Durham Tech partners with NASA, headed to the edge of space

Dan Daugherty, a Durham Tech alumnus, explains how a Bluetooth-enabled testing rig streams data to a laptop used in a NASA initiative during an on-campus testing day in May.

Dan Daugherty, a Durham Tech alumnus, explains how a Bluetooth-enabled testing rig streams data to a laptop used in a NASA initiative during an on-campus testing day in May.

As most Durham Technical Community College students head to their vehicles on Wednesday evenings, the geology lab inside the Harold K. Collins Building roars to life.

The GEL lab, as the group calls it, is home to a full NASA workstation, complete with multi-colored wires, power tools, makeshift gadgets, and 13 innovative minds. Their purpose: testing the edge of space.

Julie Hoover, a geology instructor in the Arts, Sciences, and University Transfer department at Durham Tech, said the students’ involvement goes far beyond the classroom.

“They’ve had so many opportunities just from having this extra real world project management experience on their resumes,” Hoover said. “A few of the students have said to me they never thought they’d be able to do something like this, especially at a community college.”

Calling themselves ‘The Unacceptable Risks,’ the group is comprised of 10 current and former Durham Tech students and three students from other Triangle universities. They are participating in the High Altitude Student Platform flight program – or HASP as it’s commonly called. The program is designed to foster excitement in aerospace careers and to boost student excitement in the industry.

The Unacceptable Risks left July 9 for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland where they are conducting a mini-integration, or test run, of their payload for five days. Students will conduct vacuum and thermal testing to make sure the payload works before a full dress rehearsal in Texas later this month.

As a part of the project, the Durham Tech group will send a student payload on a massive 2,000 pound platform along with 11 other payloads to an altitude of more than 22 miles.

The group was notified in February that their two-part, 60-page application to participate in the HASP program had been approved. The Durham Tech group will join an impressive list of university programs, including: Arizona State University, University of Minnesota, University of Central Florida, University of Maryland, University of Houston, University of Colorado, University of North Florida/University of North Dakota, University of Bridgeport, College of the Canyons, Renert School, and McMaster University.

In partnership with the NASA Balloon Program Office and the Louisiana Space Consortium, HASP will carry the 12 payloads via the platform using an 11.8 million cubic foot high altitude balloon this fall.

Acceptance to the HASP program on a first try for four-year colleges is rare, Hoover said.

For community colleges, it’s nearly unheard of.

As first-time applicants, she said, the initiative has put Durham Tech on the aerospace map.

“When I saw all of our information on the HASP website it was really exciting,” Hoover said. “This is really happening.”

In September, students will travel to the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where they will hand off their project to NASA and help launch the payloads into the upper atmosphere.

The platform will take 1.5 hours to ascend 122,000 feet, hold the floating altitude for 12-16 hours, and then descend for an hour, landing up to six hours away from the launch point.

Durham Tech student Dan Koris wires a sensor assembly to make sure it functions safely and reliably during thermal testing at the Durham Tech main campus in May.

Durham Tech student Dan Koris wires a sensor assembly to make sure it functions safely and reliably during thermal testing at the Durham Tech main campus in May.

The Durham Tech team’s contribution to the platform is the Greenhouse, Ozone and Atmospheric Trace Gas – or G.O.A.T. – project, which will collect sulfur dioxide and atmospheric gas in the stratosphere. Daniel Koris, head of the electrical and software engineer teams of The Unacceptable Risks, is most looking forward to the moment G.O.A.T. sends data to the ground from space.

“That’s the part I’m responsible for,” Koris said. “When it’s actually in space and sending data down I’ll be so happy and relieved. That’ll be exciting.”

In addition to full-time course loads and part-time jobs, the group works 20-30 hours per week on the project.

“This is a part-, if not full-time job on top of your workload,” said Jimmy Acevedo, a Durham Tech alumnus, student team lead of The Unacceptable Risks, and current student at North Carolina Central University. “I got a couple of B’s this semester that could have been A’s, but I made that choice consciously. I feel like this is actually more important than my academics because this is more valuable real world experience.”

For the second year, Acevedo was invited to intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland due to his involvement in the project. Acevedo said the internship is a vote of confidence and he hopes they’ll be hiring in 2018.

Koris, who moved from Greensboro to attend Durham Tech, said the project has helped him inside and out of the classroom.

“I took physics this semester, which is tied into so much of what we’re doing. This project reinforces my knowledge of physics,” Koris said. “You learn a lot of time management skills and real world applications. You have to balance your schoolwork and the work on the project. One is going to take priority over the other. It’s a level of commitment that’s not for everybody.”

The overtime hours and pressure students experience on the team is a huge undertaking, Acevedo said. But he sees a shot at NASA as well-worth the sacrifice.

“This has been an absolute life changer,” Acevedo said. “Going from college dropout to potential NASA engineer – this is the kind of stuff that makes those changes. I am deeply grateful and deeply fortunate to have these opportunities.”

Since November 2016, The Unacceptable Risks have raised more than $18,000 on their own to make the dream a reality. A $5,000 contribution from North Carolina Space Grant in addition to funding from T-shirt sales, networking, and a GoFundMe campaign have all been allocated to offset costs of travel expenses and project supplies.

Students will be traveling to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, July 9-13, for a mini-integration, or test run, of their payload. Three weeks later, students will travel to Texas for a full dress rehearsal at NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, one of two locations, where they will connect G.O.A.T. to a live fire version of the HASP gondola. Students must prove their payload works before the official launch in September.

Students will apply to participate in the HASP flight program again next year, Hoover said. Those interested in joining The Unacceptable Risks may contact Hoover at 919-536-7200, x8021 or hooverj@durhamtech.edu, but requirements of student members are stringent.

“These students have the drive,” Hoover said. “If there’s something they don’t know, they’re going to dig it up and make sure they do know it. That passion, drive and willingness to overcome obstacles is what I’m looking for.”

Durham Tech alumnus Jimmy Acevedo, a project leader for a Durham Tech group involved in the High Altitude Student Platform flight program, connects a pump for a test exercise. The NASA-involved project will involve a dozen colleges and universities from across the country.

Durham Tech alumnus Jimmy Acevedo, a project leader for a Durham Tech group involved in the High Altitude Student Platform flight program, connects a pump for a test exercise. The NASA-involved project will involve a dozen colleges and universities from across the country.