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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

* * *

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.

Homer stumbled across the contest while surfing the Web. In April 2006 the whole Homer family drove to Windsor Locks so he could be briefed on the contest's particulars.

The competition was limited in numbers, but stiff. Prospective contestants included independent inventors, college professors, and an international three-person team with substantial experience in spacesuit design. Homer made the seven-hour return trip to Southwest Harbor knowing he had plenty of work ahead of him.

First came the seemingly straightforward question of how to fashion a glove. Even that took time. "There was no pattern, and NASA wasn't talking," Homer recalls.

He began with the fingers, on the premise that he'd move from there up the hand and then to the wrist. The results of early finger failures litter the dining table – too hard, too soft, not strong enough, inflexible. "It was an iterative process," Homers says, in understatement. The tools he used cover the table: screwdrivers, pliers, thread, punches, a bulb pump, fabric, scissors. A notebook is filled with sketches.

Meanwhile, his job at the community center was not going well. "I definitely got things rolling, but I am not a political creature," Homer says. Translation: He upset the status quo in a place where change happens slowly, if at all.

"He went from A to Z and skipped all the letters in between," says Strong. "It bent a lot of noses out of joint."

In February Homer was fired, leaving him jobless but with time to focus on glovemaking. Some key decisions were reached: The palm would contain a hinge, and aluminum gimbals would allow flexibility in the wrist. He began staying up later, sometimes not going to bed until 3:00 a.m. His family thought he was a "little kooky," as Homer puts it, a smile transforming his otherwise serious face. "But they understood."

By the contest day, Homer was ready, but just barely. The final product was a two-layer, hand-stitched glove with a latex interior and a rip-stop fabric exterior. He'd tested it with a device he'd fashioned from a blood pressure cuff and a bell jar, but he wasn't convinced it would hold.

By now the competition had been winnowed to three contestants: Homer, a costume designer who worked with Victoria's Secret models, and – most formidably – the three-person team of engineers, which included Gary Harris, author of "The Origins and Technology of the Advanced Extravehicular Space Suit." "I knew the team to beat was Gary Harris's, but I didn't know who else was on it until I got home and read the [news] articles," says Homer. Indeed, the team had spent upwards of $40,000 on its entry.

The Harris team won the first round, the "burst challenge" during which a glove's strength was tested by pumping water into it. The costume designer's glove didn't meet the minimum strength requirement and was disqualified. Homer and Harris's team then submitted their creations to a "comfort" test. Both did well. In the final round – for flexibility and dexterity under pressure – Homer scored higher. When the results were tallied, he was the surprise winner.

"He was definitely the dark horse," says Mr. Davidian. "[Ultimately] his glove stood out because it took less force to bend the fingers. The sparks of creativity that were in the design could find their way into future NASA gloves."

As for the $200,000, Homer plans to pay some bills, add a master bedroom to the family's home, and take the kids on a Disney cruise. Then, who knows? He'll keep driving the bus – but he has his eye on another NASA contest.

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