Boise State University

Boise State students go behind scenes at NASA labs

Third in a three-day series.

Race car driver. Video game designer. Fireman. Astronaut. Let’s be honest: Some jobs are just way cooler than others.

But if you want to reach the stars, you’ve so got to start by reaching for the stars. And that’s essentially the goal of NASA’s Micro-G Next program. Six Boise State students have been at Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston this week reaching for their goals, which range from working for NASA to inspiring young minds in the classroom.

From the start,the program has been a huge reach. The challenge: to design a tool that could be used by astronauts to collect rock samples from an asteroid. Information gleaned from such samples could help scientists determine the origin of Earth and understand planets beyond our reach.

Planets like Mars.

NASA is making plans to drop in for a visit and pick up some data.

On Wednesday, the students heard from NASA astronaut Stan Love about the challenges in traveling to Mars. Not least among these is the distance - the International Space Station is 250 miles above the Earth’s surface, while Mars is 140 million miles away - combined with the sheer mass of a vehicle and fuel needed able to travel that far, and the speed needed to escape Earth’s gravity while maintaining control.

Fortunately, lessons learned in traveling to the moon and, more recently, sending a rover to Mars have provided data showing that the goal is achievable by taking advantage of natural orbital patterns and aerospace ingenuity.

NASA plans to launch a mission to an asteroid in the next five to 10 years and a crew to Mars in the 2030s.

While at NASA, students have also been able to visit behind-the-scenes Johnson Space Center labs focused on research. One of these is the Spacesuit Lab that developed the extra-vehicular suits used on the first spacewalk in 1965, the Apollo moon landings and repairs to the International Space Station. It has developed a prototype suit for the mission to Mars.

The students also saw the Astro Materials Lab, where more than 800 pounds of moon rock collected over six moon missions are stored, analyzed and made available to researchers around the world. To protect the rocks from earthly contaminants, NASA has developed a clean room environment far more intense than rooms found in the tech industry.

For anyone who has ever wondered how astronauts train for some of those tricky missions outside the shuttle, a trip to the Virtual Reality Lab was an eye-opener. The engineers behind the lab have been creating realistic virtual environments for 20 years. Students conducted a virtual mission outside the International Space Station, complete with a breathtaking view of Earth beneath their feet.

The experience was out of this world.

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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