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New Mexico State University students to fly NASA weightlessness simulator

A group of New Mexico State University students are already calling themselves "The Flying Aggies," while preparing to ride a NASA jet that simulates weightlessness this summer.

(Left to right) Brian Rodriguez, Sanjeev Nirmalakhandan, James Childress, Michael Schoenfeld and Omar Mireles, five of six New Mexico State University engineering students who designed an engineering project picked by NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight

With help from the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, an engineering project developed by the students has been accepted for testing by NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. It is one of only 35 such projects accepted by the program this year.

A date for the flight on NASA's famous KC-135 jet has not been set, but it will be sometime in July or August, said team leader Omar Mireles, a senior in mechanical engineering.

The six who designed the project are Mireles; Kendall D. Mauldin, a senior electrical engineering major; James Childress, a senior mechanical engineering major; Brian Rodriguez, senior civil engineering technology major; Sanjeev Nirmalakhandan, senior computer science major; and Mike P. Schoenfeld, a junior mechanical engineering major.

Mireles, Childress, Rodriguez and Schoenfeld expect to fly on the KC-135. Mauldin will serve as an alternate, in case any of the four cannot make the flight, Mireles said.

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 called a "parabola." The KC-135 will take the New Mexico State students through 60 parabolas in two flights.

The project designed by Mireles and his teammates is titled "Test Validation of Terrain Adapting Landing Legs to Numeric Simulation." Terrain Adapting Landing Legs (TALL) is a base structure for spacecraft landers composed of four jointed legs designed to negotiate a variety of uneven surfaces and landing angles, Mireles said.

To test their design, the students have designed a simulated landing surface and a scale-model lander. During the 60 instances of weightlessness in their flights they will be able to test their model in several intensities of gravity and at different landing angles, he said.

"We're not so much interested in testing it in weightlessness as we are testing in lunar or Martian gravity," Mireles said.

Mireles said applying for a slot on the KC-135 is highly competitive, with an application process as stringent as that for engineers submitting a project proposal to NASA.

"You have to present a written proposal that tells what you're doing, why you're doing it and why you need to have weightlessness simulated," he said. "If they think it's worthwhile, and especially if they think it's safe, they approve it."

Out of 60 teams from universities across the nation applying this year, only 35 were accepted, said Koan Davis, program coordinator for the Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.

Although the project has been approved by NASA, Mireles said he and his teammates are still seeking money to fund the trip, which will include travel to and from the Johnson Space Center, as well as living expenses for seven to 10 days in Houston.

They also need money to buy two VCRs to record their on-board tests for later analysis and for equipment to build their simulations and make sure they can be carried out safely in the KC-135, he added.

The total is expected to come to approximately $7,000. While the Space Grant Consortium has promised them $2,000 and the Associated Students of New Mexico State University has promised $2,700, the group still needs to collect approximately another $2,000, he said.