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Boise State Students Soar with NASA at the Johnson Space Center

By: Cienna Madrid   Published 6:49 am / November 29, 2017

A group of students and their fabricated device for NASA.

From left to right: Tais Mitchell, project budget manager; Robert Peterson, electrical team lead; Zach Weyn, SOAR team lead;
Richard Thompson, CAD drafter; Alondra Perez, thermal testing expert.

Working for NASA is a dream few adults, let alone students, ever realize. However, a team of Boise State students are at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, Nov. 27-Dec. 2 to test out the efficacy of a high-altitude data recorder the students designed and fabricated for the space agency.

“With most projects, you design something but you rarely ever build something,” explained Zach Weyne, a mechanical engineering senior and the design team lead. “This is a unique opportunity to both design, build and test our own device for NASA.”

The opportunity is indeed unique – Boise State was chosen among eight universities nationally to participate in NASA’s new program — Student Opportunities for Airborne Research (SOAR).

Over the course of 16 weeks, a multidisciplinary student team made up of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science majors designed and built a high-altitude atmospheric data recorder, designed to be used in NASA’s high-altitude research aircraft, the WB-57. Due to the unique nature of the aircraft, the device must be capable of measuring temperature, pressure and vibrations. The 15-member student team was guided by faculty advisors Christine Chang, a STEM and diversity initiative coordinator, and distinguished educator in residence and former astronaut Steve Swanson.

Students work on a NASA device

The SOAR team preps the payload before thermal testing. Photo by Patrick Sweeney.

The team faced unique challenges in designing and fabricating their device – for instance, it had to read accurately despite potential turbulence and extreme temperature changes.

“Electronics have an operating range, usually -40C to 85 Celsius,” said Jared Jeka, a senior mechanical engineering student. “With our analysis, we realized that it would’ve gone below that operating temperature given the conditions in Huston, in November, up at 60,000 feet. We estimated the temp could be around -60C. In essence, we analyzed the worst of all possible conditions, designed for that.”

The device crafted by students for NASA.

The SOAR team’s high-altitude data recorder. Photo by Patrick Sweeney.

While in Houston, the team must first conduct a test readiness review to have their device, also known as a payload, approved to fly by NASA’s WB-57 aircraft operations division. Once their device has been tested, the team will submit an 80-page payload data package report.

“It’s been interesting working with multiple groups without a clearly defined schedule or milestones,” said Rob Peterson, a junior computer science major. “We have very specific technical specifications but the negotiation process, understanding the required specs and learning how to meet them has been fun and challenging.”