Team VacuuTherm may be earthbound, but the fruits of their labors will not be.
There was something magic about that idea as a group of University of Houston students spent hours—and days and weeks—last spring to complete an ambitious senior project, refurbishing a small, out-of-date vacuum chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center so it can be used to test components bound for the International Space Station and, potentially, Mars or other deep space destinations.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Phillip Stephens, who led the student team. “How many other college students can say they worked at NASA?”
The five-member team—Ruben Rodriguez, Scott Rodriguez, Joseph Settles and Angela Velasquez, along with Stephens—all were seniors in the College of Technology’s mechanical engineering technology program, which requires students to complete a senior design project.
Senior design projects are intended to ensure students have hands-on knowledge, as well as an understanding of the theory behind it, said Medhat El Nahas, instructional assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology and the faculty advisor for the team. “If we don’t have a product, we feel we have failed,” he said.
No risk of that with this project, now housed in a Johnson Space Center lab that handles pre-testing and certification of components used in NASA projects. That typically involves equipment needed for the International Space Station, but Evelyne Orndoff, soft goods design and testing team lead at NASA, said it could include components for the Orion program or a future trip to Mars or another deep space goal.
NASA has sent a fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers to Mars, increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet and taking a crucial step toward plans to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s. Astronauts working in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station are testing many of the technologies and communications systems needed for human deep space missions, and all of those components first have to be tested on the ground.
How did a group of students from the University of Houston land such a cool project?
It started with Settles, one of the team members, who had worked as an engineering technologist at Johnson Space Center for almost 20 years.
The students shared a class the previous summer and decided to work together on the senior design project. They considered several ideas, including building a car for the annual collegiate competition run by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Then Settles offered a suggestion. Through his job—Orndoff is his supervisor—he knew that an outdated vacuum chamber in one of the Johnson Space Center materials labs needed to be rebuilt.
The team was sold.
The bell jar chamber had been used from 1989 until 2008. It no longer could reach the needed conditions—heating and cooling elements to achieve a 500 degree temperature swing and simulating pressures ranging from low-Earth orbit to deep space. Researchers have a new, larger vacuum chamber, but the 100 liter chamber works more quickly and is less expensive to operate.
The students sent Orndoff a proposal. She thought it was a good idea, and ultimately it was approved, funded by a $3,000 grant.
NASA already had a Space Act agreement with UH, and Orndoff said this project was added to the existing agreement.
Vacuum chambers help in testing by creating a low pressure environment after air and other gases are removed by a vacuum pump. That allows researchers to conduct experiments or test mechanical devices or components that will be used in space by simulating atmospheric conditions there.
The newer chamber used at Johnson Space Center is larger and more expensive to operate than the older chamber; because of that, it has typically been used only after the hardware has been assembled. If a problem is detected, engineers troubleshoot to determine which component is at fault. Individually testing components before assembly—something the smaller chamber will make more practical—could avoid that issue, Orndoff said.
It required a lot of hands-on work, as the team upgraded gaskets and seals, custom-machined plugs and pump connections and powder-coated the exterior components.
The students conferred regularly with NASA engineers during their work, and they talked with NASA vendors, too, forming relationships that Settles said proved helpful as the deadline approached. Orndoff said the students also contributed ideas of their own.
“We benefit from having a whole team to share minds on a project,” she said.
They chose a name, Team VacuuTherm, created a website and spent every Wednesday in the NASA lab, using the College of Technology machine shop to make some components, and starting over when something didn’t work the first time.
They bought a heating element and custom-designed the cooling element, Ruben Rodriguez said.
And they learned to navigate the rules and regulations that come with working at a government agency, even as the deadline drew nearer.
“It’s a privilege and a benefit that we’re working with NASA,” Settles said, despite the extra time required to meet some of the rules. “Each step has been a learning curve.”
And all of the rules—including the requirement to get three quotes before every purchase—well, they are part of being an engineer, he said.
Orndoff agreed. Another workplace may not operate in exactly the same way as the space agency does, but it will have rules of its own, and successful employees will learn to navigate them.
By the time the refurbished chamber was complete, the lab had customers waiting to use it.
“There was a demand for this level of testing,” Orndoff said. “It has been a mutual benefit. The students learned, and we get the small vacuum chamber back.”