NASA taps high school students for space station tape dispenser
March 12, 2021
— For more than 50 years, NASA astronauts have relied on duct tape as a fix-it-all for everything from a lunar rover on the moon to an air leak on board the International Space Station. Up until now, though, they have not had an easy way to dispense the adhesive.
Enter high school students from five different states, who have come up with the solution.
SpaceX Crew-1 commander Mike Hopkins, a flight engineer on the space station's Expedition 64 crew, recently demonstrated the HUNCH tape dispenser aboard the orbiting laboratory.
"This tape dispenser I think is going to find a lot of use here on the International Space Station," said Hopkins in a recorded video showing the device in action.
HUNCH, or High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware, is a nationwide program that challenges students to design and build equipment that is then launched and used aboard the space station. Now in its 18th year, HUNCH students have built lockers, handrails, various tools and a galley table for the crew to eat at and share meals. The program has even come up with some of the food items that have been added to the astronauts' menus.
This latest project solved a sticky problem for the station's crew.
"One of the key things I like about it is you can basically operate it with one hand. Up here, you often times are using your other hand to stabilize yourself," Hopkins said.
Before the HUNCH dispenser, rolls of duct tape — which is also referred to as "grey tape" or "Mach 25 tape" — and Kapton high temperature tape were generally stuck to the edges of work areas, on handrails or wherever in reach. To cut the tape from the roll, the astronauts needed to use scissors or, in a pinch, they tore it with their teeth.
Although crew members are able to use off-the-shelf dispensers for Scotch tape, the available commercial solutions for the larger duct and Kapton tape rolls lacked a seat track or other type of connector to be compatible with the station's systems.
"Very easily it goes on the guide rail and you can see it is already locked in place," Hopkins said of the HUNCH dispenser, as he mounted it on one of the walls of the U.S. Destiney lab.
"I can have multiple [types of] tapes on at the same time, so that is also nice," he said.
The HUNCH tape dispenser was developed and built by students at Windsor High School in Windsor, Connecticut; Lakewood High School in Lakewood, Colorado; Cypress Woods High School in Cypress, Texas; Decatur High School in Decatur, Alabama; Clear Creek High School in League City, Texas; and Dade County High School in Trenton, Georgia.
The need for the tape dispenser underscores the many uses that tapes have on the station. More than 20 different adhesives are used aboard the orbital complex, though duct tape and Kapton tape are the most popular. The tapes are used for everyday activities, much like on Earth, but also to keep items from floating away in the microgravity environment of space.
Duct and Kapton tapes have also been key in emergencies while in space. In April 1970, grey tape was one of the tools needed to construct a makeshift carbon dioxide air scrubber for the stranded Apollo 13 crew. Two years later, Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt relied on duct tape to hold together a map as a stand-in fender for their lunar rover on the moon.
More recently, astronauts have used Kapton tape to build and line custom tools for use on spacewalks to repair broken hardware on the outside of the space station. Duct tape was also used to temporarily patch a crack in a Russian module leaking air before a permanent fix could be devised and implemented this week.
In total the HUNCH program has flown more than 800 items to the station that were built by 2,575 students from 277 participating high schools across the nation.
"Congratulations to all of the students with the HUNCH project," said Hopkins. "You knocked it out of the park."
NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins is shown using the HUNCH (High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware) tape dispenser with a roll of Kapton high temperature tape on board the International Space Station on March 4, 2021. (NASA)
A view of the HUNCH (High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware) tape dispenser aboard the International Space Station. The new tool is expected to improve efficiency of operations and scientific research on the space station. (NASA)
Prior to the HUNCH (High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware) tape dispenser, duct, Kapton and other tapes were dispensed using scissors and affixed between use. (NASA)
The HUNCH tape dispenser enables one-handed operation for crew members. Crew members regularly use tape for mundane and critical tasks, but the tape must be cut with scissors. (NASA)
Expedition 64 flight engineer Mike Hopkins poses for a photo with the HUNCH (High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware) tape dispenser on board the International Space Station on March 4, 2021. (NASA)