‘They weren’t in Kansas anymore’
coordinator of the physics program at San Antonio College, said engineering
students realized they weren’t in Kansas
anymore during their recent trip and
participation at the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program at NASA Johnson
Space Center in Houston during the week of November 11-15, 2013.
As if it were
scripted, the teams ran into their share of ‘Houston, we have a problem’
moments during testing. Eight students, on two four-person teams were
accompanied by O’Connor and Dr. Dan Dimitriu, SAC engineering coordinator, when
they spent a week in Houston testing their experiments aboard the reduced gravity
consisted of Team Leader Darcy Stephens, Thaddeus Brickley, Emma Garcia and
Vernon Lymus. Dimitriu’s team was team leader Erica Zeelenberg, Jacob Prado,
Marisol Ordaz and Alexander Rivera.
students had some fun experiencing the reduced gravity, it wasn’t all fun said
completely green,” said Dimitriu about the students as they went into the
they had work, a lot of learning and struggles. There was a point he didn’t
think they had a chance because of fuses burning out and one experiment not
working correctly right up until the scheduled flight, but the students pulled
it through and were able to succeed.
To top it all
off, the trip nearly did not occur due to the government shut down earlier in
How did this all come to fruition?
encouraged to submit ideas for experiments in April. NASA had their ideas as
well. NASA brought all of the ideas together to see what was the best of both,
or what ideas could be matched up. It wasn’t until August when students found
out what experiments were selected.
students, this was the first time they submitted ideas, and not just one was
chosen, but two – a first on many accounts.
With the changes
in semesters, and the projects not being done until now, team members changed,
but the ideas remained the same. One team has even been invited to visit again
to continue work on their experiment.
week of learning, the students were briefed on how their body reacts to low
gravity, motion sickness, how the senses are affected, listened to speakers and
worked on their experiments. The students had to defend their project and
conduct a test readiness review.
said there was one case of motion sickness from another team that NASA said was
one of the worst cases they had ever seen. They said the problem isn’t the
feeling of weightlessness; it’s when the normal gravity comes back where most
people get sick.
his best comparison to weightlessness is scuba diving, except with scuba diving
you still have control of your movements and where you are going. “You don’t
have any control in weightlessness,” he said.
described it as the feeling you get when an elevator makes an abrupt stop and
you feel that brief uncontrollable movement.
The students and
instructors were also able to experience the gravity of Mars, the moon and
double weight gravity, or 2G.
It’s a unique,
very unique experience, said Dimitriu. “I can try to describe if, but you have
to feel it here,” he said bringing his hand to his chest.
teams flew their experiments, “Atmospheric Entry with One Axis Control” and
“Vibration Induced Sine Waves in Water.” One team investigated the
effectiveness of a potential emergency backup stabilization system using a
reaction wheel to arrest tumbling motion for a space capsule entering the
atmosphere. The other team explored the effect of reduced gravity on the
transmission of waves in a stream of falling water during the reduced gravity
But just because
the teams are back home and on stable land, does not mean they are done
working. The teams will issue their final reports analyzing the experiments’
effectiveness, scientific findings and conclusion to NASA in two months.
What do the students have to say?
Garcia, Lymus and Stephens all agree this was a once in a lifetime opportunity
that had its challenges along the way, but they wouldn’t trade the experience
Garcia said it
was a wonderful experience. All but Brickley are engineer majors. Brickley is a
“NASA’s kind of
a culmination of all of these things,” said Garcia. “So for us, it was just us
geeking out for a week straight,” she added with a laugh.
“It was like a
vacation in a way,” said Stephens. We work hard, we study, and we put a lot of
energy in our discipline. We were doing things that we love.”
the experience was difficult and wasn’t easy. They pulled in all-nighters to
work on the project and worked pretty much every day. It was amazing to see the
culmination of all the work they had done at the Johnson Space Center, he said.
Stephens said a
lot of what they did was material they had not covered yet, so it was exciting
to go out and learn that on their own, getting help from advisors and building
on the foundation of the knowledge they already had.
“I feel like our
future is a lot stronger because we’ve been exposed to this material at such an
early step,” said Stephens.
believed their experience at flight week has a profound affect on what the
future holds for them.
Brickley, who is
almost finished with his associate in math, is now looking forward to getting
an associate degree in engineering because of the experience.
applications of mathematics far outreach pure mathematics,” said Brickley. “Not
saying mathematics is bad, it’s just I prefer engineering. It’s a lot more
It was exciting
to apply everything we have learned, said Brickley. Learning how everything works there, he said,
brings them hope that their degrees will be applicable.
One thing new
for this flight week was having two teams from the same college. Garcia said
people were slightly confused about the two teams from San Antonio College.
about them being selected… “We’re just that cool.”
Engineering at San Antonio College
there is something that sets his students, SAC’s engineering department, apart
from other colleges and universities.
“We have a
different approach,” said Dimitriu.
First, one of
the most important things, is the professors come from the industry of engineering.
They are not just academic. They have real world experience and can share that
with their students.
The students are
also able to perform their experience right here on campus. He said with the
updates to the MESA Center, the experiments will expand and more students will
be able to be active with their ideas.
Grants and other
funding, even from donors, helps the students participate in these types of
programs, he said. So they make sure the funding is there before agreeing or
planning to participate in something.
We have one of
the best two-year programs in the nation, said Dimitriu about the engineering
program here at SAC.
The students are
now in search of outreach opportunities. Outreach is something they need to do as
part of their NASA project. They are in search of kids, students, classes or
anyone else that might be interested in learning about engineering, the program
or their experience at NASA.
If anyone is interested, they contact Stephens
at email@example.com or call