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Students Evaluate Aerospace Materials in Low Gravity

June 30, 2009

By Matthew Caracciolo

While most students at Ohio State were adjusting to schedules and exams this spring, four engineering undergraduates were grappling with the experience of lunar gravity.

The members of the NASA Microgravity Team traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to conduct an experiment evaluating the flammability of aerospace materials in an oxygen-enriched environment while being subjected to low gravity levels similar to that of the Moon and Mars.

The experiment took place in a modified Zero-G Boeing 727 capable of flying the parabolic maneuvers needed to achieve weightlessness.

The team had to face time limits, the necessity to recreate particular conditions and weightlessness while conducting their experiment.

“First-time fliers aren’t usually productive,” explains David Bajek, a third-year integrated systems engineering major, concerning the weightlessness. Bajek led the team, which included integrated systems engineering major Caitlin Bendle, aerospace engineering major Stuart Benton and mechanical engineering major Alex Stilwell.

“All you want to do is play,” adds Bendle. “It was amazing. It’s like reaching the top of the roller coaster, but the feeling lasts for 20 seconds.”

To prepare for the effects of low gravity on the body, the students went to a large pressure chamber and were put in a hypoxic state.

“Times goes by really fast,” notes Benton. “A half an hour feels like five minutes.”

The flammability experiment consisted of setting fire to aerospace materials and recording whether the flame extinguished itself before burning up all the material. The team was able to collect enough information to make the trip a success and must prepare a final report presenting the findings with the results from previous teams.

“They’ve done these experiments already in zero gravity,” says Bendle, “so we’re going to compare our results with those.”

The team will get the chance to return to Houston next year and collect more data.

Bajek found out about the program four days before the application to NASA was due. He quickly put together a well-rounded team of friends and submitted a proposal in October. The team found out in December that it was accepted.

“We had to design, fund and build our project by ourselves,” notes Bajek, “and we did it in a month and a half.”

The students were advised by integrated systems engineering and materials science and engineering associate professor Sudarsanam Babu, who helped with much of the administration aspect and flew to Houston along with the team.

Support came from several different sources, including the College of Engineering, Engineer’s Council and the Department of Physics.

Matthew Caracciolo is a former College of Engineering student communications assistant.

Tags: College