Episode 40: Microgravity University

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Episode 40: Microgravity University
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This episode is a part of the NASA
Student Opportunities podcast series.

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Show Notes

Special Guests: Mallory Jennings and Alex Kanelakos, Microgravity University participants

(0:00) Intro

(0:20) The registration deadline for the 15th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race  → is Feb. 1, 2008.

(1:59) Interview with Mallory Jennings and Alex Kanelakos. Wichita State University students Mallory Jennings and Alex Kanelakos explain the process of flying an experiment aboard a NASA Reduced Gravity Aircraft.

          NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Project -- Microgravity University  →
          NASA Cooperative Education  →
          NASA Johnson Space Center Cooperative Education  →

(20:00) End

Send your comments or questions to: educationpodcast@nasa.gov

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Deana Nunley: This is NASA Student Opportunities -- a podcast connecting high school and college students with learning opportunities inside America's space agency.

Episode 40. Dec. 5, 2007. I'm Deana Nunley.

Students, start your pedals. Registration is now open for the 15th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race. The annual event challenges high school and college teams to design, build and race a human-powered moonbuggy in the spirit of the original lunar rover that traversed the moon 35 years ago.

The 15th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race will take place April 4-5, 2008, in Huntsville, Ala., at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

To compete, student teams design a vehicle that addresses a series of engineering problems similar to problems faced by the original moonbuggy team. Students’ moonbuggies must carry two students -- one female and one male -- over a half-mile, simulated lunar terrain course that includes "craters," rocks, "lava" ridges, inclines and "lunar" soil.

To win, teams must assemble their buggy and complete the obstacle course in the shortest time. Each team is allowed two runs on the course.

Prizes will be awarded to the top three teams in both the high school and college divisions. Additional awards include Most Unique Moonbuggy, Most Improved Moonbuggy, Rookie Award, System Safety Award, Spirit Award, Pit Crew Award, and the Crash and Burn Award.

Teams can participate in an optional design competition, as well. The Best Design Award will be given to the team whose moonbuggy design represents the best technical approach for solving the engineering problem of navigating the lunar surface.

Teams must register online by Feb. 1, 2008. For more information about the Great Moonbuggy Race, check out this week’s show notes. Go to www.nasa.gov/podcast and click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast.


NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Project provides a unique academic experience for undergraduate students to get involved with scientific research, hands-on experimental design, test operations and educational and public outreach activities. Over the course of six months, students propose, design, build, fly and evaluate a reduced-gravity experiment of their choice.

Today, we're talking with a couple of students from Wichita State University who flew over the Gulf of Mexico aboard a C-9 -- experiencing almost one minute of hypergravity and microgravity. Aerospace engineering majors Mallory Jennings and Alex Kanelakos are going to walk us through each phase of the process -- from concept development to post-flight evaluation. Their experiment featured a robot the size of a small loaf of bread, containing controls, motors, simulated sensors and cameras that could assist astronauts with their day-to-day activities.

Mallory Jennings: We came up with an intravehicular model that we wanted to not only serve as a maintenance tool to help the astronauts while they're on the International Space Station with some of their routine maintenance, [such as] checking air quality. What we designed had a lot of versatility. But then we also wanted to have something that would let them have a little bit of entertainment while they're up in space, because they have very limited entertainment.

One of their favorite things to do, or they tell us, is to look down at Earth. But that makes them homesick. So, just anything else that we can send up there that has a multipurpose -- also entertainment -- was our idea. So we designed what we call ACIVAR to serve that purpose.

Alex Kanelakos: And the ACIVAR stands for "Aerodynamically Controlled Intravehicular Activity Robot." It's just really kind of a cool, basic aerospace design, and it's really great. It would be very applicable for the astronauts just because all the astronauts are scientists at heart. It could act as an entertainment device. They'd still be able to put in their parts of engineering and aerospace with this device.

Deana: Could you give us an audio snapshot of how your design process worked?

Alex: We just basically went through the design process with conceptual design phase and moving onto a more detailed design and preliminary design phases. A lot of it came from just basic aerodynamic principles and using that to determine things as far as wing size and the size of our control surfaces -- the size they needed to be -- as well as the speed that we were going to need to be able to obtain. And then we could go further into the electronics part of the design, finding a motor that would give us enough torque to produce enough thrust to give us that speed.

So, that was the design process. It was really cool because a lot of the time the upperclassmen would be able to share things that the lowerclassmen had not learned about, to get them even more interested in aerospace engineering. But the design process was, I would say, a huge chunk of the entire time that we spent on the ACIVAR.

Mallory: Oh, yeah. Most definitely. It was really beneficial. I was only there for the fall semester of our planning, which was a lot of the design stuff. And so it was really neat to have nine people in a room and throwing out ideas. And sometimes, some of the underclassmen would throw out an idea and some of the upperclassmen would know that that might not work. But they would take the idea and help process that idea and figure out why it wouldn't work or if we could use parts of that idea.

It was really neat to be able to start using some of the equations and some of the stuff that we're learning in classes to apply to real things. That was really exciting for me during the design process.

