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Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Students Over the Moon About NASA Experience

Published on April 24th, 2009 by Michelle Ward

 In early April, the KU Microgravity team completed a successful flight week at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA selected the Jayawks, which included EECS seniors Bowe Neuenschwander (CoE) and  Jackie Paschang (EE), to conduct experiments in reduced gravity on the modified docking mechanism they developed for the International Space Station.

Karen Ohmes (team leader), Andrew Lake Wooten, Jackie Paschang, Stephen Hinton and Bowe Neuenschwander stand in front of the ZeroG plane. In order from left to right: Karen Ohmes, Andrew Lake Wooten , Jackie Paschang, Stephen Hinton and Bowe Neuenschwander stand in front of the ZeroG plane.

“It was a once in a lifetime experience. It feels like nothing else. A rollercoaster doesn’t even come close,” says Neuenschwander of his reduced gravity experience. The research aircraft flies in parabolic motion—a series of steep climbs and dives—to create multiple periods of weightlessness.

The EECS Department partially subsidized the KU team’s travel and project costs for the NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities program. Neuenschwander, Paschang, Stephen Hinton (ME), Andrew Lake Wooten (Aerospace) and team leader Karen Ohmes (Geology) modified a robotic arm initially created by the 2006 squad. The present KU Microgravity team designed joints to replace the more rigid truss. The truss was intended to reach out and connect to the Space Shuttle, retract, and safely dock the spacecraft. The joints, made of silicon tubes that contain shape memory alloy (SMA) wires, give SMARTHAWKER2 greater flexibility and fluidity in movement.

The KU team participated in a Test Readiness Review (TRR) at Johnson Space Center. A panel of NASA scientists and engineers quizzed them on their design and safety features. The students received feedback and continued working on their experiment until flight day. The team used three lasers perpendicular to one another and mounted to the bottom of the arm. Graph paper allowed the team to record the original position of the lasers and then their position when the SMA wires were actuated.  This allowed the team to measure the movement of the joints during microgravity, said Paschang. The second experiment included the addition of a force meter to measure the amount of force with which the joints pulled or to measure the amount of pull of the arm. 

“The TRR went really well,” says Paschang. “We explained the basic principles and ideas behind our experiment as well as what we were actually going to test in the microgravity environment. We also had to explain the safety features of our experiment.  This is done to ensure that all people and test equipment will be safe during flight.”