Tuesday, April 02, 2013

A Thin Red Line Line to Protect Mars Explorers

        by Brian Orlotti

A Canadian firm’s technology may help ease the burden for an upcoming human expedition to Mars.

Thin Red Line Aerospace, a privately-held firm in Chilliwack, BC is expected to help build an inflatable habitat for a 2018 trip to Mars planned by the Inspiration Mars Foundation. The proposed 501-day trip would send a middle-aged couple to orbit Mars without landing.

Thin Red Line founder and President Max de Jong believes that even the most loving partners could find their relationship tried by a year and a half aboard a cramped spacecraft drinking their own recycled bodily fluids. De Jong sees an inflatable habitat (with its much larger space) as a means of helping them cope. Made of ultra-strong fabrics like Kevlar, the inflatable habitat would be launched on a rocket, inflated in Earth orbit, and then attached to the spacecraft.

Thin Red Line Aerospace founder Max de Jong with sample habitat on the left and inflated sample habitat on the right.  Photo c/o Wayne Leidenfrost PNG.

Inspiration Mars did not identify Thin Red Line by name when it announced in February that the mission would include a Canadian-made inflatable habitat. However, Thin Red Line is the only firm in Canada with experience in building them.

Thin Red Line Aerospace designed and built the pressure-restraining hulls for two inflatable habitats, known as Genesis One and Two, for U.S.-based Bigelow Aerospace. These units, launched in 2006 and 2007, are now orbiting Earth and serve as technology demonstrators for Bigelow Aerospace’s planned inflatable space station.

Thin Red Line’s past projects have included spacecraft shielding for NASA and providing input into lunar habitat studies as a sub-contractor for Boeing. De Jong has also collaborated with Lockheed Martin Space Systems on a NASA contract to design and test a deflatable spacecraft decelerator that could slow a spacecraft’s entry into the dense atmospheres of worlds like Venus or Titan.

De Jong, 52, has remained secretive about his company and has not revealed its number of employees, its revenue, or even its profitability.

A veteran 36-year mountain climber, de Jong owned and operated a Vancouver, B.C-based climbing training and equipment firm called Extreme Mountain Gear from 1985 to 1990. In 1987, he became one of the first people to introduce the sport of paragliding to North America as an instructor and equipment manufacturer.

Racks of high performance retail outerwear. Evidently, many of the materials used for these items, are also suitable for spacecraft construction.

As part of his efforts to develop the sport, de Jong began to make lightweight harnesses for para-gliders. He diversified into other products like an emergency parachute deployment system.

De Jong’s products gained a worldwide following, and eventually drew the attention of the U.S. aerospace industry. One company hired de Jong to figure out how to sew liquid crystal polymer straps for the prototype of an inflatable space craft. That project led to others of greater complexity, reflecting de Jong’s pioneering use of advanced materials such as Zylon, Vectran, and Kevlar to create inflatable space structures.

In 1988, de Jong broke his spine in three places when he attempted to jump from Mount Cheam near Chilliwack, B.C in his paraglider. His paraglider, which had been improperly rigged, collapsed. De Jong fell 50 feet onto rock. Paralyzed from the waist down, his doctor gave him a 10 percent chance of walking again. In spite of this, seven months later he was back on the same mountain with two other climbers in the middle of winter.

An "energy bag" developed by Thin Red Line Aerospace to store compressed air underwater, and then release it again to drive off shore wind turbines when more power is needed. Photo c/o this May 3rd, 2011 press release on the company website.

De Jong launched Thin Red Line Aerospace in 2002. Besides the company’s work in human habitats and spacecraft decelerators, Thin Red Line’s R&D docket includes planetary balloons, radiation and heat shielding, orbital debris shields and inflatable antennae.

Max de Jong appears to be what some consider the archetype of the NewSpace entrepeneur; the savvy, risk-taking renegade brought up in the hard school of real-world experience. De Jong has literally risked life and limb for his passions and it is those like him that will ensure the NewSpace industry stays worth watching.

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