Boise State University

Boise State students’ space tool passes first NASA test

Stress, fatigue, worry ... all overlaid with a large helping of optimism and pride.

That was the mood Monday in Houston as a team of Boise State students prepared to present their innovative tool to NASA engineers at Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.

After more than five months of conceptual design, revision, manufacturing and more revision, the tool was finally ready to be tested in the 6.2 million-gallon indoor pool that simulates a microgravity space environment.

NASA’s Micro-g NExT program challenges students to work in teams to design and build prototypes of tools to be used by astronauts during spacewalk training. Boise State’s team, one of 18 university teams selected nationwide, created a tool to help astronauts collect rock samples on a future asteroid mission.

Titled “Zero Operable Interplanetary Delivery Based Ergonomics Grabber,” or ZOIDBERG (a clever nod to the Zoidberg character on “Futurama”), it is designed to mechanically collect uncontaminated sections of loosely adhered surface rocks from an asteroid.

But first it had to pass an engineering safety review to be sure it wouldn’t endanger either the divers or the pool. Thus the angst.

Without the blessing of NASA engineers, the tool would never make into the divers’ hands, and months of work would be for naught.

And despite all their checking and cross checking, there was cause for concern. Team members were up until after midnight Friday working out final tweaks to comply with NASA engineers’ early review. Concerns included a reduction in the amount of force needed to work the spring-loaded handle. Springs were swapped out and adjustments made.

After a delayed flight on Saturday, the team completed final assembly in a Houston hotel room on Sunday morning.

Practice the presentation. Tweak the tool. Secure all the pieces. Yep, looking good.

But a second work session Sunday evening showed that something was off with the alignment. Tools were pulled out of luggage, and the ZOIDBERG reverted to a pile of rods, bolts and pulleys. Was it the bushings? Something binding the rods?

Adjust. Tick, tick. Fiddle. Tick. Sample collection boxes still won’t line up right. More troubleshooting. Tick. More huddling. Tick. What if it couldn’t be fixed? Tick.

With precious time passing, a risky decision was made to replace the original springs and hope the tool’s performance justified overruling the judges’ concerns.

More tools. More disarray. More nail-biting. Then ... success. But would it pacify the judges?

After another post-midnight day, Monday dawned bright and clear at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. It brought introductions, orientation and a chance to mingle with astronaut Steve Swanson, who has previously spent time at Boise State under the university’s professor-of-the-practice program. And then the reviews.

As teams came and went from the hot seat, they got a thumbs up or a provisional OK, pending adjustments.

Boise State team members exchanged whispered tips and knowing glances. How did their device compare to the standards of the panel? What changes would be required? How late would their night be?

An hour behind schedule, their turn finally arrived. The late nights melted away and focus reigned. Other than one possible snag point (easily mended) and questions about weight and balance in the pool, the panel had no concerns. Beaming, the team realized the testing phase was a go.

On Tuesday, months of work will boil down to a half hour in the hands of the divers.

Kathleen Tuck, kathleentuck@boisestate.edu, is the director of research communications and promotions in Boise State’s Office of Communications and Marketing.

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