Chemistry students earn spot in NASA microgravity program

By Alec Jennings
University News Service
March 9, 2009

On the third floor of the Texas State University-San Marcos Chemistry building, Nick Mustachio, senior, chemistry, starts passing out handouts and trying to keep the group motivated to continue working at 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon.

The stakes for the group of five Texas State seniors and one junior are high. All operating with full class schedules and a myriad of other responsibilities, every group member, especially Mustachio, knows that by the middle of April, all of their paper work, study and engineering need to be completed by deadline, because when June 4 arrives, they will begin their training at the Johnson Space center in Houston. On June 13 the group will take to the skies to perform a microgravity experiment on June as a part of NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.

"I am definitely looking forward to experiencing microgravity. I can’t imagine anything cooler than that," Mustachio said. "I am also looking forward to sharing the experience in Houston with everyone in the group. I would say I’m a little nervous about making sure everything works right in a timely manner before we go to Houston."

Each year, top undergraduate students from some of the top programs across the country apply for the opportunity to propose, build and ultimately fly to perform a reduced gravity experiment. After taking off in a Zero-G plane from the Johnson Space Center's Ellington Field, the team will perform their electrochemical experiment in a weightless environment produced by the plane making a steep climb followed by a free fall over the Gulf of Mexico. These parabolas will be repeated approximately 30 times.         

"I'm nervous about the flying and the safety of doing 30 parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico," said Rebecca Flores, team member.  "That's kind of nerve wracking."

The challenges in performing and perfecting their experiment in the following weeks are numerous. Perfecting the experiment itself, though, isn't the biggest challenge. According to Ben Martin, professor of chemistry and the group's supervising faculty member, the experiment itself is a fairly familiar operation for scientists who perform electrochemical experiments. The real challenge comes in harnessing the materials involved and making it manageable in an apparatus that can be controlled.

"The actual chemistry is not that hard to do here," Martin said. "Everything will have to be contained. You have to be safe."           

Now, the group of very successful chemistry students has to work at becoming engineers as well as being able to demonstrate to the NASA staff they are working with that their experiment will be safe and manageable. As they work to move beyond it and learn from the project, the challenge has proven formidable to the team though not insurmountable.

"The hardest part is getting a full understanding of the engineering aspect that goes into this project," Mustachio said. "It's definitely been a learning experience."

With a laundry list of items to cross off their agenda in the coming weeks, the group depends on its flexibility within its membership and their ability to work together to achieve their goals. It's a benefit that has been with the group since it started putting their proposals together last summer. With all the members active in Chemistry Club, community outreach activities and full class loads, this accomplishment is much easier said than done. Different members are constantly needed to fill in for their teammates and cover additional assignments. 

"Our friendship is our biggest strength," said team member David Rosas.  "We may get frustrated or disagree on some things but our closeness allows us to deal.  No matter what happens at the end of the day, it's easy for us to leave whatever happens in lab, in class, or in a NASA meeting behind at the end of the day."

Among the logistical challenges, finding the courage to make it happen, according to Mustachio and Rosas, was perhaps the most important one to overcome. Mustachio learned about the program after interning at NASA just a few summers before. He and Rosas had talked about it for quite some time before making the decision to put the proposal together no matter what stood in the way. 

"Nothing is impossible," Rosas said. "If you have a dream and are willing to be dedicated to it you can make a lot of things happen."

Mustachio echoed the sentiment.

"If there's one thing I've learned these past few months, it’s that you never know what possibilities are ahead until you take on that challenge with no fear of failure," Mustachio said. "It makes the feeling of success that much better."

That dedication was indispensable when the October 22 deadline to have their project proposal to the program for consideration, getting the 63 page document, "Electrochemical Reduction of Iodohexane in Microgravity," just in time. They're acceptance came in December, when classes were starting to let out for the winter break.

"We got it in at the last minute and crossed our fingers," Mustachio said. "It was a great Christmas gift."

The group is now working to ensure the project's success, perfecting the engineering and reporting their progress and safety measures to their contacts at NASA. With the added complexity of performing this experiment thousands of feet over the Gulf of Mexico, the group has also taken on some additional costs which will end up between $5,000 and $6,000, to which they are applying to some educational and technological grants and are also seeking private sponsorship.

After hundreds of hours and sacrificing time that could have been spent going out on weekends or simply resting, the group is without regrets and agree that even if difficulties arise when it comes time to perform the actual experiment itself, their efforts have already proven to be a success.

"Losing sleep and cramming to get this extracurricular activity under way on top of your regular work load is totally worth it in the long run," Flores said. "I got to work alongside the five most awesome future chemists and with it, I learned the dynamics of being a part of a team working towards a common goal. Nothing is in vain." 

The group of six Texas State chemistry students participating in the June microgravity experiment: Nick Mustachio, Houston, senior; David Rosas, San Antonio, senior; Rebecca Flores, Austin, senior; Lydia Montano, Wallis, junior; David Myers, Lake Jackson, senior; Michael Beebower, senior.