NASA has long been a valued partner in education in the Gem State. NASA grants supporting work ranging from aerospace technology to medical advances to ecological sensors and more have benefited researchers here in the Treasure Valley and across Idaho. In addition, K-12 students and undergraduate mentors have grown from opportunities such as the Idaho Science and Aerospace Scholars high school program and the annual Zero Robotics middle school competition, where kids create computer code to program robotic spheres to perform specific functions on the International Space Station.
Idaho now has two astronaut-educators who are working to inspire students in higher education. In their roles as distinguished educators in residence at Boise State University, retired astronauts Barbara Morgan, who came to work at Boise State in 2008, and Steve Swanson, who joined us in August, are inspiring students to participate in cutting-edge research that is making a real-life difference.
NASA attracts students to critical science, technology, engineering and math fields and recruits a talented future workforce for itself, and Idaho students get access to decades of top-notch engineering know-how and the chance to experiment with space-age technology.
And thanks in part to the ongoing efforts of Morgan and other faculty, students from across disciplines at Boise State University have been in the thick of things with NASA Johnson Space Center’s Microgravity University. Boise State has sent teams of students to JSC in Houston for seven years running. For two years, teams from Northwest Nazarene University also participated.
While providing hands-on experience in tackling real-world problems, Microgravity University also allows engineering, science and education students to experience cool technology, such as NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft (lovingly referred to as the “Vomit Comet” by those who have flown in it) and the 6.2 million-gallon Neutral Buoyancy Lab pool, both of which simulate the weightlessness of space travel. They work side-by-side with some of NASA’s brightest minds, and with other high-achieving students from schools across the nation, including Yale, Cal Poly, Duke and Purdue.
In 2009, NASA engineers challenged Boise State to focus on increasing traction over the moon’s ultrafine dust for future lunar rovers, starting with questions about torque. In 2010, they added an additional task — figuring out how to use high-tech properties to determine the moisture content of lunar soil. Both avenues of inquiry were based on real-life problems faced by the agency.
Student solutions were tested in the artificial reduced gravity environment created when a jet plane is flown on an elliptic flight pattern. As it drops from its apex, it creates a short period of weightlessness, or Zero-G.
For the next three years, our students shifted their focus to biological issues associated with the bone-density loss experienced by astronauts during extended weightlessness. Then for a year, they focused on the effects of increased intracranial pressure on the eyes, which changes the vision of crew members.
In 2011 and 2012, NNU students considered how to retrieve the maximum water or vapor from waste “brine” produced in the space station’s filtration system. Their experiment tested a component that could recover more liquid while using little additional energy.
This year, NASA’s Microgravity University shifted away from the flight program and focused on a future mission to gather rock samples from an asteroid. Our students were told to create a tool that astronauts could use to collect three samples of loosely adhered surface rock, called float samples, without causing any cross-contamination.
The team’s device — essentially a hand-held “grabber” that incorporates three sample collection boxes onto a pulley-and-belt system — was cleverly titled “Zero-g Operable Interplanetary Delivery Based ERgonomics Grabber,” or ZOIDBERG. Fans of the animated show “Futurama” will appreciate their effort to achieve that acronym.
Idaho college students also have opportunities to apply for scholarships and fellowships through the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium and Idaho NASA EPSCoR program, both administered by the University of Idaho. These are longstanding, high-value programs that have benefited countless students and faculty across the state.
Additionally, students from Idaho universities have been involved with creating scientific payloads for launch on NASA’s RockSat-X program and high-altitude balloons and with designing robotic devices to help with work on the lunar surface.
These and other NASA programs are introducing students to a world of opportunities and keeping them engaged in the STEM field. Several students from Boise State teams now work full-time for NASA or its contractors. Others are working at and launching companies here in Idaho. We can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.