UND professor's research lands him in National Geographic, visit to Smithsonian Museum

GRAND FORKS, N.D.--When Pablo de Leon was a boy growing up in Argentina, he fell in love with outer space. He loved the whole idea of it. He followed along with the Apollo space flights that sent man to the moon and even launched his own rockets ...

GRAND FORKS, N.D.-When Pablo de Leon was a boy growing up in Argentina, he fell in love with outer space.

He loved the whole idea of it. He followed along with the Apollo space flights that sent man to the moon and even launched his own rockets as a way to get closer to space.

For quite some time, de Leon has been instrumental in getting astronauts to space and making sure they have the proper spacesuit when they're up there.

De Leon, an associate professor in the space studies department, and his team of students at the University of North DAkota are crafting spacesuits that could eventually be used by astronauts when they travel to Mars.

"There are so many unknowns and things that we have a response before NASA sends the first human crew," he said. "We're learning here on Earth, here in Grand Forks, how we can make safer and better space missions for the future."


De Leon was hired at UND in 2004 and at first had only planned to be in Grand Forks for nine months. Previously, he had moved from Argentina to the United States and worked at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where he worked with spacesuit development.

At the time, the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences had no human space flight component.

"I said I'd give it a try," he said. "I don't know if trading Cape Canaveral for Grand Forks was a wise decision. It was a tough sell for my wife because we were living just a few blocks from the beach. But I came here and fell in love with the School of Aerospace. This is a great place to do things and to experiment."

Since coming to UND, de Leon and his team have gotten multiple research grants from NASA for different research on various topics, including human spaceflight and spacesuits.

One grant has de Leon's and his students working on an inflatable lunar and Mars habitat, which would allow space travelers to live, work, grow plants, categorize geological finds and exercise while working in space for an extended period of time while on the moon or Mars.

He and his students also have developed a suit for astronauts to wear that connects directly to the rover. That way, the toxicity of the Mars soil remains outside and the suit doesn't bring it inside the spacecraft.

"Being able to do it here in North Dakota is quite something," he said. "You would think this research is done in Houston or California or wherever. But of all places, we're doing this here."

De Leon and his research recently have gained national attention. He was invited as part of an event at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where he took time to display and answer questions about the latest version of his NDX-1 space suit, which was designed and constructed at UND.


He also is featured in the latest edition of National Geographic, which is now on newsstands. In the cover story titled "Race To The Red Planet," de Leon is pictured in a centerspread photo with a prototype of his spacesuit at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center.

"For us, it's a big deal. You always read National Geographic as a kid, and to see your work displayed there is a big thing," he said.

De Leon has been featured by the Smithsonian and the National Geographic, and his students also have benefited from the NASA partnership. Many students going through the program are highly sought after by employers when they graduate.

"We are training our students, and even before the ink on their diploma is dry, they are being hired by NASA and NASA contractors to work," he said.

Pranbu Victor, who is pursuing a master's in space studies, said he's not sure what he wants to do after college, but he's looking at pursuing a job at NASA or a private space company.

"This has definitely helped me a lot," Victor said. "I think I can apply what I've learned here to a lot of different jobs."

For de Leon, it's rewarding to see students pursuing careers much like his own after working with him at UND.

"It was nice to see there was so much interest in the things you work on a daily basis," de Leon said. "Sometimes you're disconnected from the excitement that it causes in other people just because you have to work from 9 to 5. But I've never lose the amazement of working on these things."

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