An unemployed former aerospace engineer has built a better spacesuit glove, claiming the first payoff in the NASA-backed Centennial Challenges competition.

Peter Homer clinched a $200,000 prize in this week’s Astronaut Glove Competition with a spacesuit glove that proved more comfortable, durable and flexible than gloves currently used by spacewalking astronauts.

NASA turned to cash-prize competitions in an effort to solve some of its technical problems with low-cost, innovative solutions.

Homer, for example, bought most of the materials for his gloves at local shops in his hometown of Southwest Harbor, Maine, and on eBay, said Alan Hayes with Volanz Aerospace, the nonprofit educational organization NASA selected to run the competition.

Among the five teams competing for the top prize, two dropped out, leaving Homer facing two rivals.

"When I started, I didn’t know anything about making a glove," Homer said in a statement after the two-day competition, which ended Thursday. "I had to learn that, and also design and make my own test equipment, metal parts and do my own fabrication. It was a great learning experience along the way."

Homer spent 10 years working as a design engineer for various aerospace firms before becoming a sales manager for computer and internet services companies. Most recently he was the director of a community service organization in Maine. He has been unemployed since February, Hayes said.

"I wanted to do this to show my kids that they can do anything they set their minds on," said Homer, who brought along his 14-year-old son to the competition.

The point of the contest was to develop a glove that can be used by astronauts over long periods of time in space or on the surface of the moon, Mars or other planetary body. NASA wants a new glove that is easier for astronauts to work in, as well as lighter-weight, stronger and more durable than gloves currently in use.

Spacewalks are hard on astronauts’ hands, not only because the tools and tasks require manual dexterity, but also because astronauts rely on their hands to maneuver their bodies in space. The gloves are pressurized and difficult to work in.

For the competition, contestants’ gloves faced three key tests: how much force was required to move the fingers and thumb, a series of manual dexterity maneuvers and a burst check to see how much pressure the glove could withstand.

Homer’s glove met all the criteria and handily defeated its two rivals. An award ceremony to present Homer his winnings is pending.

Southwest Harbor, Maine’s Peter Homer performs tests with his homemade spacesuit glove during NASA’s 2007 Astronaut Glove Challenge on May 3, 2007. Homer’s entry won top prize, $200,000, during the contest.

Via the Discovery Channel