Feature

The Right Stuff

UB has served as a launchpad for dozens of careers in the space industry—and new stars are forming every day

Map of Mercury by John S. King

By Rebecca Rudell

            John S. King (MA ’57, BA ’55)

Whether through alumni, faculty or the next generation of students who promise to take us where no one has gone before, UB’s ties to NASA are sundry and deep. Some individuals are well known—like Greg Jarvis (BS ’67), crew member on the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded after launch in 1986. Others, like the late John S. King (MA ’57, BA ’55)—a geology professor who ran a NASA intern program at UB for 20 years and mapped Mars and Mercury from satellite pictures—made significant advances working under the radar. But each person has played an important role in unlocking the complex mysteries of the cosmos.

Following are profiles of alumni whose work has deepened our understanding of worlds beyond our own. And because the quest is ongoing, we also highlight a number of current students who are well on their way to making discoveries that may change how we see our planet, our universe and, ultimately, ourselves.

STELLAR ALUMNI

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The STS-50 Columbia

Ellen Shulman Baker, BS ’74

Former NASA astronaut, currently works as a consulting physician with MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas

A geology major at UB, Ellen Shulman Baker subsequently received a master’s in public health from the University of Texas and an MD from Cornell University Medical College before joining NASA as a physician in 1981. In 1984, she was chosen for the astronaut program and, over the next 11 years, completed three space missions, logging 686 hours and 11.6 million miles orbiting the Earth. She even brought a UB geology flag on the space shuttle!

On gravity: We’ve learned about the physiologic effects of flying in space. For example, about two-thirds of astronauts feel space motion sickness for one to two days after getting to orbit. There’s also a fluid shift in the near absence of gravity. When you take gravity away, fluids redistribute from the lower extremities to the upper torso and head, and some astronauts experience elevated intracranial pressure, which can cause changes in vision.

On why we do it: Space exploration is a very important human endeavor for many reasons. Humans have always been explorers; we seek to understand our surroundings and our “place” in the universe. On a more practical note, designing, building and operating spaceships has resulted in new technologies in fields like communications, aviation, electronics and robotics. An indirect benefit people don’t generally consider is how space travel inspires young children to study science and math.

The Orion spacecraft

Dexter Johnson, PhD ’95, MS ’89, BS ’87

Chief, Structural Dynamics Branch, NASA Glenn Research Center

Flight, astronomy and planets have always fascinated Dexter Johnson, even though he didn’t set foot on a plane until he was 20. At NASA, he ensures that structures used for spacecraft can withstand the powerful forces associated with space flight. In 2014, he helped launch the Orion spacecraft, built to take humans deeper into space than ever before, on its first test flight. Now he’s prepping for Exploration Mission 1, which will send Orion around the moon in 2017.

On choosing a path: During the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school, I was in a program for underrepresented students at UB [which became UB’s BEAM (Buffalo-area Engineering Awareness for Minorities) program in 1982]. I took two courses: Introduction to Engineering and Introduction to Computers and Engineering. By the time I finished those classes, I was 100 percent sure I wanted to study aerospace engineering.

On the future of space travel: We’re experiencing an emergence of commercial space travel. People are already signing up—and willing to give their lives—for a one-way trip to Mars. I think we’re going to see a lot more of those types of things, where ordinary citizens have the opportunity to go into space. Who knows, some day people may be able to take a trip to a space station resort!

MAVEN

Dave Mitchell, BS ’84

Director of Flight Projects, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

From testing rockets with the U.S. Navy to directing flight projects at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Dave Mitchell has experienced some thrilling (and nerve-wracking) events, including getting the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) spacecraft safely into Mars orbit in September 2014—his proudest moment.

On MAVEN: MAVEN is the first mission to Mars going after upper-atmosphere research. When you hear about climate change on Earth, there was also climate change on Mars, but it was over a period of 4 billion years. Scientists believe that Mars was once much more like Earth in terms of oceans, a lot of water, a thick atmosphere—but something happened to change all that. It’s MAVEN’s mission to better understand what changed and why.

On his Earthly activities: I’m a strong advocate for reaching the next generation of space explorers. I volunteer judge at middle-school science fairs and present the NASA mission to science classes. I also work with a local Boy Scout troop. I’ve been a math tutor at a community college, a teacher of English as a Second Language and vice president of the Northern Virginia Council for Big Brothers. But most of my time these days revolves around family activities with my wife and two kids.

