• Job title Aerospace Engineering PhD, Aerospace Human Systems Laboratory
  • Organisation Texas A&M University
  • CourseAstronautics and Space Engineering MSc , 2017
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For outstanding grades, dedication and contribution to the University, we congratulate Richard Whittle, winner of the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize 2018.

Why did you choose Cranfield?

"For me the course was perfect. I was looking for something fairly specific and I looked around, but I didn't apply to anywhere else. I had a very different attitude to the first time I was at university. This time I was here to learn, and I didn't live on campus. I treated it like a job and came here for seven or eight in the morning, went to lectures then the library and worked until four or five before getting the train back home. I found I didn't have to take much work home with me.

"What I loved about Cranfield is that there's such a mix of people from different backgrounds and different nationalities. We had a big Spanish contingent on our course, who I got on really well with, and a lot of French guys as well. Because everyone's a master's student, there are people with maths degrees; some have got physics degrees, so everyone's got something to bring to it."

Catastrophic space suit failure - combining space engineering with space medicine

"I had two supervisors for my thesis. David Cullen Professor of Bioanalytical Technology at Cranfield, who let me take initiative and kept me on track. Then I had quite a close relationship with my external supervisor – Wing Commander Pete Hodkinson, from the Royal Air Force Centre of Aviation Medicine at RAF Henlow.  Pete is a doctor and provided medical knowledge and support.

"I met Pete at a space medicine conference two months into my master’s. His talk was what sparked the idea for my thesis. I spoke to him afterwards, put together the proposal then myself and Dave went down to RAF Henlow to have a chat with him. The General Medical Council in the UK has just set up aviation and space medicine as a training pathway and Pete is the only consultant on this in the UK at the moment. They have plenty of contacts at King's College London, who also teach a course on aerospace medicine as well.

"My thesis was the interaction between engineering and medicine in space. It’s titled "Lunar extra vehicular activity (EVA) emergency pressurisation (LEEP) shelter: a concept design from a systems engineering approach." The problem we wanted to solve is this: you're out on a Moon walk and you fall over, and rip your space suit, or your space suit breaks. What you do? How are you going to survive? We were looking at a more catastrophic suit failure than in, for example The Martian where he puts duct tape on it. We developed a concept for a portable hyperbaric chamber, similar to a Gamow Bag used in altitude medicine. If you're climbing a mountain and you get altitude sickness, then someone puts you in this bag, and they pump up the pressure to bring you back down to a normal altitude so you can recover.

"I developed a system similar to this but designed for space, which you could put someone in to preserve life for long enough to enable a recovery. With just 10 seconds of useful consciousness, you'd need the aid of a second astronaut; a buddy system.

"I read a lot of textbooks, and I did an online course in systems engineering through MIT. I got a professional certificate out of that, but it was more about learning a formal workflow for systems engineering. I chose to adopt that model for how I was setting out my thesis and took a formal structured approach through it. It’s such a big problem that it makes sense to break it down in to smaller chunks.

I served in Afghanistan back in 2011-12 and knowing there's this difference between thinking about things academically and understanding the operational requirements and operational medicine as well really helped."

What's next?

"In August I move to Texas, to a place called College Station, about an hour outside Houston, to do a PhD in Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University, working in the Aerospace Human Systems Lab. It’s a new lab that looks at everything to do with human performance in space, with a number of different aspects of research – they do some digital human modelling, study EVA physiology, and are procuring a centrifuge.

"They're just setting up a memorandum of understanding with the NASA Johnson Space Center. So, it's the perfect place to be with this new opportunity to collaborate."

The Vice-Chancellor’s Prize is the only prize awarded across all postgraduate taught master’s degree students at the University.