To the edge of space and back, Durham Tech NASA mission a success

One year after Durham Tech students embarked on their first NASA mission, they found themselves sitting in the grass at 7 a.m. Labor Day morning anxiously awaiting the launch of the 2017 High Altitude Balloon Platform at the Columbia Scientific Ballooning Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

“It was a huge relief to watch it take off,” said North Carolina Central University student Jimmy Acevedo, a Durham Tech alumnus and team lead of ‘The Unacceptable Risks.’ “It represented over a year of work and hundreds and hundreds of man hours. To watch it soar up into the air was a pretty good feeling.”

The group is comprised of 10 current and former Durham Tech students and three students from neighboring Triangle universities. They participated in the High Altitude Student Platform flight program – or HASP as it’s commonly referred to – which is designed to foster excitement in aerospace careers and to boost student excitement in the industry.

The Durham Tech team’s contribution to the platform was the Greenhouse, Ozone and Atmospheric Trace Gas – or GOAT – project, which collected sulfur dioxide and atmospheric gas in the stratosphere.

“The launch itself was incredible and overwhelming,” said Julie Hoover, a geology instructor in the Arts, Sciences, and University Transfer department at Durham Tech and faculty sponsor of HASP. “I had to remind myself that we had done this. We had put together something that was now going to be cruising around near space for the next 18 hours. Being able to see GOAT a part of that and a part of such an official NASA mission was really incredible in an overwhelmingly emotional way that I was not prepared for.”

In partnership with the NASA Balloon Program Office and the Louisiana Space Consortium, HASP carried 12 student payloads via the platform using an 11.8 million cubic foot high altitude balloon. The massive 2,000 pound platform included projects from 11 other schools around the country and ascended to an altitude of more than 22 miles.

“It’s been incredible to see the students come together as a team throughout this process,” Hoover said. “To start off with just a rough idea of what we were doing and really research, seek out answers and bear down until they were all experts on components of the project – it’s been really exciting to watch them blossom.”

In addition to full-time course loads and part-time jobs, the students worked 20 to 30 hours per week on the project for the past year. It was difficult, but all the more rewarding, Acevedo said.

“Projects like this provide a huge amount of hands-on experience that you don’t normally get inside the classroom,” Acevedo said. “It provides purpose toward the things you’re actually learning, like why am I actually going through hours and hours of calculus – it’s because we do things like this. At the end of the day, students banging wood, plastic, and metal together and learning how things are built is a very valuable thing that translates to all walks of life.”

Students describe the takeaway from this project as significant.

“To watch live video of something I helped build, program and essentially make work, fly around in near space – it was life changing,” said Dan Koris, software and electrical team lead for HASP and current Durham Tech student. “I now have more meaning to the future of my career. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for almost anything.”

The Unacceptable Risks are currently in the application process to participate in HASP again next year. Their project will involve robotic arms with computer vision that will mimic what robotic arms do through satellite servicing. The team will be notified in mid-January if their application is approved.