Shooting for the Stars

Shooting for the Stars
VanCougs compete in a NASA engineering challenge and Spaceport America Cup

The simple act of cutting a zip tie isn’t so simple in space; if it isn’t collected after being cut, it can be deadly to an astronaut.

Zip ties are commonly used on the International Space Station to secure hardware or payload. When cut, if left to float free, the sharp edges can damage the ISS or critical hardware or even puncture a space suit.

Last summer, eight students in WSU Vancouver’s School of Engineering and Computer Science were invited to Johnson Space Center in Houston to help NASA design a safer way to cut zip ties in space. They joined 24 other teams from 22 institutions across 17 states in NASA’s Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams challenges.

Team WSU VanCougs chose to participate in the zip-tie cutter challenge, one of four challenges posed by NASA engineers, inspired by tools or simulants necessary to space exploration. Led by Logan Alexander, team members were Kinan Badr, Jonathon Blue-Harmon, Cassidy Gordon, MengTheng Heng, Taylor Jones, Brad Kincaid and Derek Todd.

Students were tasked to design their tool according to detailed specifications, create a prototype and present their projects to NASA scientists and engineers. Each team briefed divers on how to test their prototypes in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, a 6.2-million gallon pool used to train astronauts and test equipment in low gravity.

The final component was to perform community outreach and promote interest in NASA, space and STEM careers. The WSU VanCougs performed a buoyancy experiment at Clark College and challenged a computer science class at Tualatin High School to develop a bounce height simulator for the Mars exploration rover Spirit.

Spaceport America Cup

After 10 months of designing, modeling and building a 12-foot rocket, nine mechanical engineering students—Jesus Arellano, Monique Embry, Brian Huntley, Aaron Manning, Tristan Martin, Keith Reynolds, Derek Todd, Blake Wiley and Sam Woodward—competed in the second annual Spaceport America Cup in Las Cruces, N.M., last June. WSU Vancouver’s team, self-named project Knarr, was one of 129 teams entered in the international intercollegiate competition. Local companies donated materials for the rocket and sponsored the team for the trip.

The solid-fuel motor they used, an AeroTech N-3300, propelled the 65-pound rocket just over 14,000 feet in the air at 700 miles per hour. The parachute successfully deployed at around 14,000 feet, but was unable to open properly, causing the rocket to land at approximately 51 miles per hour.

"Overall, this flight could be considered a successful failure in that it proved the stability of the rocket flight and allowed for recovery and reuse of some of the parts,” said Keith Reynolds, a recent electrical engineering graduate and member of project Knarr. “But the recovery system failed to deploy properly.”

He added, “Teams that succeed in this competition are usually well funded, have good turnover from senior students to junior students, and have some sort of legacy system to build upon over the years. It is the intention of the students to create a legacy system here at WSU Vancouver.”

A legacy system would allow future students to gain valuable engineering experience and gain fundraising, team management and media skills.

“Recruiters from leading aerospace companies come to the competition looking for fresh talent,” Reynolds said. “This gives students chances at gaining internships and jobs at these companies.”

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About Northwest Crimson & Gray

Northwest Crimson & Gray is the semiannual magazine of WSU Vancouver, produced to highlight the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in Southwest Washington.

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