The James Webb Space Telescope

Chris Scolese, BS ’78

Center Director, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

From drawing pictures of rockets in kindergarten to leading the entire NASA agency as an interim acting administrator, Chris Scolese has always had space in his blood. Now, as the center director at Goddard—which he insists is the best job in the agency—he’s responsible for more than 40 active projects, including the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest telescope ever to be launched into space.

On his hopes and dreams: I’d like to be a part of achieving three things. Developing a good model of the Earth so we can be the best stewards possible. Detecting life—I don’t care if it’s microbial life or sentient beings, whether it’s in our solar system or on an exoplanet. And I’d like to see humans leave our planet and thrive on another celestial body, whether it’s the moon or Mars or … well, those are probably the only two likely ones right now.

On what he’s reading: You can probably guess I like reading science fiction. I read “The Martian,” which is a little weak on the physics, but a really fun story. My only critique is that Mars doesn’t work like that—and we would never leave an astronaut behind! I also enjoy reading how other people accomplished significant things—like how they built the Brooklyn Bridge, the Transcontinental Railway, the Panama Canal. They were leading the challenges of their times and there are parallels to what we do today.

The Curiosity rover’s Sky Crane touchdown system

Jeff Umland, PhD ’91, BS ’85

Chief Mechanical Engineer and Instrument Deployment Phase Lead for InSight, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Fellow

Jeff Umland knows a thing or two about the Red Planet. His InSight mission will study Mars’ interior to help us understand how rocky planets in our solar system were formed. Previously, he was chief mechanical engineer for the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, thanks to the incredibly innovative Sky Crane touchdown system Umland helped invent. (Click on the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video link below to see the anxiety-inducing landing of the Sky Crane.)

On Curiosity: The Mars Curiosity rover is big—roughly 2,000 pounds, about the weight of a car and the height of Shaquille O’Neal—but the power source puts out only about 100 watts, the same as a lightbulb. It’s an incredibly capable lab instrument with a robotic arm that can drill into rocks and collect material. It also has a laser beam that can zap a rock without touching it to determine what kind of minerals are within. Basically, we carried our own laser beam to Mars.

On the next big thing: Some of the CubeSats [small cube-shaped satellites with 10cm sides] that a lot of universities are taking on—and the miniaturization of different technologies—are like the revolution that happened in the late ’70s and ’80s when we went from big mainframe computers to PCs. CubeSats are easy to launch, relatively small, relatively inexpensive—they’re going to open up all kinds of opportunities in the future.

A CONSTELLATION OF CLUBS AND COMPETITIONS

UB students pursue a plethora of space-related projects, from designing rovers for NASA to helping the Air Force protect U.S. satellites. Here’s a closer look at our various clubs, teams and activities—and a few of the students and professors who make them soar.

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UB’s entry in AIAA’s Design/Build/Fly competition

UB AIAA | Student organization

UB Chapter Adviser: Manoranjan Majji, assistant professor, mechanical and aerospace engineering

For the love of aerospace
With 5,000+ student members worldwide—and 30,000 members overall—the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA) is the mothership of organizations devoted to space. UB’s chapter is led by Manoranjan Majji, who coaches students in AIAA competitions like Design/Build/Fly, aimed at creating a remote-controlled aircraft to address specific missions.

Manoranjan Majji on working with UB students: “I’m constantly surprised by what they bring to the table. They’re go-getters—you give them a problem and they deliver. That’s why I come to work. That’s what makes me smile.”

UB-SEDS rocketry launch

UB-SEDS | Student club

President: Daniel Miller, senior majoring in aerospace engineering

Students running the show
Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) is the largest student-run space club in the world. The organization helps high school and college students get involved in national projects, network with contemporaries and experts from around the world, and participate in the highly anticipated SpaceVision conference. UB’s chapter recently launched its own rockets with the Upstate Research Rocketry Group.

