How Alma got her space helmet
The larger-than-life bronze Alma Mater statue by Lorado Taft stands near the corner of Green and Wright Streets in Urbana, welcoming University of Illinois students with her open arms. As the 75th anniversary year of the Department of Aerospace Engineering approached, ideas for how to include Alma were investigated.
Placing one of the readily available 13-foot student rockets in her arms seemed to be a simple solution. Maybe a little touch-up paint on the rocket and a giant pendant necklace printed with a 75th anniversary design. Done.
Turns out, there are rules. Alma isn’t allowed to hold much of anything so as not to put a strain on her shoulders. And, she prefers to wear clothes and accessories anyway.
The next, and much more complicated, idea was for Alma to wear a space helmet. After contacting several fabricators and exploring various materials, the helmet idea was proposed to Ralf Mӧller, manager of the Rapid Prototyping Lab in the Dept. of Mechanical Science and Engineering. The lab was ultimately the perfect fit for the task. Alma’s accessory would be 3D printed—a technology that’s used by aerospace students and faculty. And the helmet could be created within The Grainger College of Engineering.
Mӧller found open source CAD files for a small-scale helmet by SpaceMarine. Originally, it could be printed in four parts, then fused together. After scaling it up by a factor of 10 and assembling it, he said it was, to date, the largest piece the lab has ever made.
Alma is even more gargantuan than she appears to be when viewed from the sidewalk. She is just shy of nine feet tall. And although her head is only 14 inches high, she wears her hair in a stiff bronze bun, making it difficult to fit her with headgear of any kind.
Mӧller took the basic CAD design to a whole new level. He added an orange and blue block I on the back, a personalized Alma name plate on the chin portion, and three coats of white paint so it would withstand the weather.
Because Alma can’t bend, most of her hats and clothes are fashioned in two pieces and attached at the back. The space helmet was made with front and back sections that attach at the top and close down around her head like a clam shell, then locks with latches at the bottom.
“This was an unusual request and came with some unique challenges,” Mӧller said. “Because it is so large, we had to print it in13 large parts, each of which took about 12 hours to print. The final product weighs a whopping 11 pounds. The walls of the helmet, particularly of the back section, are very thick.”
Chris Harris, from the university’s public affairs office, is one of Alma’s official dressers. He recommended a fitting about five weeks before she would wear it. From that fitting, Mӧller was able to make some critical modifications, just in time for the helmet’s debut.
Although Alma only wore her space helmet for two days in September, it’s likely that she will wear it again when there are other aerospace-related events she’d like to celebrate.
What’s the history of Alma’s growing wardrobe?
When the Illini basketball team headed to the Final Four in 2005, Alma mysteriously appeared with her first piece of non-bronze clothing—a basketball jersey made especially for her by an unknown fan.
But that 2005 stroke of genius turned out to be the inspiration for what has become a closet full of official clothing pieces and accessories. For example, every year, Alma wears a runner’s bib for the Illinois Marathon. She is always runner number 1867, the year U of I was established. She has a bright red kimono for Lunar New Year. In recognition of the first snowfall, Alma and her companions, Labor and Learning, wear orange and blue knitted stocking caps. Alma’s ensemble includes a matching scarf. And for her birthday, all three of them wear party hats.
But by far the most popular and most revered component of Alma’s wardrobe are her orange and blue graduation robe, cap, stole and tassel. She breaks them out every spring to celebrate Commencement at Illinois. Each year, thousands of new graduates leave with both a degree and with a picture of themselves in full regalia right along with Alma.
The Alma Mater statue was given to the university in 1929 by Lorado Zadok Taft, who sculpted it, the alumni fund, and the senior classes of 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, and 1929. Taft earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from U of I in 1879 and 1880, before its name was changed from the Illinois Industrial University.