NASA needed ideas. The organization sent out a nationwide request asking college students to submit designs for tools or devices which astronauts would use during exploration. Proposals were due by November 1. NASA reviewed the ideas and selected more than two dozen colleges and universities to participate in the project.
The list included prestigious four-year schools like Cornell University, Columbia University and Rochester Institute of Technology. There were also three two-year schools chosen including Onondaga Community College. “We’re all pretty proud of this,” said OCC team co-leader Brian Richardson. “Sometimes there can be a stigma towards community colleges. This shows that stigma has no validity.”
Richardson played a key role in the selection process. In the spring 2016 semester he was one of five OCC students chosen to participate in NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars Program. Richardson took part in special courses and traveled to a NASA facility where he worked side-by-side with engineers.
During the fall semester he was contacted about another opportunity. “I received an email from NASA about this project asking if we’d like to try it out.” Richardson asked Chemistry and Physical Science Chair Dr. Fred Jaquin if he would be the faculty mentor. “I agreed to do it. Brian said he would work on putting a team of students together and creating a proposal,” said Jaquin.
NASA’s project was called Micro-g NExT. The term “Micro-g” represented a very low gravity environment. “NExT” stood for Neutral buoyancy Experiment design Teams. NASA needed student teams to submit designs for one of three things:
- An anchoring device that would hold packages on the surface of a comet, asteroid or small moon.
- A surface sampling tool astronauts would use to scoop up surface soil samples from the aforementioned bodies.
- A sub-surface sampling device that would maintain the stratigraphy of the cored sample.
Richardson assembled a team of six students. They submitted a proposal for a device which would remove soil samples underwater. “It will be a manually operated auger-like device which comes with very specific design requirements,” said Jaquin. For example, the device must fit in a 10-inch by 10-inch by 18-inch box. It cannot have any sharp edges protruding which could damage an astronaut’s suit. It also must be neutrally buoyant so if the astronaut lets go of it underwater it won’t sink or float to the top.
The proposal also required a community outreach plan and a budget which would cover manufacturing costs. In early December OCC’s team got the news it was hoping for. Its proposal had been selected. “It was very exciting,” said Jaquin.
Being selected means OCC’s team will be traveling to Texas in May. Students will spend four days at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston where they will see astronauts use what they have designed. Team members will stand side-by-side with NASA Engineers and students from colleges across the country. Between now and then students will be working on designing and testing their device. NASA has given all of the participating colleges and universities a strict timeline to follow throughout the process.
Natalia Montilla is also the OCC team’s co-leader. She’s ready for the challenge that lies ahead. “This is a great opportunity for us to show what we can do coming from a community college in upstate New York. We see all of the top universities taking part in it. We’re excited to meet new people, meet NASA Engineers and learn what they do. We’re excited to go out there and use our minds.”
Below is a slideshow with each of the team members photos. Beneath that is a list of the colleges and universities selected to participate in NASA’s Micro-g NExT program.
- Arizona State
- Art Institute of Seattle
- University of Buffalo
- Coastal Bend College
- Grand Valley State
- Kapiolano CC
- Ohio State
- Old Dominion
- Onondaga Community College
- Rochester Institute of Technology
- Salt Lake CC
- Texas A&M
- Univ of Texas at Dallas
- Univ of Texas at El Paso
- Univ of Texas at Rio Grande Valley
- Virginia Tech
- Wentworth Institute of Technology