Deana: What was involved in building the project?

Alex: [laughter] That part was definitely quite a few late nights. Because we're working on this, we're not getting credit for it during these two semesters that we were designing and then building it. It's kind of like an extracurricular activity. We'd stay up late at night building and testing our project once it was built. We used mostly balsa wood for the structure of our ACIVAR. And what was really cool is that in a class we got to determine what the best type of material would be -- with just viewing things like carbon fiber and different composites -- and comparing [them] to balsa wood in a materials class some of our team members were in.

And then it was just really cool to put together these microelectronics into our frame, and then monocoat the outer coating, and then just try it out. I think the most troubleshooting that we did was definitely with the electronics, because all nine members of our team were "aeros" -- aerospace engineers. And, wow. We really wanted an electrical engineer. But that's what we had, so we did a lot of troubleshooting with the electronics.

Deana: That must have been tough on a project like that to have gone in without an electrical engineering major helping you out.

Alex: It was difficult, but I think we broadened our insight on different engineering areas.

Deana: I'm guessing you learned a lot in areas that you hadn't necessarily had to study up until then.

Alex: Yeah. I think so. I think it was just a huge challenge. But that was part of the fun, too. You get to these showstoppers, and you've got to redesign or re-engineer something. And so that made it feel like it was a real project. I mean, there's no project that goes on that's going to be perfect the very first time you try it. And so I think that really it also allowed our whole team to come together in our brainstorming sessions and say, "OK, how do we fix this? How do we get around?" And Mallory, at the time, was at JSC [Johnson Space Center] during this, and so we'd have telecon sessions with her on the other end.

Mallory: [laughter] Yeah. It's hard to be 10 hours away. And they're explaining things, and I'm like, "I don't know," because I'm a very visual learner. So I'd be like, "I don't know what you all are talking about. I can't help you. I'm sorry." It's hard to be that far away and still wanting to be part of the team, but they did a good job of including me.

Alex: I think another cool part about the building was this was really where the underclassmen could come into use. They helped out a lot in the construction part because it [took] less time to teach how to build the prototype and build the actual robot. And so that was where the underclassmen really helped out. And it got them some hands-on opportunities, some skills. [It's] important for any engineer to actually be able to build things, to understand the difficulties that technicians run into when they're building designs.

Deana: Once the experiment was ready, how did you prepare for the flight?

Mallory: Once they got to Houston -- because that's what I can talk about because I was already there -- we did a lot of running through procedures and making sure. We had to have procedures for when we were on the C-9, what we were going to do, and what order we were going to do things. Because you feel like when you're up there you'll have a lot of time, but you don't. You need to get a lot of stuff done. So we would run through procedures time and time again. And we did a lot of documentation and video recording of us walking through procedures just so we would have that kind of data.

We also did a lot of like -- this might sound silly, but -- bonding as a team because we could only send two people up at a time. And then, the second flight we got to send three people up. It was cool because the two people or the three people that flew together really got close and really knew how to work, knew what each other was going to do on the flight. And so that's how, at least from my end, I prepared and got ready for the flight.

Alex: I think, just going along with what Mallory said, there were a lot of -- besides the basic engineering and design and building work -- logistics that would go into it. Anywhere from writing the proposal to filling out information for your medical card and filling out information for your release forms, and the whole budget side of the project and getting funding. There were just a lot of logistics to go into preparation for flight.

And I agree with Mallory. A lot of it also involved teamwork bonding, just really knowing how to work with one another. And that was great. I felt like our team just gelled so well together. We're all real proud to be [Wichita State] Shockers. And so that was one thing that really kept us together, and we all had matching shirts. It was just cool to come together as a team and show our school spirit when we got down to Houston with the other teams.

Deana: Sounds like a lot of fun. Describe the flight, and what you experienced.

Mallory: OK. Well, I was on the second flight day, and I was the third person. I got to sit in and be an extra set of hands, which was helpful because our experiment was one of the few that is free-floating. Most of the experiments are bolted to the ground. It kind of helped to have an extra set of hands up there. They run you through things like, medically, what you should do beforehand: drink a lot of water, get plenty of rest, eat breakfast like normal, those kinds of things.

So I did all of that stuff, and was all psyched. We got to wear really cool flight suits, which I was pretty excited about. I got up on the flight, and really, it's hard to explain what it feels like to be on the C-9 while it's doing these parabolas. The other two people who had flown the day before, Alex included, tried to explain it, but they just can't prepare you for how awesome it is.

So we're climbing, and we're climbing. We get our experiment all set up. We start the first one, and it was an unbelievable experience. Your body is like going crazy, because it doesn't know what's going on. In that moment, it was really cool to see all of these months and months of work -- for Alex, years of work -- coming to fruition and seeing everything come together and your experiment working, which is a big plus.

So, it was really amazing for me. Unfortunately, a few parabolas into it, I started not feeling so hot. So, I did get sick and had to sit out for some of the parabolas. But it was still an amazing experience, and I was really glad that I had the opportunity to do it, obviously.

