What is LaSPACE?
The Louisiana Space Grant Consortium (LaSPACE) is a Designated Consortium in the NASA National Space Grant and Fellowship Program network, which was designed to network colleges, universities, and state education boards with partners in business, industry, and the non-profit sector in order to promote, develop, and strengthen aerospace science, research, technology, education, and awareness. Our mission is “To enhance Space and Aerospace related research, education, and public awareness throughout the State of Louisiana and thereby promote math/science education, training of professionals, and economic development.” LaSPACE promotes scientific research, workforce development, and public outreach to develop and strengthen long-term research capabilities within Louisiana that will make significant contributions to the research and technology Mission Directorates of NASA while supporting the goals of the state.
What is LaACES?
LaACES (Louisiana Aerospace Catalysts Experiences for Students) student ballooning program was developed in 2003 in response to growing concern that the NASA, aerospace industry and general STEM workforce was rapidly aging and the number of U.S. citizens training to become scientists and engineers was in steady decline, possibly jeopardizing the U.S. technological lead in the world as well as NASA’s ability to implement future missions. Over the last decade eight LaSPACE affiliates have participated in LaACES with, typically, 30 to 50 students involved each year. LaACES has also been the model for student ballooning programs developed by other Space Grant consortia as well as for programs of a national scope that focus on minority institutions, high school teacher training and advanced student payloads. These exceptional programs have been recognized by NASA with the Robert H. Goddard Exceptional Achievement Outreach – Team Award and a Group Achievement Award.
In the LaACES program students are exposed to the aerospace project development life cycle using the design, fabrication, testing and operation of small payloads (i.e. ~500 grams) launched on a latex sounding balloon “vehicle” which carries these experiments to the “edge of space” (~32 – 35 kilometers altitude). Typically, LaACES is a full academic year effort where the first semester is devoted to providing the participants with technical skills in electronics, real-time programming, mechanical design and project management. Progression through the content is guided by over 30 PowerPoint lectures supplemented by NASA material from the online Space Systems Engineering course (http://spacese.spacegrant.org/). Practical experience with this content is provided with over 30 hands-on activities that use a collection of pre-packaged electronic kits. These activities and kits enable the students to learn, for example, how to identify electronic components, solder, read an electronic schematic, trouble shoot an electronic circuit and calibrate sensors. The students also assemble the LaACES BalloonSat controller shown in Figure 1 that they use, in addition to learning real-time programming and sensor interfacing, later on in the program as their balloon payload controller. An important component to LaACES is the Project Management unit where students learn, among other topics, the typical project phases, how to identify and organize tasks, how to specify and manage risk, defining requirements, system design, documenting and presenting technical work and team work. Almost all of the concepts taught during this first semester end up being “life skills” for the students which are applicable throughout their career.
All these technical skills are then integrated during the second semester when the students form teams and progress through the design, development, fabrication and flight of a small balloon payload. During this progression the student teams are monitored through a series of major reviews where a formal document and presentation must be provided. A successful review allows the team to progress to the next step.
The types of payloads students design and build can range from the very complex to relatively simple instruments such as the payload shown in Figure 2. This payload uses an electronic circuit (seen in Fig 2), again provided as a LaACES kit, to interface temperature, pressure and humidity (TPH) sensors directly to the BalloonSat controller. The outer payload box is made with FOAMULAR® extruded polystyrene which is easy to machine, provides thermal insulation and is, perhaps surprisingly, mechanically strong. Flown to an altitude in excess of 100,000 feet the TPH payload provides a rich dataset for studying atmospheric structure including adiabatic cooling in the troposphere, identification of cloud layers, the transition to the stratosphere and the effects of UV absorption in the ozone layer.
At the end of the academic year, once all payloads are completed, teams from across Louisiana gather at the NASA CSBF site in Palestine, TX for the week-long flight operations event. Access to this site is relatively easy from Louisiana and it gives the students a chance to visit a NASA facility and interact with the resident engineers. On flight day, all payloads are strung together and attached to a latex weather balloon as shown in Figure 3. Once the balloon is released the vehicle ascends at a rate of about 1,100 feet per minute and, therefore, takes about 90 minutes to reach a peak altitude of about 100,000 feet where the balloon is cut away and the payload descend to the ground via parachute. After the payloads are recovered the students proceed with their data analysis and must present their science results to CSBF staff and engineers two days later. This “launch trip” is universally acclaimed by the students as the highlight of the year and enables them to fully appreciate the utility of what they learned as no other single event can.