NASA Initiative Gives Students Hands-On Experience

By Mark Carreau
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology
August 26, 2013
Credit: Rice Space Institute/GoPro/Daniel Zales

Joseph Huseman, a Rice University senior this fall, has gazed into a possible future, one that includes a promising career as a mechanical engineer, perhaps leading ground-breaking aerospace projects.

“I've always been interested in spaceflight,” said Huseman, who grew up in a small farming community in the Texas panhandle. “As a kid, I looked for spots where I could be a leader.”

To improve his employment prospects, he is navigating a succession of learning experiences beyond the classroom. This summer, Huseman interned with General Electric Oil and Gas in Houston as part of a new products introduction team. As a 2012 summer intern with UTC Aerospace Systems, he learned of the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program (RGEFP), headquartered nearby at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

A division of the 18-year-old RGEFP known as Microgravity University (MU) allows undergraduate engineering teams to compete for time aboard a Boeing 727-200 0g aircraft, sometimes called a Weightless Wonder or Vomit Comet, to expose their student projects to brief periods of microgravity. Gravity is eased briefly as the jet transport rises then descends over a series of high-altitude parabolas.

Since MU's inception in 1995, more than 800 university students have taken flight along with their experiments. On July 21, Huseman and a half-dozen other members of his Rice Pending Gravitation team joined that special cadre by completing a 0g flight to push the development of an electromagnetic sensor package envisioned as a prospective power-efficient guidance device aboard deep-space probes. Their mission report, outlining their findings, is due to NASA in September. “We're crunching the numbers,” says Huseman.

Over the years, other undergraduate teams have studied dust coagulation in microgravity for insight into planet formation; the cellular mechanisms behind the bone loss experienced by astronauts; porosity of Martian soil simulants; and effective techniques for the air-tight storage of space suits outside human planetary rovers.

“The best scenario would be a place aboard the International Space Station,” says Huseman, of the Rice investigation. “But the volume our package takes up is too big, and you get a ton of space on the Vomit Comet.”

But NASA's educational budget is facing decline and with it opportunities for others like Huseman to enhance their professional skills as they complete their academic careers.