. And they're looking to the public for help.

On Wednesday, NASA and launched a challenge to crowdsource origami-inspired ideas for a foldable radiation shield. As NASA technician Doug Hofmann tells Day 6 guest host Jelena Adzic, the goal of the campaign is to generate new ideas, as well as educate the public.

"We are trying to raise awareness about the real dangers that astronauts face from the threat of radiation," he says.

"The long-term exposure to galactic cosmic rays gives you a chronic exposure of radiation which ultimately increases cancer risk.  Even in a relatively short transit to Mars, that exposure can be quite significant."

Dangers of galactic cosmic rays

Radiation comes from the sun and from outside the solar system in the form of galactic cosmic rays, or GCRs.  These rays are high-energy atomic nuclei that move in all directions and can penetrate spacecraft walls, spacesuits and human bodies.

NASA is trying to figure out how to create a magnetic field to protect the astronauts. Hofmann and his colleagues, Dr. Kristina Rojdev and Dr. Sabah Bux, are responsible for the materials that will shield the spacecraft.

"It's a very difficult challenge to deal with and it's one that the public isn't aware of. I think that's largely been driven by popular culture," he says, pointing to movies like Passengers, The Martian and Interstellar.

All three films are set in deep space and feature scenes with their respective stars sitting in front of giant picture frame windows looking out at space.

Hofmann says, in reality, that view would be hazardous or would have to be obscured.

Jennifer Lawrence swims in front of a spacecraft window in 2016's Passengers. Scenes like this one ignore the dangers of radiation in space. (Colombia Pictures)

"Those astronauts are being bombarded through the windows of their vehicle with these galactic cosmic rays because the windshield offers virtually no protection."

Packing for deep space travel

NASA knows what's required to protect astronauts against the constant dose of GCRs - but how to execute that is a different story.

"We're 3D printing materials and we're applying new material concepts into the shields to try to make them more resistant to radiation per mass," Hofmann says.

Many of the ideas that the public generates, we use.- Doug Hofmann

His team plans to work with an existing NASA launch vehicle. The idea is to stuff it with radiation blanketing, which can be unfolded and wrapped around the spacecraft. Think of it like swaddling a spacecraft in super hi-tech material.

But with limited storage on spacecrafts, Hofmann is looking for different ways to pack and store the shield and he thinks crowdsourcing can help. 


Looking to origami for help

NASA thinks origami experts can help design a special folding radiation shield for its spacecraft. (Toshikazu Kawasaki Yakomoga)
"A lot of people have experience with concepts for folding and unfolding. So even though people don't have a background in space radiation or in material science, many people have backgrounds in design or architecture that may be able to offer us some solutions," he says.

It won't be the first time NASA has turned to origami for inspiration.  The space agency announced a shape-shifting radiator earlier this year. Until recently, Brian Trease served as an origami and folding spacecraft expert at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

"It's largely for things like deployable antenna in mirrors and other solar panels. It's rarely for stuffing a giant thick blanket into a spacecraft and then unfolding it and wrapping it," Hofmann says with a chuckle.

Crowdsourcing ideas

NASA has completed 29 other crowdsourcing challenges, and he knows the value of outsider input.

"Whether it's putting a balloon on Venus to measure the atmosphere or putting a submarine on the moon of Jupiter... all these missions start as random ideas that people generate and many of the ideas that the public generates, we use."

To hear the full interview with Doug Hofmann, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.