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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

An Interview with Dr. William Schneider, Developer of the TransHab Architecture

Dr. William Schneider joined NASA in 1962 and went on to work as an Aerospace Engineer working on flight components for Apollo. He moved through different divisions at JSC until he was made Senior Engineer for Space Systems and Assistant Director for Engineering. In 1997 he created the basic architecture for the Transit Habitat or TransHab for short. Since his retirement he has supported Bigelow Aerospace's use of the technology to build & launch Genesis I into orbit. This interview was conducted by Space Pragmatism in August after the success of Genesis I.

SP: You came up with theTransHabB concept in 1997 while working as Senior Engineer at Johnson Space Center. Was it one of those light bulb moments, or were inflatables something you had been working on for a while. In other words, where did the idea come from? How much did Dr. Lowell's Livermore Labs inflatable paper influence your design?

Dr. Schneider: It was not one of those light bulb moments. Actually I had, for some time, felt that with the newer high strength fibers such as Kevlar etc,
one could design a lightweight structure for space habitat. It was not
until I was asked to design a lighter weight habitat for the space
crew's mission to Mars than the large aluminum structure that was
envisioned. I am not familiar with the paper by Dr. Lowell that you
reference so it did not influence the design.

SP: I have read that the original purpose of tTransHabHAB was for a Mars mission. Is that right? How did the idea of using it as a habitation module for the ISS come about?

Dr. Schneider: The original purpose of the TransHab design was for the Mars
Mission. The Habitat for the Mars Mission was required to be 600 cubic
meters. For an aluminum shell structure, the type that had been
conceived, to be that large while being launched (enduring high launch
acceleration loads plus high launch vibrations)required a thick wall,
and heavy wall stiffening, and because of the large surface area the
entire Habitat became prohibitively heavy. An inflatable, however, could
be launched in the collapsed configuration, strapped tightly around a
central core so that it could easily withstand the harsh launch
environment (in that configuration) and once in orbit, where the
acceleration and vibration loads are zero, it would be inflated to the
required volume.

I pulled together a team of engineers and we performed the detail design
including deployable Micrometeorite and Orbital debris MM/OD protection.
The TransHab was designed and successfully tested to withstand four
atmospheres. No airplane cockpit or spacecraft crew module today could
be pressurized to that high level. The deployable MM/OD protection was
demonstrated to be better than a three inch of solid Aluminum.

The large volume afforded by the Mars TransHab Module, which
could be launched in the Shuttle, soon became a strong consideration for
the Space Station Module since it was approximately four to five times
as volumous an a single Aluminum Space Station Module.

SP: Congress cancellTransHabHAB in 2000. Was that expected or was the team shocked?

Dr. Schneider: It was not expected by the team and was a true shock. At that time I had already retired from NASA and was Teaching at Texas A & M.

SP: When did you leave NASA for Texas A&M?

Dr. Schneider: Aug 2000.

SP: How did Robert Bigelow meet you? Was he looking at inflatable spacecraft before you met or did you introduce the idea to him?

Dr. Schneider: Robert Bigelow read about the TransHab in the May 1999 issue of "Air & Space" Smithsonian (I believe) and saw that it was cancelled. He
contacted NASA and eventually me and asked if I would consult with him
(and his newly formed Bigelow Aerospace co.) in the development of this
Inflatable Module.

SP: Was NASA happy to deal with Bigelow Aerospace or were there a lot of bureaucratic headaches? Were you involved in the technology transfer?

Dr. Schneider: NASA was very happy to deal with Robert Bigelow.

SP: How involved have you been with Bigelow Aerospace as they have taken tTransHabHAB idea and turned it into Genesis and soon the Nautilus?

Dr. Schneider: I have been very involved with every detail of the design and
structural analysis of the Genesis as well as the other larger sized

SP: Where were you during the launch of Genesis I last month? What did you think of your inflatable ideas finally finding their way into space?

Dr. Schneider: I was on vacation on a mountain top in Colorado. The Russians had
delayed the launch approximately six weeks so I went on vacation
figuring the launch would transpire two weeks after I returned. But they
launched it during my vacation.

I thought it was "Fantastic!" The Module, by design, withstood the
launch loads and vibrations (which are much higher on the Russian rocket
than on the Shuttle) got successfully into 300 mile Earth Orbit,
successfully inflated, successfully held the pressure without leaks,
successfully deployed the solar cells and many cameras, etc.
It is a "Dream Come True" for the designers and something I am most
happy for Robert Bigelow himself.

SP: Do you think Bigelow's schedule for a Genesis II and a commercial space station by 2015 is reasonable?

Dr. Schneider: Yes I do.

SP: Have you noticed a difference in the work environment at Bigelow Aerospace and NASA JSC?

Dr. Schneider: There were some differences.

Clearly, Bigelow Aerospace does not have the Washington
bureaucracy to deal with.

Robert Bigelow, himself, is a highly motivated individual with a
high level of "can do it spirit." He, as I have said before, is much
like Howard Hughes. He is into every aspect of the development. He is
very bright even in the detailed engineering (even though not his field
at all)

When I first started going to Las Vegas, since his team was new,
many were not as experienced as the strong team of engineers a NASA
(JSC) that I was used to, but shortly they became very mature and in a
short time became very technically knowledgeable and experienced. I am
truly proud to work with each of them at Bigelow Aerospace.

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