A Breath of Fresh Air
A student being turned upside down in mid-air

SEED project manager Doug Goforth helps a student turn a flip during a moment of reduced gravity on NASA's reduced-gravity aircraft. Image Credit: NASA

In the future, astronauts living on the moon may have today's college students to thank for helping filter lunar dust out of habitats, helping to prevent bones from breaking in a fall, and devising time-saving procedures for inventorying supplies.

These are the potential applications of just a few of the experiments tested by students in 2008 through NASA's Systems Engineering Educational Discovery, or SEED, project at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas.

Sponsored by NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, the project invites undergraduate students to participate in ongoing NASA projects that are related to systems engineering and reduced gravity. The experiments are conducted on a reduced-gravity aircraft. By flying a parabolic arc, the aircraft enables occupants to experience lunar gravity or microgravity for 18 to 25 seconds at a time. This process is done repeatedly during the flight.

According to SEED project manager Doug Goforth, the project supports NASA's goal of strengthening NASA's and the nation's future workforce by engaging students not only in scientific research but also hands-on investigational design, test operations and educational/public outreach activities. Students and faculty learn about the inner-workings of NASA by following the same systems engineering requirements as all NASA research and test flights, Goforth said.

Team members working with their experiment inside an aircraft

Carthage College team members Caitlin Pennington (front) and Emily Sorensen and Juan Agui (back) prepare their experiment for flight. Image Credit: NASA

"At the same time, NASA benefits from having the fresh perspectives of students working on the technical challenges that we face with our return to the moon."

Students from Wisconsin's Carthage College conducted an experiment that team member Caitlin Pennington described as "mission critical" to NASA's plans to return to the moon.

The team explored the efficiency of a cyclonic filtration system in a microgravity environment. The experiment tested the effect of lunar gravity on a cyclone used to filter lunar material out of living spaces.

The problem, Pennington explained, is that lunar dust is very, very fine and abrasive. "Astronauts on the Apollo missions had difficulty with the dust sticking to everything and getting in their lungs," she said. "On short missions like those, the lunar dust is just a nuisance; however, on more long-term missions, such as the projected 2020 return to the moon, the dust could cause equipment to seize up and would likely cause severe health problems such as black lung disease."

The device tested by Carthage students is a potential solution for filtering lunar dust out of living spaces on the moon without sending up large machines with many moving parts or sending up filters that would need to be replaced frequently.

Allyson Durborow wearing a green flight suit walks down the stairs of an aircraft

Allyson Durborow from the University of Kentucky exits the reduced-gravity aircraft. Image Credit: NASA

"An apparatus utilizing a cyclone filtration system would require fewer moving parts and filters, and thus would be optimal for use in spacecraft and on the lunar surface," Pennington said. "Our experiment tested, for the first time, the efficiency of a cyclone in a lunar environment."

The students concluded that a cyclonic filtration system might actually work. The larger lesson, Pennington said, was experiencing what it is like to participate in a NASA mission.

"My whole team discovered that it takes a lot of hard work, an army of people and great coordination/communication to put together a project like this one," said the physics major. "It gave us great respect for all of the people who are working to reach NASA's many missions and goals."

Another SEED experiment looking out for astronauts' health is research conducted by students from the University of Kentucky. Their experiment is contributing to a larger NASA project that is trying to better assess health risks associated with space travel. The team's research will be incorporated into NASA's Integrated Medical Model. Students from Kentucky specifically measured ground reaction forces on different materials in simulated lunar gravity (one-sixth Earth gravity).

Hannah Grise barely floats while holding onto a piece of an experiment

Hannah Grise from the University of Kentucky experiences the feeling of microgravity on NASA's reduced-gravity aircraft. Image Credit: NASA

According to University of Kentucky students Allyson Durborow and Hannah Grise, one goal of the model is to determine the risk of breaking or fracturing a bone as the result of a fall on the moon. Data from Kentucky's experiment will be used to verify the accuracy of the model, particularly in determining the variables associated with the type of surface material an astronaut lands on during a fall.

The experiment involved dropping a piston of known mass on different materials including sand, gravel, brick and simulated lunar regolith. The team used accelerometers to read the vibrations created by the piston on each material.

Durborow, who is majoring in mechanical engineering, said the project was unique because it involved research that will actually be used by NASA.

"The SEED project offered a rare opportunity to learn firsthand about systems engineering," Durborow said. "There is currently a huge shift toward emphasizing systems engineering in many of the major fields of engineering. I am particularly interested in the aerospace field where knowledge of systems engineering is becoming increasingly significant. The experience I gained with this project will be immensely beneficial as I pursue this career."

Two students working with equipment inside an aircraft

University of Nebraska Lincoln team members Tyler Golberg and Dustin Dam work with pieces of their experiment during a moment of reduced gravity. Image Credit: NASA

Grise, also a mechanical engineering major, said the project helped her realize how much she enjoys engineering. "Everything about the SEED project impacted me," Grise said. "The whole working with a team and problem solving (experience) has been helpful in the workforce and in my studies. Everything about my SEED experience was great."

Research by students from the University of Nebraska Lincoln may have a more immediate application on the International Space Station. Electrical engineering major Dustin Dam led his team in designing an experiment to test the accuracy and readability of Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, technology in a microgravity environment.

"RFID is a young technology that has great potential in several areas of manned spaceflight," Dam said. "The first: inventory. An automated/automatic inventory system could be developed to take the workload off the astronauts and to improve the accuracy of the inventory for the spacecraft or terrestrial base. Second, RFID could be used for local area position information to help find lost tools or supplies."

A student smiling inside an aircraft

Olga Dzenis is enjoying her flight on NASA's reduced-gravity aircraft. Image Credit: NASA

Nebraska team member Olga Dzenis explained that RFID technology has the potential to increase astronauts' efficiency by decreasing the amount of time spent on inventory procedures.

"It was a unique opportunity to experience and contribute to NASA research," said Dzenis, who has since graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

"My group overcame the challenge of designing an experiment for a microgravity environment that we had never experienced before our flight week. ... The SEED program encourages interdisciplinary cooperation on projects, a skill that every scientist should have, with the added bonus of practicing it in microgravity."

Related Resources
NASA Johnson Space Center
NASA Systems Engineering Educational Discovery   →
NASA Integrated Medical Model   →
NASA Education Web Site   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services