Lending a hand in space exploration
A Maine school bus driver won $200,000 in a NASA-sponsored contest to design a new glove for astronauts.
SOUTHWEST HARBOR, MAINE
To understand the story of Peter Homer, an engineer turned school-bus driver who recently won $200,000 in a NASA-sponsored contest, it may be helpful to know something about the seacoast town where he lives and about astronaut gloves as well.Skip to next paragraph
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First, the gloves: Of all the gear that astronauts don, gloves are perhaps the most important and the least popular. Notoriously uncomfortable, gloves often leave hands bruised and fingernails bent backwards. Nor are they particularly supple – a problem because astronauts depend on their hands to manipulate instruments and to move around the space station.
And Southwest Harbor: Imagine a Down East hamlet so remote that local restaurateurs plan their menus according to which provisions are delivered on a given day. The population swells during the summer, but no matter the season, gulls outnumber residents.
Enter Mr. Homer, a Stanford-trained engineer who moved here from Massachusetts two years ago with his wife and three children. Homer currently works part time as a bus driver after losing his job as director of the local community center in February. Mrs. Homer operates a chrome-and-vinyl Pilates studio in what would ordinarily be the living room of the family's home. The house itself shares a foundation with the one next door because the two originated as a single inn.
In this context – seaside hamlet, an institutional need for innovation, and a family that eschews convention – it seems appropriate that Homer designed and built the winning gloves for NASA's astronaut glove challenge on his dining room table. He bought his materials on eBay and at the Home Depot in nearby Ellsworth.
Homer entered the contest, he says, "for the competitive spirit, the money, and because I like design puzzles." He sewed the gloves on a Singer machine given him by his mother-in-law. It was an undertaking to which he seems constitutionally suited. "I was the kind of kid who liked to take things apart." He pauses. "I'd take anything apart."
Skip Strong is a neighbor and friend who has known Homer for almost 30 years. "He has the ability to solve a problem intellectually and then to execute the design. He's a very bright guy," says Mr. Strong, who recalls Homer figuring out how to fit together the moldings of the Strong family's sauna when no one else could.
When he and his wife decided to move to Southwest Harbor, Homer gave up a position as a software engineer and manager for Sun Microsystems. He knew job prospects were slim, but he'd grown up loving the summers he spent here. He figured he'd find work, and soon did, as executive director of Harbor House, the community center. "I brought my interest in problem solving to the position," Homer says. "I had a vision for how things could be."
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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration instituted its Centennial Challenges program in 2005 in hopes of finding new talent to work through nagging problems in space exploration. Past competitions have involved the manufacture of tether material for structural applications and the development of a lunar lander. There were no winners in those competitions.
Entrants in an upcoming contest will seek to extract oxygen from simulated lunar soil. The first team to do so will receive $1 million. "Prizes have a long history of being able to accelerate technology development," says Ken Davidian, NASA Centennial Challenges program manager. "It's a formal on-ramp for nontraditional sources of innovation."
Many of the competitions are supported by aerospace corporations and foundations. Volanz Aerospace Inc. backed the glove challenge, and Hamilton Sundstrand, a creator of spacesuits, sponsored the kickoff conference at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Conn.