Reach for the stars
Engineering students build prototype for NASA
by Leah Twilley
In May at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston — 1,220 miles from Allendale — a professional diver tested a unique device that could be used for future space missions.
This device was special. It was designed and built by engineering students, the Grand Valley North Stars, who were selected by NASA to travel to Houston to give a presentation about their device.
The Grand Valley North Stars are, from left, Dylan DiGiovanni, Taylor Rieckhoff, Jake Stephens, Dan Scheske, Nate Kyburz, Brianna Forsthoefel and Amy Lenz. (photos courtesy of Amy Lenz)
And their mission was successful.
The North Stars and other undergraduate teams across the country participated in the Micro-g NExT Design Challenge, in which they proposed, designed, built and tested a tool or device that addressed a current space exploration challenge. Teams could submit design proposals for one of three tools that could be used in future space missions, like NASA’s journey to Mars.
The North Stars wrote a proposal for a surface sampling device.
“The goal was to build a device that could gather and contain multiple samples of surface particles to be examined and studied at a later time,” said Brianna Forsthoefel, team member and mechanical engineering major. “It was an honor to be chosen to participate in this competition.”
Shoot for the moon
In December, the group’s idea was one of 30 proposals selected to move to the second phase of the challenge. Members spent five months designing and building the device in Keller Engineering Labs on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus. Students used CAD software to design the device based on size, weight and cross-contamination specifications.
Jake Stephens, a product design and manufacturing engineering major from Lowell, said the simplicity of the design was intentional.
“Astronaut suits are huge and stiff, and their gloves are bulky, like hockey gloves, so we had to take that into consideration while designing the device’s handle,” Stephens said. “Astronauts are working with limited resources and tools while they are in space, so in this case, we didn’t want to create something complicated and detailed.”
The North Stars used a campus 3D printer to create the prototypes. More sophisticated printers at Axis Labs and Premier 3D Printing, both located in Grand Rapids, were used for the final device. Plastic was chosen as the material because it is lightweight, but it was also the group’s biggest challenge.
“We’ve all had experience working with metal, which is more precise when it’s cut and machined,” said Dylan DiGiovanni, a senior majoring in product design and manufacturing engineering. “When we printed our first prototype, we had a lot of loose pieces and parts, and tight ones, too. Working with plastic was a different experience.”
Amy Lenz, visiting faculty member of mechanical engineering, served as the faculty advisor. She said mentorship was an important part of the design and build phases. The group held Skype sessions with a NASA engineer, who provided feedback and guidance during the process and helped them prepare for their trip.
In Houston, students watch as a professional diver tests their device, which was designed for astronauts to easily gather and contain multiple samples of surface particles.
Houston, no problem here
On May 23, the team joined others from schools such as Purdue, Ohio State and Cornell universities to present and test their prototype in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) in Houston, which includes a 40-foot-deep pool that closely mimics a zero-gravity environment.
A professional diver, who works directly with astronauts in the NBL, tested the team’s device in the pool. The diver was secured in foot restraints and bent over the underwater surface sampling area while using the device to gather pebbles, rocks and sand.
In the Mission Command Center, DiGiovanni served as the communication liaison between the diver and the team.
The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center includes a 40-foot-deep pool that closely mimics a zero-gravity environment.
“I was prepared to walk Lauren (the diver) through the use of the tool step-by-step, but she didn’t really need it,” he said. “Our design was so intuitive and simple to use. She didn’t need much instruction and guidance, which was nice to see. Testing went a lot better than we expected.”
Cameras in the pool allowed the team to watch the testing.
“We asked her questions like, ‘How is the device functioning,’ and ‘Is there anything that is tedious or strenuous while using it with the gloves?’” Forsthoefel said. “She said wearing the gloves for a long time was tiring, so it would be helpful to have a lock to hold the trigger while gathering samples.”
The North Stars also gave a presentation about the tool’s safety, functions and testing to a panel of 12 NASA engineers.
“All engineers were from different backgrounds and specialized in different areas, so it was very rewarding to hear their positive feedback,” said Forsthoefel, from Lansing.
North Stars team members took the samples gathered at NASA back to Grand Valley to analyze and include in their final report. The report, submitted in June, will be added to NASA’s database for engineers to use and reference in the future.
“It was really rewarding to know that our device will be used for future tool design,” she said.
DiGiovanni, from Elk Rapids, said his classes prepared him for this exciting mission.
“The engineering curriculum and its focus on developing problem-solving skills helped us prepare for this project,” he said. “Being successful in engineering courses requires a lot of motivation and problem solving, which were crucial during the design and prototype phases of this competition.”
Alumni who work for NASA
Two Grand Valley alumni work for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. They are both part of the hybrid flight computing systems team and are currently working on the Restore-L Mission, which will per form the first independent meeting, capture and refueling of a satellite using sensors and robotic arms.
The satellite, called Landsat-7, is used to photograph Earth’s surface, and some of the data is used by Google.
Joe Gibson, '15
Gibson, a native of Grand Rapids, said the best part about working at NASA is the people.
“It’s difficult to think of science or engineering topics, whether it be orbital mechanics, astrobiology or material science, in which we don’t have either the world expert or one of them working here,” Gibson said. “There’s a Nobel Prize winner who works in the building just down the road from me.”
Gibson was hired by NASA shortly after graduating in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. He is a flight software engineer. After the Restore-L Mission is complete, he will work on the Asteroid Redirect Mission, a mission to land on a large asteroid to collect samples and redirect its orbit as practice for a potential planetary defense mechanism.
During his time at Grand Valley, Gibson completed a co-op at L-3 Avionics Systems in Grand Rapids and at CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland.
Carl Rumsey, '15
Carl Rumsey, from Yale, Michigan, joined NASA in March 2016 as a software engineer. He works closely with driver, flight application and operating systems developments, and has created numerous computer applications.
For the Restore-L Mission, his work included command and data handling and flight system infrastructure.
Rumsey majored in electrical engineering and completed co-ops at JR Automation in Grand Rapids.
He said being able to work on a team that is building a state-of-the-art machine that will be sent into space and operate independently is “out of this world.”