University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of EngineeringOnline: Spring 2011
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Microgravity University iconUNL selected for return to Microgravity University, conducting space program research

CHALLENGE: Construct a propellant tank that will utilize a flexible membrane (also known as a bladder) that separates the gas from liquid phases, to help stabilize the sloshing of the fluid contained in the tank.

PARTNER ORGANIZATION: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

THE BIG EVENT: Flight Week, March – April at Johnson Space Center in Houston. After presenting their work and fielding tough questions during Flight Readiness Review, several university teams conducted their research projects during sessions of reduced gravity on parabolic flights of NASA’s specially-equipped C-130 aircraft.

TEAM: Carl Nelson - adviser, Jake Reher, Chase Blazek, Joan Yule, Eric Fritz, Bethany Drain, Jake Lewis, Lena Butterfield, Eldon Summerson - team leader, and Devin Bertsch.

WHAT YOU LEARN / HOW IT HELPS YOU: In the lab, there’s a lot of teamwork needed to get the project ready. In Houston, working with mentors and other NASA personnel shows the professionalism there.

HOW DO YOU PREPARE? In December, after NASA announced the selected teams, work began on designing and developing a model for use in experiments to be conducted during Flight Week. Team members focused expertise in project areas and worked together to deal with challenges that arose.


WHAT’S FLIGHT WEEK LIKE? The UNL participants know they’re at NASA’s JSC to work and learn. Flight Week has times to take in the amazing experience, and times to perform the committed research. It’s like trying to plan for unexpected outcomes, while making sure to enjoy every moment!

SECRET INGREDIENTS? For the 2011 project, it was great that the fluid tanks’ parts were manufactured at a much lower cost than expected and with quality results. The bladder, to hold the water in the tank, was created by the Microgravity Team using a halloween mask creation material and the tank as a cast! For the apparatus, we pursued doubly containing the liquid reservoirs which will hold excess liquid from the tank as well as doubly containing the tank itself. To measure the forces and accelerations on our apparatus during the experiment, we have load cells, accelerometers, and cameras attached to the apparatus. This data will all be displayed and graphed on Labview, a data acquisition program, with data analysis and reporting after the test flights conclude.

DRAMA? After passing FRR, Nebraska had two flight sessions. First, Eldon Summerson, Devin Bertsch, and Jake Reher were able to fly with Nebraska’s own astronaut, Clay Anderson. During that flight, the device had an unexpected pocket of air leak into the water, resulting in less accurate data. (“We aren’t certain why this happened,” said Summerson. “One possibility: high differences in air pressure inside and out of the tank, causing air to find even the smallest crack to penetrate.) The team had to quickly think of a way to drain the unwanted air out of the tank and prevent more from coming in. “We had an hour to complete any changes necessary,” Summerson added, “and then it was the second group’s turn to fly. The second group-- our NASA mentor, Scott Walker, and team flyers Lena Butterfield and Jake Lewis--collected accurate data without any air leaks into the tank.”

LEARN MORE: Check the 2011 team blog at


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