Gadsden State Students Heading To Houston To Work With NASA

Student Jenny Plimpton said it’s been inspiring to be part of a Gadsden State Community College team working with NASA on growing plants hydroponically to create a food source for astronauts.

The second phase of the project begins Thursday when the team heads to the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston.

The Gadsden State students — Plimpton, Karen Billingsley, Steven Martinez, Jacob Morris, Michele Scarber, Tyler Strong and Steve Wright — will be testing their portion of the project, which is to see how water flows and gets to the plants.

Other teams will work on projects that include different lights and exposures. NASA will combine the research to perfect a prototype for ways to successfully grow food on Mars.

This is the second team from Gadsden State to participate in a NASA project. The first traveled to the Johnson Space Flight Center in April to work on an experiment bound for the International Space Station, showing how NASA could provide potable water on long-term space flights.

Audrey Webb, electronic engineering/industrial automation technology instructor, said the success of the first NASA project was key to the school being selected for the second, which she said will be on a flight to the International Space Station in 2014.

“That’s how this project spun off,” Webb said. “They were impressed that we were able to do the first project in 8 to 12 weeks, and they asked us to submit another proposal.”

In September, the second team took the first phase of its project to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. While in Houston, it will work on two components.

The first component, an APH Humidity Control Unit, will test and identify the optimal volume and rate of water for priming. The second component, an APH subsystem, will house the science experiments performed within the growth chamber.

The research will be put to the test Nov. 12 and 13 when the project will be in a zero-gravity flight simulator.

“We’ll be able to make sure everything is working properly,” Plimpton said.

She said the team will run tests to see how the water flows through glass beads, a kitty-liter type substance and without any obstacle.

“To see it all finally come together is surreal,” Billingsley said.

Gadsden State’s participation in the first project made the second much easier, Webb said. The experience of learning how to work within a budget and a time line was a big factor.

“I’m really proud of them,” she said. “They’ve done an excellent job.”

Webb’s work also has caught the eye of NASA officials. She has been chosen by the Jet Propulsion Lab in California to be a faculty adviser on the sensor team for the 2020 Mars Rover project. That will include a 10-week internship next summer.

The projects with NASA are a big notch in the belt for Gadsden State, a two-year secondary education school, because projects like these are typically done at schools like Georgia Tech, Boise State University, MIT and Cal Tech.

“I am impressed that, once again, NASA has accepted our students’ proposal,” said Tim Green, dean of technical education and workforce development. “This is a great opportunity for the students to expand their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills while working with NASA in completing this experiment.”

Dave Hyatt, a civil engineer technology instructor, also is working on the project with Webb. Both instructors will accompany the students on the trip to Houston.

By Lisa Rogers
Times Staff Writer