In the 12-year history of NASA’s High Altitude Student Platform program, only five community colleges have sent payloads into outer space, and College of the Canyons — the first community college selected — will participate in next month’s launch for a third time, and again in 2019.
“There are no other community colleges doing this,” said Teresa Ciardi, the COC Astronomy and Physics Club’s adviser. “When we started in 2016, we were the only community college selected.”
Universities from around the world compete for one of 12 spots on the HASP platform, which is a collaborative venture of the NASA Balloon Program Office and the Louisiana Space Consortium. The space balloon operates at anywhere between 100,000 and 120,00 feet for up to 24 hours, and provides a launch platform for 12 student research experiments.
“It is anticipated that the payloads carried by HASP will be designed and built by students and will be used to flight-test compact satellites or prototypes and to fly other small experiments,” according to NASA’s website. “The major goals of the HASP program are to foster student excitement in an aerospace career path and to help address workforce development issues in this area.”
The balloon that’s sent to space is multiple stories tall and at least 10 times bigger than any weather balloon, said Patrick Gagnon, COC’s project lead for the HASP experiment. “They use semi trucks to fill it up with helium at the launch,” which is set for Aug. 31.
In the three years’ of involvment by COC and Gagnon, the team has never been able to see its payload reach for the stars in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
“We couldn’t fly last year because of funding, and we barely flew in HASP this year,” Gagnon said. “In fact, we didn’t know until two weeks before (the launch) that we were going to be able to,” which is crucial because a part needs to be installed before the payload heads to space.
The HASP experiment is part of COC’s Astronomy and Physics Club, but unlike most clubs, the experiment is an entire year’s ordeal that requires extra time, effort and funding.
MAKING THE MACHINE
Gagnon’s expertise and experience in the program have allowed him to create an inclusive team that everybody wants to be a part of, which is why the team has grown to such a large number, Ciardi said.
In years prior, scholars from Academy of the Canyons, iLEAD Schools and West Ranch High School have worked in the program, and she hopes more will join next year.
“Fall semester is spent coming up with a design, writing a proposal and recruiting students,” Gagnon said. Once the proposal is accepted, the club starts building parts at the Center for Applied and Competitive Technologies and programming the flight computer in the on-campus MakerSpace.
Gagnon spent his first two years in the club as a mechanical lead, which has allowed him to take what he learned and ensure that his team knew what to expect.
“To build the payload, I instructed the team to use aircraft-grade aluminum, and a lot of lightweight materials that are good for heat retention, including (plastics) and polycarbonate. We also wrote the code that allowed us to 3D-print everything,” Gagnon said.
TESTING THE MACHINE
Once built, the machine has to go through extensive testing to ensure the payload will operate in space, Gagnon said. The payload is limited to a weight of 6 pounds. It also has to withstand the extreme temperatures of space, because if it blows a fuse or crumbles when it hits -60 degrees Celsius, then NASA is sending up a rock that won’t collect data.
“There were four university teams that aren’t flying this year because their payloads didn’t work,” Ciardi said. “Some schools have professors build the payload, but here students come up with the design, test it and build it. They know their payload inside and out and can fix anything because they know what to look for.”
EFFECT ON THE COLLEGE
It’s a cool idea to think about the local college launching rockets and assisting NASA, but the big payoff of the payload project is how much the college benefits, Ciardi said. “One of the really cool things coming out of this — besides the launch — is we now have students who have secured JPL internships, CalTech internships and the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) Internship,” which all provide direct access to job experience and networking opportunities.
The HASP program has also made a difference in students’ ability to transfer, Ciardi said. “If you’re not a straight-A student but you have this project experience, then the university will take another look at you and say, ‘We want you here,’ and that’s huge.”
Gagnon was able to secure the NCAS internship, “(which) gives community college STEM students an authentic NASA experience and encourages them to finish a two-year degree or transfer to a four-year university to pursue a NASA-related field or career,” according to the NCAS website.
“The opportunity is really helpful because something like 50 percent of NCAS interns who apply for real or full-time positions at NASA end up getting in,” Gagnon said. He will discover which of the 10 NASA centers across the country he’ll be placed at sometime this week.
“Obviously, (COC’s HASP experiment) isn’t just another project to give money to,” said Bruce Fortine, an advocate of the program. “It’s creating jobs, experience and benefiting the college in many ways.”
COC intends to reuse this year’s HASP project in 2019, but the group is aiming for one of four large payload slots, instead of the eight smaller ones available.
“We’re hoping the larger payload slot will give the team the ability to gather more data, because acids in the stratosphere are a big deal (and) even the smallest amount can cause harm,” Gagnon said.
The second project that will be launched in 2019 is for the program RockSat-X, Gagnon said. “Basically, our project will go up on a rocket to test the potential of an auto rotating capsule, which would negate the use of parachutes and save weight on launches.”
It’s technology that NASA looked into during the 1960s, Gagnon said, “but there isn’t a lot of research available, so we wanted to look at it.”
NEED FOR FUNDING
“During this entire process, one of my roles as their adviser is to find funding so they can put this innovative project into flight,” Ciardi said. “That’s actually really hard to do as a community college.”
“We rely on a few special donors — like the chancellor and former student Alan Lewis — but it’s a yearlong process pulling together funding to allow our students to do this,” Ciardi said. HASP doesn’t charge to fly, but the club still needs to pay for the other half of its spot on the RockSat-X rocket.
Thanks to Rosalind Wayman, a field deputy in Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office, students were given travel money this year to get to the launch in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, Ciardi said.
But as soon as they launch HASP this month, “I will be back at my yearlong process trying to find funding, while students get back to envisioning designs and writing proposals that will impact the world.”