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New Mexico State University students to test space construction plan on NASA jet

A group of New Mexico State University engineering students plans to use a NASA jet that simulates low gravity to test a proposed new method for building structures in outer space.

ject has been accepted for testing in NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. This marks the second time in two years a project by New Mexico State students has been accepted for the program.

Five students will travel to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, March 21-31. Four members of the team will go up on the plane, a KC-135 jet, making two flights with two students flying each time. One student will serve as ground support.

Who will fly and who will stay behind has not yet been decided, said team member Mike Schoenfield, a junior in mechanical engineering. "We're sort of putting that off until the last minute, because we know that we all want to go up," he said.

Making the trip to Houston with Schoenfield will be James Childress, a senior in mechanical engineering; Kendall Mauldin, a junior in electrical engineering; Omar Mireles, a senior in mechanical engineering and applied math; and Brian Rodriguez, a senior in civil engineering technology.

Other students working on the project are Kevin Mauldin, a freshman in computer science; and Tony Trevino, a junior in civil engineering technology.

The KC-135 is a four-engine turbo jet that creates a feeling of weightlessness for its passengers by flying an up-and-down arc. The flight is capable of simulating not only the weightlessness of space, but the low gravity of the moon and Mars, Mireles said.

During the flights, the team members will test whether an expanding foam inside a flexible Mylar skin can be deployed as a structure in space conditions. The two liquid parts of the product will be combined to expand quickly into a solid foam and the Mylar will give the foam shape, Mireles explained.

Using a specially designed test stand, the "Flying Aggies" will make nine samples each of three different ways to deploy the foam, then bring the samples back to New Mexico State's Solid Mechanics Laboratory to study which of the methods makes the strongest structure.

They hope someday the method can be used to build antennas, habitats and load-bearing parts for use in space, Mireles said.

"When Mike and I were in a cooperative work program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab Pasadena, Calif., we saw a lot of deployment methods for use in space, but they were all mechanical. The mechanical methods are enormously complex and can easily fail. What we're trying to create is simple structures that are large and easy to deploy. The foam has the potential to be low cost, light and reliable," he said.

Donn Sickorez, the NASA official responsible for the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, said the program has stringent requirements.

"The proposals are evaluated for technical merit and we hold them to the same criteria as we do any proposal to NASA. It must have a reasonable hypothesis and data analysis," he said.

Sickorez said each proposal is required to include an outreach plan for educating the community at large about the program. As part of their outreach program, the New Mexico State students plan to take aloft an experiment developed for them by students at the Eastwood Middle School in El Paso.

In this experiment, they will use a tornado tube, a toy that uses colored water to simulate the shape of a tornado, to study the effect of weightlessness on a vortex. After they return they also will serve as science fair judges and will visit classes in area schools, Mireles said.

The group has received funding from the university's College of Engineering, the Alliance for Minority Participation (AMP) and the Associated Students of New Mexico State University (ASNMSU) but is seeking other financial support to cover the cost of the trip and the stay in Houston.

Those interested in helping should contact the group's faculty advisor Sonya Cooper, a New Mexico State associate professor of engineering technology, at (505) 646-1506 socooper@nmsu.edu.

Jack King
March 14, 2002