LEWISTON — Aerospace Engineer Arthur Ruff is a big fan of Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, “The Martian,” and he’s looking forward to seeing the Matt Damon movie. However, he doesn’t think much of the shelter the story’s main character calls home.

“Assuming it’s the same as the book, they have a big cloth structure that gets inflated,” Ruff, a former Lewiston resident, said.

He likes the idea he came up with better.

Ruff was one of three winners announced Monday in the May 2015 NASA Challenge. The challenge’s goal was to come up with a way to promote space travel realistically, and help future space-farers make their journey without depending on Earth.

“The competition was to find some way to make exploring Mars more sustainable, without as much stuff having to be shipped from Earth,” Ruff said. “It could even be the rocket that gets you there, anything in the entire process of exploring that makes life easier.”

Ruff split the $15,000 prize with Pierre Blosse, of Urbandale, Iowa, who came up with an idea for making a renewable starch-based food, and the team of Aaron Aliaga from Menifee, Calif., and Maleen Kidiwela from Irving, Texas. They came up with settlement designs.

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Ruff chose to tackle the problem of shelter for the first human travelers to make it to Mars.

“I submitted a grant about 10 years ago that I didn’t get for doing something similar on the Moon,” he said.

Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor at between 33 million and 64 million miles, Mars is an obvious choice for exploration, but hardly an inviting one. It’s roughly half the diameter of Earth with about 40 percent Earth’s gravity and a thin, dusty atmosphere. Not only does it lack oxygen, the thin air means that more solar radiation reaches the planet surface.

One thing the planet does have in wide, consistent abundance is cold.

“It gets incredibly cold on Mars, down to about minus 100 degrees Celsius (148 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) in some places and rarely getting above freezing almost anywhere else on the planet,” he said.

His plan is to use a layered balloon with a muddy Martian slurry pumped in between the layers, freezing into a sphere or wide cylinder.

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“It would basically look like any other habitat,” he said. “It has to hold pressure inside, so flat surfaces are difficult. So it’s curved, either a sphere or a cylinder.”

It’s scalable — the bigger the balloon, the bigger the habitat. He imagines building rows of nine structures near each other, smaller dwellings alongside larger meeting and work areas.

“Because you are using Martian materials, you don’t have to worry about cost,” he said. “You can make it as big as you want.”

What’s more, he figures robots could be sent ahead to build the structures, having them in move-in condition when the human explorers arrive.

“You are not building with blocks or anything like that, it can be automated easily,” he said. “It can be entirely done by robotic rovers so it’s built, ready and working when the people arrive.”

What’s more, it would provide a good shield against radiation.

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“The best way to shield against radiation is hydrogen, and because I’m using water it’s actually a really good material,” he said. “It’s better than a cloth tent or metal or basically anything else. The more water you can put between you and the outside, the better.”

Ruff was born and raised in Lewiston and graduated from Lewiston High School in 1988. He earned a degree in physics and studied aerospace engineering in graduate school. He worked at NASA’s Mission Control for a time, before becoming a high school math, physics and engineering teacher. He was a substitute teacher at Lewiston High School in 1999 before taking a job at Gardiner Area High School for three years.

He lives with his family in Toronto.

He said NASA’s announcement last week of liquid what on Mars really doesn’t change his idea.

“We’ve known for a long time that there is water ice on Mars, and the Martian Igloo uses that in the construction process,” he said. “It is likely that a location with liquid water would actually have less water than a location with water ice, because the liquid water evaporates away much faster than the water ice. So for building a Mars Igloo, you would probably want to stay away from the places with liquid water.”

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