Mission Accomplished

The NASA Lazer-Nauts at the Johnson Space Center include (left to right): Nathan Johnson, Brian Richardson (kneeling), Natalia Montilla, Doug Weaver, Allan O’Mara and Neil Minet. Also pictured (green shirt) is Tamra George of NASA.

Six months of planning prepared OCC’s NASA Team for its “Houston we have a problem” moment. The “Lazer-Nauts” worked through the crisis and capped off a spectacular journey to Texas. Ultimately the device they designed worked. NASA will store information about it in its digital archives for future consideration. “We’re so excited. This was a huge opportunity for us,” said team co-leader Natalia Montilla (Nottingham High School). “If what we designed was ever implemented it would be a huge honor for the school and for us.”

OCC team members explain how their anchoring device works during a poolside meeting with astronauts.

The Lazer-Nauts journey to the Johnson Space Center in Houston began in October when team co-leader Brian Richardson (Liverpool High School) received an email from NASA. OCC was being invited to submit a design for a tool or device which would be used during exploration. A team was formed under the leadership of Chemistry and Physical Science Chair Dr. Fred Jaquin. They submitted a proposal for a manually operated anchoring device, along with a community outreach plan and a budget which would cover manufacturing costs. In December the Lazer-Nauts learned their plan had been approved. They were one of nearly three dozen schools chosen to participate in the intellectual design competition and one of only three community colleges. The rest were prestigious four-year institutions like Cornell, Purdue and Columbia.

During the semester break and throughout the spring semester the Lazer-Nauts held regular team meetings, worked on their anchoring device which they built using a 3-D printer and did presentations in the community about their upcoming trip. In late May they packed up, boarded a plane a flew to Houston. “It was so exciting to get there. We said, ‘we’re here. We finally made it,’” said Montilla. “After all this work we’re finally here at the Johnson Space Center,” added Richardson.

The view from Mission Control where OCC’s Lazernauts give instructions to astronauts working underwater.

Before the Lazer-Nauts anchoring device would be tested underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, the team was required to go through the Test Readiness Review process. “We went up in front of a room filled with engineers and they grilled us,” said Richardson. “They asked, ‘have you thought of this, have you thought of this, have you thought of this?’ We got a lot of constructive criticism and feedback.”

The Lazer-Nauts learned they needed to make modifications to their anchoring device and they found what they needed during a late-night trip to a Home Depot. They bought rolls of duct tape, mesh and material they would use to attach handles to the device.

With their newly improved device in hand the Lazer-Nauts headed to the Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, home of a six-million-gallon, 40-foot deep pool where astronauts train for space missions in a weightless environment. OCC’s team had exactly five minutes to speak with astronauts at the edge of the pool about how their device worked. Then the astronauts dove into the water and OCC’s team went upstairs to the control room. “We said, ‘we’re ready to test as we spoke with divers in the pool,” said Richardson. The Lazernauts gave step-by-step instructions while keeping their eyes on monitors showing them live, underwater pictures of what was happening.

Astronauts test OCC’s anchoring device underwater.

OCC’s anchoring device was supposed to drill down into sand but initially things didn’t go well. “Our auger was straight up and down and it wasn’t working,” said Richardson. The Lazer-Nauts quickly regrouped and suggested the astronauts try the auger at a 45-degree angle. It worked! “We learned how well we worked in a stressed environment,” Montilla said. “Even though we’d been working together for the last seven months, working together on the testing was a whole different story. We worked so well as a team in that environment, we were very proud.”

It was the ultimate “Mission Accomplished” moment. Seven months of hard work had paid off. “It was such a great experience,” said Montilla. “At NASA we got to meet so many engineers, scientists and mathematicians. It was an awesome environment to be in. We were told by NASA to treat it as a job interview. We were the first team there every day. We are so proud of what we accomplished for ourselves and the college.”

Congratulations to our Lazer-Nauts!

  • Natalia Montilla, team co-leader
  • Brian Richardson, team co-leader
  • Nathan Johnson
  • Neil Minet
  • Allan O’Mara
  • Doug Weaver