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Fly Me to the Moon: Space exploration projects inspire engineering students and faculty, in classroom and beyond

When the Space Shuttle Discovery makes its momentous return to flight this June from Cape Canaveral, it will be the first of two expected Return to Flight missions for the shuttle program this year. The second, scheduled for September, will include Stephanie Wilson, a University of Texas at Austin graduate. She will be among a crew of five testing new thermal protection systems and repair techniques designed to prevent future disasters like the loss of the Columbia crew.

Dr. Robert Bishop

Dr. Robert Bishop, chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and holder of the Myron L. Begeman Fellowship in Engineering. Bishop, a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the university, strongly supports space exploration research for educational reasons.

Wilson’s flight on Atlantis will also be momentous as she follows in the footsteps of seven fellow College of Engineering astronaut alums who have racked up 18 Space Shuttle missions, a walk on the moon and a flight on Skylab, America’s original space station.

Engineering faculty beam about these accomplished graduates. They also view NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and ensuing Mars visits as enticement to inspire prospective students keenly in need of a dream to soar with.

“If kids knew they could grow up and go to the moon, that’s a huge incentive to learn math and science,” said Robert Bishop, a professor of aerospace engineering and a father of two. “It’s using a carrot rather than a stick to encourage their intellectual growth.”

Wallace Fowler, a fellow aerospace professor and fellow member of the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers, agrees. Over the years, he has learned how much NASA’s objectives affect students participating in his class’s hands-on, space-mission activities.

“Students work a lot harder if somebody from NASA thinks the problem they are addressing is important,” Fowler said.

Revisiting the moon has practical purposes too, he added.

“The moon is close enough to Earth to be a good test lab for a lot of deep-space equipment, and it’s only three to four days from Earth,” he said.

Basic questions also remain about the moon. Did it develop as debris from an early Earth or arise on its own? What lies deep within the center of this irregular sphere that’s a fourth the size of our planet?

“Even the gravity model of the moon is uncertain,” said Bishop, who became chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics in 2003. “We have flown around the moon, but we don’t know much about the far side of it because that requires the difficult task of directly tracking a spacecraft.”

Dr. Wallace Fowler

Dr. Wallace Fowler, Paul D. and Betty Robertson Meek Centennial Professor in Engineering And Distinguished Teaching Professor, with the vacuum chamber for the extraterrestrial water extraction device designed by recent aerospace engineering graduate David Weyburn and other undergraduates in spring 2005 for a Cocoa Beach, Fla., competition.

Seniors and interested graduate students in the department first conceived of new modules for landing on the moon and other ways to help astronauts when Fowler began teaching a spacecraft and mission design course in 1984. That course and similar ones have been supplemented the past two years with opportunities for additional students to participate in space-related projects outside classes. The independent projects are possible thanks to the miniaturization of electronics begun by the Apollo program, and $100,000 in support Bishop has garnered as the new chair from donors and other sources.

The projects have run the gamut—from designing lunar landing equipment that could be reconfigured into a doorway or walkway for a base, to designing autonomous rovers or synchronized communication satellites, to developing a fully functional base for 12 people on Mars. 

A team in 1985 first tackled the permanent-base idea, dreaming up what is called the split-mission approach to reach Mars. The idea involved sending a heavily loaded, unmanned spacecraft first on a long flight that conserves fuel by taking a long trajectory to reach Mars. Autonomous robotic devices would then build the base. A second spacecraft would take a faster trajectory to Mars to bring the astronauts, with an earlier landing craft serving as their Earth-return vehicle.

“The split-mission approach takes the astronauts 100 to 150 days to get out there instead of 259 days, so they’re not as badly deconditioned,” Fowler said. “Ideally, they land, go into the base, pop their visors and smell the coffee, because the coffee pot’s automatically turned on as they start opening up the airlock.”

The 1985 Austin team convinced Texas A&M students to pursue the split-mission approach to Mars when they combined resources the following summer during a NASA-funded, student educational program occurring then at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). The approach intrigued JSC mission planners, too.

Hypothetical satellite spirals toward Earth through the Van Allen Belts

A team of aerospace engineering undergraduates in Fowler’s fall 1999 spacecraft and mission design course envisioned a satellite to test the reliability of electronics in high-radiation environments prior to their use on vehicles that go to Mars or elsewhere. The hypothetical satellite, depicted above, would spiral toward Earth through the Van Allen Belts, collections of high-radiation energy particles trapped around Earth by its magnetic field.

“That’s the way they plan to do the first astronaut Mars mission,” said Fowler, who has access to copies of many of NASA’s proposed mission plans.

Fowler shares those plans, or many other resources he has, only when students directly ask for them so they learn about searching for technical information. 

That student independence shows up in other ways. For example, another team was asked to design a spacecraft to bring astronauts back to Earth for emergency care, but discovered a better option through outside research. Their final presentation of the vehicle design incorporated the information about another alternative, even though it undermined their entire semester’s worth of work. 

“It’s one of those times when you say, ‘These guys are going to be great engineers,’” Fowler said. “Their last three slides shot their project to pieces. They did a survey of Austin physicians and found that 40 to 50 percent of them would volunteer to go to the moon. In the end they learned it made more sense to build a hospital on the moon.”

