Cornell University. Columbia University. The University of Illinois. Those are some of the nationally-renowned research schools submitting designs to help NASA on its mission to Mars. Also on that impressive list: North Lake College.
Anh Tran, a North Lake alumnus, led a team of friends and North Lake grads in a bid to win NASA’s Micro-g NExT design competition. They are, as Tran says, “the ultimate underdogs”: NLC is one of just two community colleges in the contest, and none of the teammates were engineering students when they submitted their design. But this month Tran and his friends traveled to Houston to test a prototype, and they’re feeling confident.
Leading the way
Anh Tran was a star North Lake student. Before completing his associate degree in science in 2015, he was involved in student government, the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, and volunteer work, and served as a student ambassador.
Following a professor’s advice, he also participated in NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars program. As a result, when NASA announced the Micro-g NExT design competition, they invited Tran to join.
Anh hadn’t taken any engineering classes, but, he says, “I thought it sounded insane and I just wanted to be a part of it.” He recruited friends to help and began teaching himself how to use 3D design software.
The North Lake team’s challenge is to design a “gap spanner boom.” When the new Orion spacecraft debuts, one of its first missions will be to help “catch” an asteroid and reroute the asteroid on a new path through space. One piece of equipment will be installed on the asteroid, as a sort of anchor. The gap spanner boom will connect the Orion spacecraft to the anchor.
“We went with a very simple design,” Tran explains. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel.” For years, he adds, NASA’s gap spanners were “literally a hook. So we thought, why don’t we make a docking system?” The design is disarmingly simple. “We walked around my garage and Home Depot and looked for ideas. We used everyday objects for inspiration.”
Making an impression
For months, the group didn’t even have a budget, but they were able to build a prototype with a special $3,000 grant from the Dallas County Community College District and assistance from machine shop workers at UT Arlington.
In early June, Anh and his four teammates, including several other NLC alumni, traveled to NASA’s Sonny Carter Training Facility in Houston, where they tested the design in a huge 6.2 million gallon swimming pool meant to simulate zero gravity. “They can literally put entire space shuttles underwater,” Tran says, explaining that a model of Orion will be used. “Actual astronauts and divers will be testing the tool.”
There is no “winner” of the Micro-g NExT design challenge. Either NASA decides to adopt the design, or not. However, Anh Tran and his team like North Lake’s odds. He says a NASA mentor scientist told the team that “the level of thought and precision to our design was the level of what their engineers would be doing.”
Against the odds
“We don’t have an engineering program,” Tran points out. “We don’t have a machine shop. We’re the ultimate underdog. The other schools do this yearly, they have student clubs, leaders, faculty advisors, they have this whole hierarchy for doing this challenge.” And the other schools include Ivy League institutions.
But now NLC’s team is a finalist, and the winner will be chosen on the merits of the design. Anh Tran and his teammates are proud, and surprised, at their success. He sums it up: “I’m not at MIT, I’m not getting a 4.0 GPA, but I’m helping to design something for NASA.”