A team consisting of OSU students and others is testing a propulsion system that could cut the time needed for a human flight to Mars.
When Marci Whittaker-Fiamengo describes the project she and other OSU undergraduate students are working on, she calls it “an out-of-this-world experience.”
And so it is. Marci, a senior in nuclear engineering, and Dan Wittmer, an electrical engineering senior, lead a student team working on ways to use nuclear power in a propulsion system that could substantially reduce the time needed for a flight to Mars.
“We’re not using nuclear fuel in the test,” Marci says, “but we’re doing a test of what the actual physical reaction in a nuclear reactor would be.”
Their idea impressed NASA officials enough that they agreed to test it in their Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities program.
That means a trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston this summer where the students will make presentations, work on experiments, and fly on NASA’s famed “vomit comet,” a large aircraft that simulates weightlessness in long, steep dives.
Dan and Marci have been on previous NASA flights through their participation in other student projects. “The nearest thing I can compare the ride to is when you’re in an elevator and it just drops,” Dan says. “That’s like a millisecond, though, and this goes on.”
The team has five OSU students (Brooke Butler, Adam Reiner, and Michael Rutherford, in addition to Dan and Marci), five from Western Oregon University, and a high school student from Salem. In addition, OSU student Cody Sheehy, is filming the students for a documentary on their project.
Marci and Dan plan careers in the space industry, and both would like to eventually go into space. They say OSU’s hands-on education and supportive professors have prepared them well.
Meanwhile, the team is carrying the story of the project and the space program to students in schools around the state. “This is an important program. It needs to continue. That’s the message we carry,” Dan says.
The Oregon Space Grant Consortium has provided much of the financial assistance for the student project. “They have been a major supporter of our program from its infancy to where we are today, and without them this program would have diminished long ago,” Dan says.