Freefalling (Possibly)

10/03/2011 10:02 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2011

Events of September 27th, 2011

One of the reasons Boston University was so attractive to me was that they had several clubs related to astronomy and space travel. I eagerly sought out the table for the BU chapters of SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), and AIAA (American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics) at the SPLASH student organizations expo after Matriculation.

All of the aerospace clubs (AIAA, SEDS, Rocket Team, and UAV Team) had a joint meeting the second week of school, so I went, got even more excited, signed up for almost all of them, and waited eagerly to hear when the first real meeting would be. So, when I got an e-mail informing me that the first AIAA meeting would be on Tuesday night, I was psyched. After classes, I put on my lucky denim jacket with all of my space pins and headed out to the Mechanical Engineering building.

I arrived a little early and talked to the club president, Emily Metivier. I'd gotten to talk with her at SPLASH (BU's Annual Activities Fair), so it was nice to catch up and talk about how our first few weeks of school had been. The other students arrived one-by-one, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that on a six-person team, we had an equal number of girls and boys. A lot of science- and space-related groups I'd been in before had been mostly male.

After we were settled in, Emily explained more about the project she'd discussed a little bit at the joint aerospace meeting- the NASA Microgravity University contest. We were supposed to submit a proposal for an experiment that could be conducted onboard the "Vomit Comet", a modified jet airliner with its seats removed that flies in parabolic arcs to simulate weightlessness for short periods. If our proposal was accepted, we would get to build our experiment, travel to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and fly with it onboard the plane- in microgravity!

Now THAT was exciting! I'd seen videos of astronaut trainees bouncing off the walls and playing weightless leapfrog, and they looked as if they'd been having a blast. Like many people, every now and then, I have dreams about flying without any external devices, just pushing off the floor and soaring through the air. This seemed like the closest I could get on this planet.

Of course, like real astronauts, we wouldn't just be there to have fun in microgravity, we'd have a mission--no team would get the chance to fly unless they were going to conduct a serious scientific experiment with real value. Our team's experiment would be determining how microgravity affected the material produced by a 3-D printer.

A 3-D printer creates objects out of plastic layer-by-layer according to computer commands. On a long space trip, astronauts could ideally use one to "print" needed tools or replacement parts on the spot... that is, if the printer works as well in space as it does on Earth. Our proposed experiment will see if material "printed" in microgravity is the same or better than material printed under normal conditions.

And the best part is that even though I'm not an engineering student, I can still help in a big way. One of the requirements for our proposal is that it include our plans for "outreach"--how we plan on informing our peers about our project and presenting it to grade-school students to help teach them about space and technology. I already suggested several ideas for outreach, including seeing if we can team-up with the Museum of Science. And, of course, this blog post is also a form of outreach!