There are plenty of slapdash student projects done in a few caffeine-powered evenings, but this wasn't one of them. The Student Nitric Oxide Experiment (SNOE, pronounced "snowy") involved more than a year of collaboration between the student engineers and NCAR machinists, along with High Altitude Obervatory solar physicist Tom Woods, engineers at Ball Aerospace and the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), and a computer drafting class at Littleton's Arapahoe High School. The resulting instrument is scheduled for launch in the spring of 1997 aboard a Pegasus rocket by Orbital Sciences Corporation.
Support for the SNOE project came from NASA's Student Explorer Demonstration Initiative. In each of the past several years, the NASA initiative has chosen to fund one or two efforts like SNOE from among dozens of applicants. The goal is to prove that spacecraft can be built and deployed through student help at a much lower cost than usual, with the added benefit of real-world experience for the students. The entire SNOE mission, except for the launch vehicle and launch services, should end up costing around $4 million--peanuts for a spacecraft instrument package.
The machine shop's role was to help the students translate their ideas, as expressed in mechanical drawings, into a finely tuned, working piece of equipment. "The whole concept was for the students to do everything right up to running the machine," says Jack Fox of DFS. "That's where we were asked to lend our guidance in how to design the parts." Also involved was DFS manager Paul Johnson.
From day one of their work together, the students and machinists got along famously. "It was a very hands-on, apprentice-type relationship. For most of the students it was their first chance to design something," says Mike McGrath of LASP, who directed the structural and thermal design process.
"It was a very nice experience," says NCAR machinist Jim Holt. "I was impressed at the students' level of common sense and competence. They adapted to things that take a machinist years to learn through experience." At first, there was an inevitable learning curve to be overcome: "The students were dimensioning things the way they learned in school, which isn't always the way it's done in industry." For example, the angle of a support rod might be specified in relation to an imaginary point in space, which is fine on a blueprint but harder to deal with in actual construction.
Students, machinists, engineers, and scientists met at LASP a few weeks ago to christen the completed instrument. In the next year, it will be run through a series of tests at LASP and Ball to make sure it will hold up under 14 times the force of gravity with about 90 kilograms of weight attached.
Steve Steg, a senior in mechanical engineering, sensed the importance of the testing. "What I really got out of this was seeing how a prototype is made, rather than a mass-produced thing. Before I started here, I wasn't that interested in aerospace, but this has definitely sparked an interest. It's really challenging." When it comes to spacecraft, adds Steve, "You don't have a chance to do things over." BH
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