A Step Closer to Space
A team of students hold up a small rover
Floating high above the Earth's surface, a high-altitude balloon has much in common with a satellite in space. High in the stratosphere, the balloon is above most of the planet's atmosphere. Below it, the curvature of the Earth can be seen.

Image to left: One member of the RedRoverSat team will be working on NASA's new Orion spacecraft, and another will be a summer intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: Bernadette Garcia

Despite those similarities, a big difference remains between the balloon and the satellite -- at least a hundred miles. However, crossing that distance should be a small step for participants in the Colorado Space Grant Consortium's DemoSat project.

DemoSat gives students the opportunity to get hands-on experience developing space hardware by challenging them to create a "BalloonSat" that will be flown on a high-altitude balloon. Started in 2003 through a Space Grant Aerospace Workforce Development award from NASA Headquarters, DemoSat now involves more than 200 students at 10 Colorado colleges and universities each year.

A balloon in flight with several payloads hanging below
DemoSat participants choose their projects from a varied list of challenges outlined by NASA. For example, the RoverSat challenges students to design rovers that would be able to move autonomously about its landing site and take pictures. The challenge has obvious real-world significance for participants, given the successes of the Mars Exploration Rovers on the Red Planet. Another option, the PanSat project, challenges students to create a BalloonSat that can take panoramic pictures during and after flight. This capability will be useful for spacecraft landing on other worlds.

Image to right: One high-altitude balloon can be used to carry several DemoSat payloads. Credit: Bernadette Garcia

During the project, students have the opportunity to present their work to engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and tour the facilities in Pasadena, Calif. "Students completing this process receive meaningful hands-on experiences related to aerospace research and technology development," said Chris Koehler, director of the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. "Several of these students have gone on to work at NASA after the completion of DemoSat."

Among those students was David Gooding, who was involved in DemoSat while earning his bachelor's degree in electronics engineering at Colorado State University-Pueblo. Today, he works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Multi-mission Spacecraft Architectural Platform project. He said that his three-year involvement with DemoSat, during which he worked on camera- and rover-based payloads, benefited him in many ways.

"The things that I gained in this experience were confidence in myself to lead a team of students, ability to communicate effectively in a team environment, problem solving, project planning and research techniques," Gooding said. "The biggest thing, though, was that I got the chance to actually use what I learned in my classes and apply them to a real-world scenario. This gives you the ability to learn things like how projects work, team environment, what works and what doesn't, testing scenarios, and finally lessons learned, which is the biggest of all."

Two pictures showing students holding foil-covered boxes
Chris Homolac, another DemoSat alumnus, is moving into a career in the space program. Homolac recently graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was in the aerospace program in the college of engineering and applied sciences. He will be working for NASA contractor Lockheed Martin on the Orion crew exploration vehicle, the next-generation spacecraft that will be used for missions to the moon.

Image to left: Left: Holly Zaepfel and Vicki Thiem recover their payloads after a successful flight. Right: Shane Gawlik prepares his DemoSat payload for launch on a balloon. Credit: Bernadette Garcia

"I gained a great deal from my work on the DemoSat project," Homolac said. "The entire experience was beneficial to me: the process of choosing an idea to design a project from, presenting a conceptual design review, continually bettering the design, presenting a preliminary and critical design review, and finally constructing, testing, and submitting the results of the project. More specifically, this was the first time I've worked on the electronics for an entire system. Creating an electronics design, as well as fabricating and integrating it into the rover, was a hugely rewarding experience.

Related Resources
+ DemoSat Homepage

+ Colorado Space Grant Consortium

+ NASA National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program

+ NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

+ NASA Education Web Site

+ NASA Orion Crew Vehicle
"One of the most important things I learned was that a lot of work needs to be put forth in meeting deadlines," he said. "It's very easy to fall behind, and adhering to a strict schedule allows more time for testing in the end."

Implemented by NASA in 1989, the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Project contributes to the nation's science enterprise by funding research, education and public service projects through a national network of 52 university-based Space Grant consortia. These consortia administer projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Through Space Grant and other NASA college- and university-based projects, the agency continues a long-standing tradition of investing in the nation's education programs. DemoSat is directly tied the agency's major education goal of strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce. With this and the agency's other college and university efforts, NASA will identify and develop the critical skills and capabilities needed to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration.

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services