Alex: The first parabola is real gentle. You would think that it was like a roller coaster, but it's nothing like that at all. It's very gentle. But your body is just in an orientation -- in a free float -- that it doesn't know what to do. But I think one of the coolest things I remember is just looking around at all the other people on that very first parabola and seeing their smiles, because it really is like being in space and having microgravity around you.

Mallory: And you can't stop smiling. Like you want to, because you want to stay focused and do the job that you were put on the airplane to do, but you can't stop smiling. Because it's just such an amazing experience that so few people get to experience that you just want to take it all in and really enjoy that moment.

Alex: That's right.

Mallory: Because we're up there -- I don't know -- 45 minutes, would you say, Alex?

Alex: Yeah. It's real short.

Mallory: That seems like a long time, but it goes by so quickly. You're like, "I just want to go back. I want to do it again!" So, you've got to enjoy it while you've got it.

Alex: Right. I think another thing that was really good was the challenge of our experiment. Like Mallory said, it was a free float. So, you had to be on the ball. You had to stay with your procedures. But you also had to be very flexible and understand that this device, our robot that we developed, is probably not going to react exactly how we designed it to. But to our surprise, it did work.

It accomplished several of our objectives. One of the things that was really good from it is that it is something that we can take back what we learned and even develop the project further. There are a lot of things that can be modified to make it perform even better.

Deana: So, is there some type of a future for your experiment? Is somebody going to pursue that?

Alex: That's a question for Mallory, [laughter] since I'm out of school.

Mallory: Yeah. We've actually got a lot of the upperclassmen that are juniors now that are moving on to other projects and other things within the college. But we've got a lot of the underclassmen returning, and we've got some new people on our team now. We've got already some ideas and brainstorming and good thoughts towards modifying and continuing with this experiment.

Deana: Following the flight, what did you do to evaluate the results of your experiment?

Mallory: Because it was so fresh in our mind, we did a lot of talking post-flight, just like debriefing with each other and what worked and what didn't. Once we came back to Wichita and had relaxed a little bit and kind of recollected ourselves, we got back together and looked at some of our video and evaluated that. We were able to qualitatively evaluate and see what went wrong, and how we can improve it for the future. But from what we saw our experiment went really well, and we were excited with the results.

Deana: Looking back over the Microgravity University project, what would you say was the highlight for you?

Alex: I would definitely have to say the flight. After you have so many parabolas -- 20, 25, 30 -- parabolas performing your experiment and completing test objectives, then you should definitely schedule in a few parabolas where you really just get to enjoy. And take a mental memory note of the flight and the experience you're having. It was really cool just to do somersaults in the plane.

The test directors that were in there -- the people inside the aircraft that were observing and providing safety for us -- would help you do somersaults or pushups. I also looked outside the window, which they tell you, if you have a queasy stomach, you shouldn't do. But I have a pretty good stomach, and I just looked outside the window. It was pretty cool to see the water at like a 60-degree vertical angle, and you feel like you're flying horizontal. But you look out, and the plane is going up in a 60-degree incline ascent. So, I just can still remember and picture that moment.

Mallory: My favorite part of this whole thing would definitely also be the flight. I really enjoyed being able to see our experiment come all the way to the end and see the final product, and see it working. Not only that, but just getting to enjoy microgravity, when so few people get to do that. Having an opportunity at the age of 20, when I'm still in college, to get to do that was really awesome for me.

Alex: I think another comment just to go onto that is that through this you really get close with people. I mean, I definitely have. It was just really cool to work with young engineers at your university and get to know them really well, and not let it always be about engineering, and really get to have some great friends when you come out of it.

Deana: One last question. As students listen to your story and contemplate submitting a proposal, do you have any helpful advice for them?

Alex: Start early. [laughter] That's a big thing. Just be in contact with Johnson Space Center. Call them up, and if you have a question, you know, "Will this work? On this part of the proposal, do you think they'll be interested in this?" Don't be afraid of asking for advice. Because I think that's really important -- also that they'll know that you're working on it, and you're working hard. I think contact with NASA is really important.

And get a group of people that you're going to work well with. I think that was one of the reasons we had so much success. We had just really excited people that love space and wanted to see the success of this project.

Mallory: I would second that. It's not only about the science and the engineering, but really enjoy the project. Have fun with it. Do something that you're truly interested in, not just something that you think they're going to accept. Because they're more likely to accept it if you have a passion for it -- and if you can put that through in your proposal -- than if it's just something cookie-cutter that you think that they want to hear.

Deana: In addition to the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Project, Mallory and Alex have both participated in NASA's co-op program at Johnson Space Center. For Alex, it led to a full-time NASA job in the extravehicular activity task group following college graduation in May 2007. Mallory plans to graduate by 2011.

If you're interested in more information about these NASA learning opportunities, go to www.nasa.gov/podcast. Click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast and follow the links in this week's show notes.

We want to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments about NASA learning opportunities, send an e-mail to: educationpodcast@nasa.gov

Thanks for listening.

NASA Student Opportunities is a podcast production of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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