Nicole Pinto in reduced gravity aircraft
WIALD president Nicole Pinto with the team's experiment aboard NASA's reduced gravity aircraft. Photo courtesy NASA.

Working day and night until the moment of takeoff, members of the Cockrell School's Women in Aerospace for Leadership and Development (WIALD) student group earned their chance to fly an experiment aboard NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft in early June.

WIALD’s experiment tested the thermal properties of Vectran — a highly heat-resistant filamentous material that is five times stronger than steel — on NASA’s reduced gravity airplane. Future manned spacecraft to Mars will be made out of Vectran, and WIALD’s experiment marked the first time Vectran combustion has been tested in microgravity. Because fire behaves differently in reduced gravity, WIALD’s results will help NASA in its research goal to reduce fire risk on manned missions to Mars.

NASA’s Reduced Gravity Flight Education Program allows undergraduate students to create and submit proposals for experiments aboard the reduced gravity airplane, which flies in parabolas that repeatedly allow passengers to experience the feeling of weightlessness. WIALD designed a structure to burn a piece of Vectran for their experiment, “Properties of Vectran Combustion in Microgravity,” which was accepted by NASA in December 2013.

In order to test the way Vectran burns in a microgravity environment, the team built a cylindrical aluminum container composed of three separate chambers: a clean sample chamber, an experimental chamber and a disposal chamber. The cylinder has arms connected to a manual magnetic turning system that holds samples of Vectran. The arms with the samples of Vectran swing out from the clean sample chamber into the experimental chamber, where a piece of Vectran is burnt. Once the test is completed, the arm with the burned Vectran swings into the disposal chamber.

The experiment was not without its challenges, said Nicole Pinto, WIALD president and the project’s team lead. The team’s structure had an initial leak problem, which required several days of work to fix. The night before the team’s final chance to fly their structure on the aircraft, they were able to weld the structure so that it held up under pressure tests.

Because the team could only fly once, the results of the experiment were reduced, and the last-minute safety adjustments they made compromised some data elements. However, their results indicated that the way Vectran burns is consistent with the trials that the WIALD team ran in Earth gravity. The next steps, Pinto said, are to study the byproducts that are created when Vectran burns in microgravity.

“I couldn't be more proud of this team of women — no other team worked harder and pushed through the way they did,” she said. “Experiencing microgravity was incredible, but the best part of the whole experience was seeing our Cockrell School project on that plane.”

WIALD would like to thank their sponsors who made this experiment possible: Millennium Engineering & Integration Company, Dick and Judy Perkins, the Angelo Miele Endowment, SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Texas Space Grant Consortium, Emergent Space Technologies, National Instruments, UT's Women in Engineering Program and UT's Student Engineering Council.