Engineering at Nebraska, Spring 2008
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Spring Break at 35,000 feet

by Carole Wilbeck

While college students enjoyed the beaches of South Padre Island, Texas, this spring several Nebraska Engineering students were far above-flying with NASA missions over the Gulf of Mexico and having the time of their lives.

It was a first for Nebraska Engineering: in April 2008 a team of UNL students conducted research aboard high-altitude, reduced gravity NASA flights from Ellington Field in Houston.

The UNL group-mostly seniors and representing electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering- included Stephen Brogan and Olga Dzenis, both of Lincoln; Lee Redden, Kearney; Dustin Dam, Sidney; Dana Valish, Columbus; and Tyler Goldberg of Alexandria, Minn.

Several well-regarded engineering schools participate each year with NASA research programs. Dam and Brogan both had co-op experiences with NASA and gathered a UNL group to apply to NASA's "Microgravity University" in the fall of 2007. The UNL team was placed with a study of the "effects of 0G and 1/6G on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) data accuracy."

Microgravity LogoAll winter they prepared their test materials and procedures: RFID tags, reader and specially fitted container, as well as supply items to test, from toothpaste to t-shirts. With Erick Jones, assistant professor of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering and RFID expert, as adviser, they sought to optimize RFID tag scans on packaging of items used on space missions. Certain metal substances and curved surfaces (for example, tubes of shaving cream or toothpaste and batteries) presented challenges. Pretests were performed in a UNL lab with stationary scanning devices, and at NASA in an underwater environment that simulated reduced gravity.

Key elements were a scan gun-a $5,000 Teklogic model that looks like a handheld retail device-and a "Flight Storage Fixture" (per NASA guidelines): a footlocker-size carrying case with bolts, buckles and foam-padded edges for security. Various bags and containers, and laptops with software to analyze the data, rounded out the team's equipment.

In early April, the UNL team traveled to Houston. With another adviser, Lance PĂ©rez, associate dean for academic affairs and graduate programs (and an expert in wireless communications, on which their RFID scans relied), they spent a week touring NASA facilities and meeting heroes like Clay Anderson, astronaut from Ashland, Neb. The mission flights-like "giant roller coaster" sessions-involved parabolic flight maneuvers with 30 to 40 second intervals of "freefall" (microgravity) when the experiments were performed.

This research helps NASA streamline inventories of International Space Station (ISS) and space shuttle cargo, with efficiency a high priority. For follow-up, the UNL team is preparing a report of their findings and also sharing their experiences with younger students, to foster interest in science, mathematics and the space program.

The story of the UNL team's amazing experience is best told firsthand, through the words and photos of the participants. Enjoy these excerpts and view more posts at: