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Shoot for the Moon: Engineering Students Showcase Prototypes at NASA Challenge

Three students work on a prototype for an autonomous rescue vehicle, which looks like a small boat, in a lab.
Written By Robyn Kontra Tanner and Gabby Ferreira | Photos by Dylan Head

By the time NASA’s Artemis II mission flies to the moon, some of the tools they’ll be using to ensure a successful mission could come from tech developed by Cal Poly students.

In early June, two teams of engineering students flew to Houston to compete in NASA’s Micro-g NExT (Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams) Challenge. The challenge invites student teams from around the country to design, build and test a tool or device that addresses a current challenge in space exploration. 

A student wearing safety goggles is in the background and the prototype for a dust tolerant extension handle mechanism, which looks like a small shovel, is the main focus.
Dylan Weiglein works on a piece of the extension handle mechanism prototype in mid-May.

The students present their projects at Johnson Space Center, where NASA staff test them under student direction. NASA doesn’t pick a winner — instead, they learn from all the prototypes as they develop solutions for future missions.

And one of the missions students could contribute to has a Mustang connection: astronaut and alumnus Victor Glover, who will be part of the Artemis II mission.

There are four categories that students can work within: astronaut training, International Space Station, Orion crew safety and lunar surface operations, with a specific project assigned under each category. Cal Poly’s teams worked on projects in the Orion crew safety and lunar surface operations categories.

Three students work on the autonomous rescue vehicle, which looks like a small boat, in a lab at Cal Poly.
Luke Sandsor, Mac Coltelli and Addison Sandvik work on their SAVER prototype on campus in mid-May.

The crew safety team created a surface autonomous vehicle for emergency response (SAVER), which would be used in the event of a failed launch. During a rocket launch, it’s too dangerous to put a crewed boat near the launch site, so an autonomous vehicle like this could act as a first response and possibly rescue the Artemis crew if something goes wrong. 

“The goal of the USV (unmanned surface vehicle) is to identify the hazards in the area, if any, so that search and rescue personnel can make informed decisions about how to retrieve the astronauts safely and to quickly provide resources to astronauts in the meantime,” said Addison Sandvik, an electrical engineering graduate student who’s been working on Cal Poly’s SAVER project since it started in September. “This device could also be used anytime astronauts end up in the ocean, including after the astronauts return to Earth from space.”

Sandvik, who was a fourth-year computer engineering student when the project began, worked with his team to modify existing software for the direction-finding system for the vehicle’s navigation system.

“That was my first experience of looking at somebody else’s code and making it do what I wanted,” he said. 

Six engineering students who worked on the SAVER autonomous device pose for a picture with their product in front of a swimming pool at NASA.
The SAVER team poses for a photo with their prototype at the Johnson Space Center. Team members include Addison Sandvik, Luke Sandsor, Mac Coltelli, Kobe Hayashi, Brian Wong, and Sebastian Rivero. Josh Alderson and Jake Alt also contributed during fall and winter quarters. Courtesy of Peter Schuster

Sandvik and the rest of his team’s hard work paid off: when they tested their device at the Johnson Space Center, it was the first boat to successfully reach the rescue beacon in three years of the competition.

“What we make definitely won’t be in the water on launch day, but what we do could give design ideas to NASA engineers,” Sandvik said.

The lunar surface operations team reviewed logs from the Apollo missions as they designed and built their prototype for a dust tolerant extension handle mechanism.

When astronauts go to the moon, they need a lot of lunar sample collection tools in the smallest form possible. An extension handle helps astronauts switch between collection tools more easily. These mechanisms were previously used the last time humans went to the moon, 50 years ago — and the dust proved difficult to deal with.

“Lunar dust is super harsh and abrasive,” said Dylan Weiglein, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student who worked on the project as his senior project. “The reason this project exists is because the mechanism that they used on the Apollo missions kept getting jammed up by the lunar dust.”

Two students work on a prototype for an extension mechanism handle at a lab at Cal Poly.
Dylan Weiglein and Sam Potter work on their extension handle mechanism prototype at Cal Poly in mid-May.

There are two options for dealing with the dust, according to team member Andrew Reese.

“The first would be making your design so tight that it’s impossible for dust to get into the mechanism. But we went the other route,” said Reese, a mechanical engineering student. “We can’t do anything about the dust, so let’s take a very open approach where no matter how much dust gets into our device, it’s still going to work.”

At the challenge, the mechanism received high marks for ease of use and functionality from both the diver who tested the device in a simulated microgravity environment and during the lunar dust simulant test.

Mechanical engineering professor Peter Schuster, who advised both teams, said his students performed well during the stress of testing, documenting results and making any necessary adjustments on the fly. Not only did they support each other, but they also worked well with other participating teams, he said. 

Four students gather around a protoype for an extension handle mechanism at NASA.
The dust tolerant extension handle mechanism team checks on their prototype at the Johnson Space Center. Team members include Dylan Weiglein, Andrew Reese, Sam Potter and Matt Redmond. Courtesy of Peter Schuster

“I was proud to see how well they represented Cal Poly, both through their prototypes’ success and their interactions with others,” Schuster said.

Reese, who also worked on the prototype as his senior project, said the experience has helped him narrow down industries he is passionate about.

“This challenge showed me that no matter what steps I take when I start my career path, I now know one area that gets me excited,” he said.

Weiglein added that this was their first experience with the engineering design process starting from scratch and seeing it through to the finished product.

“It definitely gave us a lot of insight into how projects like this work, what your expectations should be for lead times, and finding the best ideation and manufacturing strategies,” Weiglein said.

Before the teams flew to Houston, Reese told Cal Poly News that he was honored to participate in engineering work on one of the most historic campuses in American space exploration.

“We’re going to be bringing our ideas to a place where some of humanity’s greatest ideas have been conceptualized and born,” Reese said. “I’m still just shocked that my Cal Poly education has provided me an opportunity like that.”

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