Boise State University

Boise State students clear another NASA hurdle at Houston laboratory

Tuesday was the big day for Boise State’s Micro-G NExT team — the day to sink or swim at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston.

The lab is a 6.2-million-gallon indoor pool that simulates a microgravity space environment and houses an impressive near replica of the International Space Station where astronauts come to train in bulky space suits.

On a submerged platform at one end of the pool, professional divers prepared to test a grabber tool designed by the students to see how well it could collect and retain three separate rock samples in an environment resembling that of an asteroid.

Students directed the venture from a control booth high above the pool, communicating with divers about which rocks to collect and how to best angle and use the tool.

The students’ trip to NASA is a culmination of five months of work. NASA hopes to launch a crew to an actual asteroid in its new Orion rocket by 2020 to collect samples and test the feasibility of travel to Mars. That mission will include EVAs (extra-vehicular activities, or space walks) to allow astronauts to collect extraterrestrial samples.

The Micro-G NExT program is a new venture inspired in part by the 50th anniversary on Wednesday of NASA’s extra-vehicular activity. It marks Ed White Jr.’s historic space walk June 3, 1965, during the Gemini IV mission.

The anniversary is one reason the space agency launched the Micro-G NExT program this year, challenging teams of university students to design a tool that could be used by astronauts.

Boise State’s tool is titled the Zero-gravity Operable Interplanetary Delivery Based Ergonomic Grabber, or ZOIDBERG, the name of a character in TV’s Futurama animated serial. ZOIDBERG is a metal grabber. It must be capable of one-handed manual operation and must prevent cross contamination of samples. On Monday, it was vetted by a team of engineers and agency divers before being approved for Tuesday’s test.

The six members of the student team who traveled to Houston weren’t worried — at least outwardly. An unscientific test run in the hotel pool the night before was positive. Last-minute preparations focused more on final safety checks and mission-control assignments, than last-minute tinkering.

Camille Eddy would continue in her role as team lead. Check.

Jacob Davlin and Colton Colbert would provide pre-dive instructions. Check.

John Cashin and Scott Warren would communicate with the divers in real time.

Eli Andersen, a geology major, would provide advice on optimal rock selection. Roger that.

Cashin acted as voice, guiding the divers to the preferred rock, talking them through operation and moving them through next steps: Identify first rock, position the ZOIDBERG over the sample, activate the safety lever and pull back on the handle. Secure the sample, rotate the belt and set the second box in place. Repeat twice.

The operation took five minutes of the 30 allotted — a clear success.

Post-test suggestions included considering a rounded body design rather than the squared edges that quickly led to hand fatigue. And perhaps less tension on the springs. Spring tension was a known design issue.

The team received feedback from senior NASA engineers involved in the EVA division who were curious about the their design. Suggestions included ways to reduce weight in future designs and, again, comments on spring strength.

On Wednesday, the students will go behind the scenes at the Johnson Space Center’s spacesuit, astro-materials and virtual-reality labs and will hear from astronaut Stan Love about the mission to Mars.

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