2014 started off with an especially positive announcement for our community. NASA announced the extension of the orbiting outpost through 2024. Why does this matter to our community? NASA White Sands Test Facility (NASA WSTF) is a support facility for the International Space Station (ISS). NASA WSTF does failure analysis on micro-meteoroid orbital debris impacts for example. In English, they look at what happens to materials in space should they get hit by orbiting debris, a screw or an even paint chip. They also work on oxygen systems, and life support system analysis for station. For the readers who saw the movie Gravity, when Sandra Bullock called NASA, the communications come through the NASA site.
Some of the students I have worked with now work at NASA WSTF. Jeremy Brugerman is one who comes to mind. He started working on a technology at NMSU that measures momentum of an orbiting body. It is not something the average person needs to know in everyday life. If you are living and working in space, it is essential information if you want to get resupplied from earth.
Testing the initial design of the dishwasher size instrument meant a trip to Ellington Field and a flight on the Johnson Space Center’s Zero Gravity C-135 aircraft. This one sentence sums up a year of work in the lab, a proposal by the team to NASA, and a two day flight opportunity for four students. At the time we worked together, Jeremy was a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering student. NASA WSTF colleagues periodically advise this group of engineers called the Flying Aggies. Fast forward 4 years, Jeremy has graduated and now works at WSTF. The members of his team, now led by graduate Gerardo Martinez, flew this instrument in November out a the spaceport through the NASA Flight Opportunities Program. It’s two parts fit into a 9 inch wide, 20 inch tall can.
What does the technology do? It measures the momentum of a body from within the body, while it is in the weightless state. It is pretty hard to do. If we want to keep a body like the ISS orbiting, periodically it has to be boosted using small engines on the station. It is desirable to have very accurate information on the amount of thrust needed to keep the station in orbit, and desirable to use the least amount of energy possible. If the instrument works, it can save fuel by providing more accurate information on the momentum of ISS. Does this technology perform or enable a task or function to be executed better or cheaper or both? Well, it might. Is there a need for the technology? Yep. Should we continue to investigate, yes. The students still working on this project have the opportunity to fly it again, out at the spaceport. Jeremy at NASA WSTF is still engaged with the team, and now students from Mayfield High School are also volunteering on this team. Gerardo is a graduate of Mayfield, and he determined to get more students involved in this project.
Another group of engineering students just completed building radio antennae at NMSU that they will use to track small satellites in low earth orbit. The antennae can track the ISS right now. These students were part of a capstone class which involved electrical, mechanical and computer science students at NMSU. University students are preparing for adulthood. Not all students are interested in space, but this is my business so it is my job to make sure students have access to rich experiences. Faculty at NMSU do the majority of the work helping and teaching student, but having Space Grant as a partner, along with NASA WSTF, this is a big deal for all of us.
The public school students and faculty have yet to take advantage of all the assets in the community to realize the potential of the space industry. We are getting closer, but the district must take on the challenge of creating access to space related science, technology engineering curriculum. It is time, and necessary. The capability exists within our community to assist the Las Cruces Public School district. They need the will and leadership to focus on space science, technology and engineering. The movie Gravity may have given you enough of a sense, humans will continue to live in space, and Las Crucens have a growing role in making it happen.