“The Martian” was a fictional tale detailing the survival of an astronaut accidentally stranded on the harsh planet. While NASA hopes to never leave an astronaut behind on any mission, the organization has real intentions to make exploration to Mars, like the mission showcased at the beginning of the book and movie, a reality.

Three Virginia Tech first-year students have an opportunity to impact one portion of NASA’s plan to get to Mars. The team submitted a design for a tool that could be used for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission as part of the Microgravity Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams (Micro-g NExT) challenge.

Jackie Bertone of Rixeyville, Virginia, a first-year student majoring in physics in the College of Science, participated in NASA’s National Community College Aerospace Scholars program while a student at Lord Fairfax Community College. Since then, she gets emails about other NASA opportunities.

When Bertone received one about the Micro-g NExT challenge, she teamed up with two other students from her residential community, inVenTs, which houses the Curie and Da Vinci living-learning communities for physical, quantitative, and life science majors with the Galileo and Hypatia living-learning communities for engineering majors. Mitchell Woodhouse of Oakton, Virginia, and Benjamin Beheydt of Wadsworth, Ohio, both first-year students in the College of Engineering, eagerly signed up.

The team could pick from five different design challenges related to the mission. They chose to design a boom, or robotic arm-like device.

“Our challenge was to provide a tool that will allow the astronauts to safely move from the crew vehicle to a robotic craft that is attached to the asteroid,” Bertone said. “It’s basically a small, telescoping arm that the astronaut can manually operate and span the distance safely so they can clip in and cross over.” (See NASA’s visualization of the mission, with 1:35-1:46 demonstrating what the device may be like).

The team is one of 25 that NASA invited to the Johnson Space Center, picked from 40 that submitted designs. The teams will go to Houston to test their designs in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a 40-feet deep pool used to train astronauts for spacewalks. If successful, some of the student-designed tools could be used by astronauts for future training for the mission.

In October, the team submitted a paper to NASA, detailing their design plans. In December, NASA selected the team to test the design. The team will travel to Johnson Space Center April 25-28. Leading up to the visit, the team is building the actual device and testing it on campus.

“When we were just brainstorming and coming up with ideas, everything works in your head. But once you start making physical models, you realize the flaws in your ideas,” Bertone said.

Randy Waldron, a lab instrument maker from the manufacturing processes lab in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, provided the manufacturing expertise and helped the students create the prototype. The Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics helped with the testing.

This telescoping arm, created by three Virginia Tech first-year students, is designed to be used by astronauts to connect a space craft to a robotic vehicle on an asteroid
This telescoping arm, created by three Virginia Tech first-year students, is designed to be used by astronauts to connect a space craft to a robotic vehicle on an asteroid. The team will get to test their design at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in April.

They call their design the Asteroid Redirecting Telescoping Arm. “It looks simple, but it’s tripling its length with one motion,” Beheydt said.

NASA put strict limitations on the design for transportation and safety concerns. “The tool has to fit in a 10 by 10 by 18-inch box and should be no more than 15 pounds,” Woodhouse said. “It has to fit their safety requirements, the main one being it can’t break under 150 pounds of pressure.”

Another safety concern is sharp edges and pinch points. “With a telescoping arm, we have moving metal pieces with slip points where if the astronaut has big gloves on operating the tool, it could get caught in one of those points and rip a hole in their glove. You’re dead if that happens,” Beheydt said.

Now, they are refining their design to overcome those valid safety concerns. The tool also has to be neutrally buoyant, so it won’t float or sink during testing.

While the team wants to excel, the learning process is even more important. “Initially it was a competition to see who has the best design. But once you get accepted, it’s more of a challenge. How much can you really get done?” Beheydt said.

“The whole point of this is research so that we can go to Mars one day. Even if our design doesn’t work, it’s all contributing to the body of knowledge to make this mission possible,” said Bertone.

“This team of first-year students decided they wanted to do this on their own, did their own research, and came up with the design on their own, not as part of a class,” said Nikki Lewis, director of the Curie Living-Learning Community and mentor to the group. “This interdisciplinary teamwork is one of the motivators of these living-learning communities, to have students of varying disciplines collaborating on projects like this.”

While Beheydt and Woodhouse don’t anticipate space exploration as their career, this project has been invaluable. “I think the great part about being in college is I say I want to be a biological engineer, but I’m saying that without really taking any courses as a first-year student. It’s great to be in an environment where something sounds cool and I’m going to go build that,” Woodhouse said. “I may be going into biology, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look and experience another field.”

Bertone, who transferred to Virginia Tech as a Bridges to the Baccalaureate (B2B) Scholar, may one day contribute to the Mars mission beyond this challenge. “I want to go into space. I’ve considered becoming an astronaut. We will see how that goes.” B2B is a program funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and operated in collaboration with Virginia Tech's Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP) to support the academic success of underrepresented community college students in achieving four-year degrees in the biomedical and behavioral sciences.

A National Science Foundation STEP grant supports portions of the inVenTs Residential Community. The residence hall features two unique studio spaces for use by students in the community, including the Micro-g NExT team, that are supported by Hilti, the Division of Student Affairs, the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, the Department of Engineering Education, the College of Science, and the NSF STEP grant.

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