Spring 1989 students in mechanical engineering designed that hospital after visiting a Houston trauma physician to learn what it would need. Students have also dug out useful information from the Web, NASA library facilities and university experts, including the department’s Professor Hans Mark, former deputy administrator of NASA.

A recent team even used fellow students to test an exercise bicycle intended to keep astronauts in shape while at the International Space Station. That team developed the bicycle to be similar to one on the station, but with headset options that motivate users by having them participate in aerial combat. The faster they pedal, the faster a simulated combat plane flies.

Tim Kassebaum and Jessi Odle helped modify an exercise bicycle for potential use by astronauts in space

Tim Kassebaum and Jessi Odle, recent aerospace engineering graduates, helped modify an exercise bicycle for potential use by astronauts in space during a spring design class. Odle wears a virtual-reality headset that team members incorporated into the design.

To improve the system that combats the weakened muscles and bone density loss encountered in space, three of the original eight team members continued the project this spring in the structural design and testing class taught by Dr. Ronald Stearman. They’ve revised the equipment that monitors a virtual-reality headset so it follows a user’s head movements better, developed an upper-body workout involving resistant cables from among five original designs considered and made other improvements.

That includes new game options to sail in the Carribean or elsewhere. Jessi Odle, a senior in aerospace engineering, asked for these options after she interviewed David Musson, a psychologist at the university. Musson was a flight surgeon with the Canadian Air Force and maintains an interest in space missions. 

“He said that astronauts in space would likely miss simple things, like scenery from Earth,” Odle said. “It was really interesting to think about what the astronauts would be wanting during a space mission,” she added, noting that “I would just like to get some astronauts to test the equipment themselves.”

Fellow exercise-team-member Tim Kassebaum spent the previous semester on a Mars base project, inspired by the 2004 discoveries made by Mars rovers. The aerospace engineering senior said participating in that theoretical project wasn’t as interesting as the hands-on exercise project—working out kinks in the equipment that measures the spinning of the bicycle’s wheel and creating other components.

“Implementation is definitely a whole different ballpark than design,” Kassebaum said. “When you have a physical object like this, it’s good because you see how you’re going to have to continue modifying the design to make it acceptable.”

Aerospace engineering students with prototype, autonomous rover for planetary explorations

Recent aerospace engineering graduate Norikazu Ogawa, aerospace seniors Clinton Henry and Chao Yung Yang, graduate research assistant Donny Holaschutz and aerospace senior Chris Hsiao with the prototype, autonomous rover for planetary explorations they have been designing. Holaschutz advised the undergraduates continuing the project this spring that he and others started in fall 2004.

Donny Holaschutz made similar discoveries during a laboratory course Bishop developed requiring students to apply math to testing real-time controls used to maneuver a pendulum or other devices.

A childhood interest in moon exploration and rumors of NASA returning there inspired Holaschutz to pursue lunar projects, too. He helped create a blueprint for a moon rover in Stearman’s design and testing course, and took an independent-study class where he developed software and simulated an automated lunar landing.

“When you’re doing engineering, it really makes the math, the physics and the rest come together. It gives you a perspective on why you took those classes,” said Holaschutz, now a graduate student advising undergrads fleshing out the rover design his team envisioned.

The faculty hope students learn concepts beyond engineering from their projects. To promote this, Bishop’s Controls Laboratory Class includes talks about space-flight scenarios by former NASA deputy administrator Mark, faculty from the McCombs School of Business and engineers in industry.

“We look at design from a more global perspective,” Bishop said. “Not just applying theory, but the ethics of engineering safe devices and also how leadership skills tie into design.”

Those skills appear to have come in handy for department graduates, whether they’ve entered NASA’s Astronaut Corps or not. Among them are Richard Cook, Tommaso Rivelinni and Wayne Lee at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. They were the Mars rovers’ project manager, landing system designer and chief engineer for entry, descent and landing.

David Weyburn holds imitation Martian soil in his hands

Recent aerospace engineering graduate David Weyburn holds imitation Martian soil in his hands. Weyburn helped design a device to create a vacuum chamber that reduces the air pressure on artificial Martian soil to test the ability to remove water from it.

When Lee joined JPL, Fowler noted that one of its internal publications stated he earned his master’s degree from “you know where.”

“We’re the ‘you know where,’” Fowler said, adding that the roughly 100 graduate and undergraduate students who have gone from the department to JPL are known as the Texas Mafia.

These days, with the rapid technological advances and expanded opportunities for students to pursue design projects, engineering faculty aren’t just watching former students spread their wings. Last week, for example, three students from an undergraduate team attended a conference in Cocoa Beach, Fla., where they received advice from industry and NASA representatives about improving a simple, vacuum-based device to extract usable water from the icy soil of Mars or other extraterrestrial planets.

“The students generate the ideas,” Bishop said. “We try to use our experience to help out, but the fact is, we’re all moving into a new world of exploration, and their enthusiasm and bright ideas are an important part of the mix.”

Barbra Rodriguez
College of Engineering

Photos: Caroling Lee

Banner image courtesy NASA: #STS070-701-070:
Moon set over the Earth limb from Great Images in NASA

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  Updated 2005 June 6
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