Air and Space Research team makes impact in NASA challenge




Air and Space Research team makes impact in NASA challenge

Calendar Icon Sep 25, 2015      Person Bust Icon By Karl Vogel     RSS Feed RSS

Sitting in NASA's Test Com room at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, UNL Air and Space Research team members instruct divers on how to use a tool they had designed for possible use in space.
Sitting in NASA's Test Com room at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, UNL Air and Space Research team members instruct divers on how to use a tool they had designed for possible use in space.
When and if American astronauts get close enough to an asteroid to study it, there’s a good chance that a design from a UNL engineering club may influence the building of tools they will use to collect samples.

The UNL Air and Space Research team, comprised of five engineering students, took part in a design challenge to develop a hand-held device that would allow astronauts to take small samples from the surface of an asteroid during a space walk while battling against up to 1G of force.

The UNL team, one of 18 from colleges around the country that took part in the challenge, didn’t get started on the project until shortly after Winter Break last year. Having only a small team made for a difficult period of preparation, with more people actively involved throughout the process.

Despite all the obstacles, club president Blake Stewart said the UNL team produced a relatively simple device that captured the attention of NASA engineers and astronauts. The tool, which has a spring in the handle and collection cups on the other end of the arms, operates much like scissors – closing when a hand closes the handle and opening when the hand opens.

“They liked it a lot, especially because it’s so easy to use and not as complex as some of the other teams’ designs, and many of those ended up breaking,” said Stewart, a senior mechanical engineering major.

“One of the NASA engineers working on the tool design said their tool actually limited the visibility of the astronaut who would try to collect a sample. They commented that when they were using our tool, that wasn’t a problem. So, I guess, our tool has something up on a NASA design.”

The ASR team spent three days at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, going through the process of making presentations about the tool, testing it and gaining invaluable professional experience.

On test day, the ASR team met with the NASA divers who would test the tool in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory – a massive pool that is used to simulate the zero-gravity conditions encountered in space. Then while sitting in the Test Com rooms – the same rooms NASA uses for mission control for space shuttle missions – Stewart and other members of the team directed the divers during the test.

Luke Monhollon, a junior biological systems engineering major and the ASR project manager, said the design challenge did more than give NASA ideas for its design of a tool, it gave the UNL students a unique real-world experience.

“In engineering, you all have things you specialize in but you have to come together and work as a team,” Monhollon said. “We didn’t have a formalized leadership structure, but we knew who was good at doing different things and we leaned on that, and because we had a small team we also learned how valuable communication is.

“And when we got to Houston, we also got to talk to the faculty who work (at NASA). They were more than happy to bring anyone around the facility where they could. They made a big push to let people see what they were doing and try to stimulate people’s interests.”

That this project got off the ground, so to speak, was a victory for the ASR team.

When NASA scrapped its Microgravity University Reduced-Gravity Flight program last year, UNL’s team was temporarily grounded, too. But after the club renamed itself and struggled to keep the team together, faculty advisor Carl Nelson sees this successful mission as a new beginning.

“We changed our name to broaden the scope of what we do so that we could appeal to different programs and competitions,” said Nelson, an associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering. “Things combined to kind of dematerialize the group that was up to 20 people before, and now we’re just five. But that means there’s more opportunity for people to contribute right away.”

And with a new NASA research opportunity coming sometime in the fall, Nelson said the ARS team will be needing new members soon.

If interested in joining the team, students should contact Dr. Nelson at 402-472-4128 or cnelson5@unl.edu