Loras College J-term 2020: NASA Astronautics

Loras College holds a January Term each year to provide students with a variety of opportunities for experiential learning. In 2020, one of those experiences meant learning and experiencing astronaut training and the science of NASA’s plans to put humans back on the moon in preparation for sending humans to Mars in Houston, Tx. Loras students did some engineering work in designing, building and testing critical systems necessary for space travel and extraterrestrial exploration.

The week started with tours of Johnson Space Center showing off Rocket Park, Mission Control and Building 9, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. This tour served to motivate students to design, build, and test their own rockets. The idea was to maximize flight height as well as protect the payload during re-entry. The top team was able to reach 104 meters and was almost out of sight due to a low cloud ceiling for the day. Teams were given points for launching straight up and for the successful deployment of the parachute. Each team selected a member to be at “mission control” and press the button to launch the two-stage rocket.

Heat Shield testing.

The next challenges were to learn about design and build protection against the heat of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere and to protect against the extreme cold of space. Heat shielding is critical for any space capsule or shuttle carrying humans back to the earth’s surface. Students used a selection of materials and asked to design and build a heat shield to protect an egg from a 2000-degree Fahrenheit flame. The flame simulates the heat generated from adiabatic compression of the air around a capsule traveling at 6.8 miles per second into Earth’s atmosphere around 4000 degrees F. Some worked well. Some did not.

Protecting astronauts from the complete lack of heat is also a problem. Students also designed and built a cryogenic chamber to protect an astronaut from freezing when placed into liquid nitrogen. Students were given the same materials used in the heat shielding design, including a choice of cork, insulation, aluminum foil, metal screen, steel wool, wax paper, and masking tape. Then students place a temperature probe and a marshmallow inside their ‘capsule’ that was tested inside a bath of liquid nitrogen at -320 degrees F.

NASA Buoyancy Lab

After building and flying rockets, constructing and testing heat and cryogenic shields, it was time to learn about actual astronaut training. The class visited the Neutral Buoyancy Lab used by NASA to train for spacewalks around the International Space Station.

Louis Austin (’20), Buddy Martens (’22), Victor Reyes (’20) and Jack Timmerman (’23) test their SCUBA skills.

The class went to a pool and learned to SCUBA dive, then performed basic tasks such as building an ‘airlock’ underwater without being able to communicate with anything but hand signals.

The fourth day of the week was spent building robots. Students worked on either a remote-controlled sample retrieval robot or an autonomous robot to travel a given path looking at colors and avoiding walls before parking in a designated area.

On the final day, the class had Brunch with Astronaut, Clayton Anderson, part-time faculty at Iowa State University. Anderson has been to space twice and participated in six spacewalks. His openness about how hard it is to leave family behind to travel to the International Space Station for five months was inspiring.

Brunch with Clay Anderson

The class wishes to thank Jeff Heitzman for connecting Loras College with Space Center University and for all his support leading up to the trip and during our visit to Houston. Jeff is a true Duhawk who supports Duhawks. His generosity boundless both with his time and in hosting us for a fabulous meal on Thursday night on the Kemah Boardwalk. We also wish to thank Tom Stierman, adjunct instructor of physics, from Loras for traveling with us.

Funding for the purchase of robots and other materials for this course was provided through a grant from the Iowa Space Grant Consortium.

About Loras College
Founded in 1839, Loras College leverages its historic roots as Iowa’s first college, the second oldest Catholic college west of the Mississippi River and one of the nation’s 10 diocesan colleges to deliver challenging, life-changing experiences as part of its residential, Catholic setting. In 2019, Loras was the second-highest ranked Catholic college in the state of Iowa according to College Consensus, the 16th Best Regional College in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report and one of America’s Top 200 Most Loved Colleges/Universities by Forbes Magazine for the third consecutive year. Loras students ranked No. 2 in the world as part of the global Peeptrade Investment Challenge while a second group ranked No. 4. For the 10th consecutive year, Loras Media Studies student-led television station (LCTV) was named the TV Station of the Year by the Iowa College Media Association (ICMA).