Splitting molecules on Mars and studying law

Notre Dame alum is attending law school in Houston and working full time at NASA on innovative spacesuit breathing technologies.

Over the years, there have been numerous robotic missions to Mars, including NASA's InSight lander that successfully touched down November 26 on the red planet after an almost seven-month, 300-million-mile journey from Earth. But when a human finally walks on the surface of Mars, which could happen as soon as 2030, it's possible the scientific know-how involved in supplying oxygen to that human will be made possible by 2013 Notre Dame alum Andrew Long.

That's because Long is now working full time on some pretty cool advanced technology at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, a job he got after completing an internship with the same organization during his final year of undergrad at the University of Michigan.

"All of my summers in undergrad were spent doing engineering internships," said Long, who grew up in Rochester, Mich. "The first two summers were spent interning within the automotive industry, working for Delphi and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Those internships gave me a great foundation in engineering." 
But it was his final summer internship while at U-M that really set the bar high for Long. Really high.

"For my final summer as an undergraduate, I applied to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and received an internship opportunity in their Life Support Systems branch of the Air Revitalization team," he said. "During that internship, I worked on developing technologies that allow astronauts to breathe in space."

At NASA, Long also worked on developing systems that selectively remove carbon dioxide from a manned cabin in microgravity. He said that without carbon dioxide removal, astronauts would suffocate in space — carbon dioxide exhaled by the astronauts would build up, and they would be unable to inhale enough oxygen to survive. 

"It boggles my mind to say this, but my work is actually being pursued by NASA as a way to remove carbon dioxide within the cabin of manned space rovers," he said. As a result of that work, Long was awarded the “Outstanding Achievement” intern award and the “NASA Achievement Award” for his lasting contributions to developing air-revitalization technology.

Also because of that hard work, after he graduated from Michigan with a BSE in chemical engineering, Long was offered a full-time job at NASA. If that wasn't enough to keep him busy, he also decided to attend law school at night at the University of Houston. Ultimately, he said, he wants to become a patent attorney. 

Now well entrenched at NASA, however, Long continues to work on the next generation of high-pressure, high-purity oxygen spacesuits. He said the technology basically involves splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis. 

"NASA has expressed a lot of interest in my project because future manned exploration missions, like the mission to Mars, will require spacesuits that generate a lot of high-pressure oxygen," he said. "The current method of supplying high-pressure oxygen for human spaceflight involves tanks filled on Earth and then launched into space. This is unsustainable for future exploration missions, he said, because it would be too expensive and too heavy to add all those tanks as payload for long-duration exploration missions. Instead, a water source such as ice on Mars or even processed astronaut urine could be used to generate oxygen for spacesuits."

Long said it's been both a lot of work and a lot of fun to spend the day at NASA on human space exploration while studying law in the evening. 

"I like the challenge of the long days and have used my knowledge gained at NASA already in my legal academic career," he said. "In fact, I'm currently the treasurer of the University of Houston’s Space Law Society, a student-led organization and I'm also enrolled in a space law class offered by the university."

When he's not working on space travel to Mars or taking classes in law school, Long still finds time to stay connected to his high school and to his high school classmates.

"I believe strongly that my Notre Dame Prep experiences still affect my life today in Houston," he said. "I have many unwavering friendships that were started at Notre Dame. Some of those friends from NDP have visited me in Houston where I've given some occasional tours of NASA. I also have to say that NDP definitely taught me the importance of service to others and giving back, and I've continued to live that out in Houston by working in my community, for example, as a relief volunteer after Hurricane Harvey devastated our area last year." 

For Notre Dame itself, Long says, he greatly appreciated his time there and has many fond memories from the school, including Mrs. [Jocelyn] Yaroch’s biology class and Mr. [Anthony] Butorac’s English class. 

"Lots of fun times in those classes. Plus, I'm fortunate enough to be able to apply what I had learned back then to my current work and studies in both science and law." 

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.
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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org