OK, it is rocket science

USU gets more experiments into space than any other university
By Kim Burgess
The Herald Journal
August 21, 2008

For many Aggies, life really is rocket science.

To date, more student–built experiments have been sent into space from Utah State University than any other institution of higher learning in the world.

That record stretches back to the early 1980s, when NASA was launching the space shuttle program and a side project, known as Getaway Special.

GAS allowed students and other groups to fly experiments on the shuttle in payload canisters, which are roughly the size of trash cans.

According to Jan Sojka, head of USU’s physics department, the university was ahead of the curve in recognizing the importance of undergraduate research opportunities — and saw GAS as a cuttingedge option.

During about 20 years, USU’s GAS team filled 13 payloads with more than 40 student experiments.

The studies have looked at zero gravity’s effects on everything from duckweed germination to the shape of melted wax.

One experiment found that pumping urine through a rock formation called Zeolite purifies it into drinkable water.

Students from the Shoshone–Bannock tribe’s Fort Hall High School partnered with USU to complete the Zeolite study, which could one day help astronauts on long missions.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Sojka said. “We are training the next generation of researchers.”

But since 2003, USU and other universities have had a tougher time reaching the stars — or even the upper atmosphere.

That year the GAS project was eliminated after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on the return to Earth. In response, NASA reorganized its shuttle effort and set payload limits that led to GAS’s demise.

Now USU is looking for new ways to get student experiments into orbit.

The school’s GAS Team, renamed the Microgravity Research Team, is currently building its first cube satellite, a 4–inch replica of Sputnik 1 that will be launched through the California State Polytechnic University CubeSat Project, probably in fall semester. Cal Poly will coordinate launches of participating schools’ satellites on governmental and private spacecraft.

Sojka thinks that these small satellites will be the next wave for student space experiments — but first scientists must develop a costeffective way to launch them.

“There aren’t many opportunities,” Sojka said. “In the U.S., one has to wait and keep working with the big agencies to find an opportunity to fly. That is where there is a lot of frustration in the country.”

SDL Transfer Radiometer

Alan Murray/Herald Journal
Students Scott Stephenson, left, and Ben Sampson, right, dismantle a section of the SDL Transfer Radiometer at the Space Dynamics Laboratory. The project is one of many involving student participation. To date, more student–built experiments have been sent into space from Utah State University than any other institution in the world.

USU’s Space Dynamics Lab investigating new systems to launch cube satellites and also provides more immediate ways for students to get involved with space technology. About 100 Aggies work at the organization, making up a quarter of its employees.

Mechanical engineering senior Stuart Hill has been at SDL since he was a freshman.

A year ago, he watched a live broadcast of NASA launching an instrument he helped build. Known as SOFIE, it will spend several years measuring clouds at the edge of the atmosphere.

“There is nothing that can compare to that,” Hill said of the launch. “It was pretty awesome.”

After graduation, Hill hopes to continue his career in the space industry and explained that his time at SDL will give him an edge.

His older brother, an electrical engineering major, also worked at SDL and has gone on to jobs at Boeing and the Idaho National Laboratory.

Former SDL director Allan Steed feels that USU was smart to build a reputation around student–built experiments.

“Someone coined the phrase Utah ‘Space’ University because of the type of activities we have here,” he said.

© 2008 The Herald Journal