SJSU engineering students defy gravity in NASA’s innovative educational flight program

This summer marks 45 years since the Apollo 11 lunar landing and Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon’s surface, a milestone that has generated renewed public interest in what it’s like for an astronaut to experience zero gravity. Five students from mechanical, electrical and aerospace engineering don’t have to speculate – they have experienced firsthand the wonder of reduced gravity flight.

SJSU Team DMASS in front of the NASA 932 C9-B Weightless Wonder. From l-r, Kevin Adinata (EE), Ricardo Delgado (ME), Dr. Winncy Du, Ixtli-Nitzin "Ish" Sanchez (ME), Julia Bowen (AE), Eduardo Alvarez (EE).
SJSU Team DMASS in front of the NASA 932 C9-B Weightless Wonder. From l-r, Kevin Adinata (EE), Ricardo Delgado (ME), Dr. Winncy Du, Ixtli-Nitzin “Ish” Sanchez (ME), Julia Bowen (AE), Eduardo Alvarez (EE). 

The SJSU crew was one of 13 U.S. teams selected by NASA, out of more than 60 proposals, to participate in its innovative Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program (RGEFP) at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, this summer. SJSU partnered with the U.S. Naval Research Lab (NRL), in Washington, D.C., and SRI International, in Menlo Park, on this unique research experience.

SJSU DMASS team members, Ixtli-Nitzin "Ish" Sanchez and Julia Bowen diagnose experiment and review action plan for next parabola with Professor Winncy Du.

SJSU DMASS team members, Ixtli-Nitzin “Ish” Sanchez and Julia Bowen diagnose experiment and review action plan for next parabola with Professor Winncy Du.

In July, after months of preparation, Team DMASS (Debris Mitigation for Carbon Fiber Removal Applicable for Satellite Servicing) members (ME seniors, Ixtli-Nitzin “Ish” Sanchez and Ricardo Delgado; EE seniors, Kevin Adinata and Eduardo Alvarez; and AE junior, Julia Bowen), along with their major faculty advisor, ME Professor Winncy Du, flew to Houston. In addition, two key members of the core senior project design team, ME seniors Scott Gulkin and Phillip Swanson, were unable to go to Houston with the team due to their work schedules. During the academic year, they worked hard behind the scenes, contributing many long hours to the technical success of the experiment.

According to NASA, this once-in-a-lifetime program gives undergraduate students the opportunity to design, build, fly and test their proposed experiments aboard a specially modified aircraft able to simulate reduced gravity environments. Dubbed “Weightless Wonder,” the aircraft flies approximately 30 sets of roller coaster-like climbs and dives, producing periods of near weightlessness and hypergravity, ranging from 0 to 2 g’s.

NASA’s highly competitive RGEFP selection process, based upon scientific merit and education outreach potential, required the SJSU students to create a hefty proposal describing their research with detailed diagrams, illustrations and specifications. The final, 41-page proposal was submitted to NASA in early November 2013, and two months passed before the team learned they were accepted into the program. Thus followed an intense spring semester as SJSU’s Team DMASS worked hard to modify and completely redesign every component they used because of NASA’s stringent safety standards.