GLADOS team members

GLADOS | Engineering intramurals program

Adviser: John Crassidis, PhD ’93, MS ’91, BS ’89, CUBRC Professor in Space Situational Awareness
Project Lead: Mara Boardman, senior majoring in aerospace engineering
 

Big ideas, little packages
There are hundreds of thousands of objects orbiting our planet, collectively known as space junk. Any one of these objects could collide with a weather or communications satellite—or even a human-occupied spacecraft—with devastating results, and yet the U.S. Air Force and NASA are currently tracking only about 22,000 of them. It’s clear they could use some help.

Enter GLADOS (Glint Analyzing Data Observation Satellite), a UB project that’s part of the Air Force’s University Nanosatellite Program competition. About 60 undergraduate and graduate students are designing and building GLADOS, a microsatellite roughly the size of a shoebox with cameras designed to observe “glint” events, which indicate where a piece of space junk is located, how large it is, etc. The Air Force takes this information and reorients satellites and crafts to avoid collision. GLADOS is expected to launch in 2017.

UB also won a competition to build a microsatellite for the NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative. The team spent the past summer developing and testing the microsatellite for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which is expected to launch in 2018.

Mara Boardman on building GLADOS: “Space is a very difficult environment to design for. There’s a lot of late-night researching, testing ideas we come up with to see if they work and, if they don’t, finding alternate solutions.”

HELIOS concept

HELIOS | NASA internship

Student: Adonis Pimienta-Peñalver, MS ’13, BS ’11, PhD student in aerospace engineering

Cool concept
NASA’s HELIOS (High-Performance Enabling Low-Cost Innovative Operational Heliogyro SolarSail) is a concept that proposes the use of solar energy to create thrust, eliminating the need for on-board fuel. When the six blades—which are thinner than a human hair—are fully deployed, the solar sail is more than a quarter mile across. Possible missions include imaging the Sun’s poles and other celestial bodies outside our solar system.

Space Bulls at the Rockyard

Space Bulls | NASA student competition

Advisers: Kevin Burke, PhD ’10, MS ’04, BS ’97, teaching assistant professor, electrical engineering; Jennifer Zirnheld, PhD ’04, MS ’97, BS ’93, associate professor, electrical engineering

Life on Mars
The Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Exploration Robo-Ops Competition is an annual event sponsored by NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace. Students from across the country design and build their own Mars rovers, which then compete in a series of challenges at NASA Johnson Space Center’s Rockyard (which simulates Mars’ surface). UB’s team—the Space Bulls—took third place in the 2015 competition with its rover, Astraeus II, and the team is going back in 2016. Go Bulls!

Micro-g NExT quad claw

Micro-g NExT | NASA student competition

Adviser: Manoranjan Majji
Project Leads: Ifechukwu Ononye, senior majoring in aerospace engineering, and Seamus Lombardo, junior majoring in aerospace engineering

The NExT generation
NASA’s Microgravity Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (Micro-g NExT) competition challenges undergrads to come up with solutions to real NASA issues. The most recent request was a tool to help astronauts grab float samples from an asteroid. UB students used 3-D printers and laser cutters to design a “quad claw,” which uses a trigger system to operate the claw mechanism and can hold up to four objects.

Ifechukwu Ononye on his NASA experience: “I was one of seven UB students who went to Houston to watch NASA divers test our team’s prototype in their Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. We got a lot of feedback from the divers and it felt great knowing that the quad claw performed successfully.”

Kristina Monakhova at NASA Robotics Academy

NASA Robotics Academy | NASA internship

Student: Kristina Monakhova, senior majoring in electrical engineering

Space camp
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center offers a robotics internship program each summer. Teams of students work together on assigned projects, network with space industry leaders, attend lectures and go on field trips to other NASA centers. At the end of the summer, students create posters explaining their projects in hopes of winning prizes, as well as the attention of NASA managers and staff. Monakhova’s team came in first place in the poster contest.

UB Robotics student with robot

UB Robotics | Student club

Rock ’em sock ’em
Founded in 2001, UB Robotics is an undergraduate club that focuses, logically, on the engineering of robots. From Bot Wars (where student-built robots spar to the death) to Rescue-Bot (all-terrain robots designed to help with search and rescue), UB’s bots can do anything but students’ homework—for now.

Rebecca Rudell is a contributing writer for At Buffalo. Her father, Dave Rudell (BS ’64), is an electrical engineer who worked for NASA’s Apollo program in the late ’60s.