The results of research: Summer research programs lead to permanent partnerships

Cadet 1st Class Heather Nelson works on the FalconSat 7 project March 6, 2012. Nelson, an astronautical engineering major, is assigned to Cadet Squadron 16. (U.S. Air Force photo/Raymond McCoy)

Cadet 1st Class Heather Nelson works on the FalconSat 7 project March 6, 2012. Nelson, an astronautical engineering major, is assigned to Cadet Squadron 16. (U.S. Air Force photo/Raymond McCoy)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Every summer, cadets give up their vacation to spend time in government, Defense Department and industry laboratories.

In at least two cases, success during the summer equals continuing partnerships at the Academy even after the cadets involved graduate and become second lieutenants.

One of those projects is an 18-month study between the Aeronautics Department and NASA. Two cadets spent the summer at the Johnson Space Center, working to determine if NASA can save money on experiments requiring zero gravity for short periods, while another project led to a cooperative research agreement with Spectranetics, an international medical device company based in Colorado Springs founded by a former Academy physics professor.

While in very different fields, both represent the overarching affect summer research has on cadets' leadership and intellectual growth.

"I'm often asked why we conduct research here at the Academy," said Dr. Jim Solti, the Academy's chief scientist. "Is it for cadet development, DOD support, faculty proficiency, technology transfer or revenue generation? The answer is 'yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.' These are not mutually exclusive - rather they are complementary and synergistic. As the Cadet Summer Research Program continually proves in spades, the most motivational and developmental cadet experiences almost always center on solving real problems for
real customers."

Biology major Cadet 1st Class Marcelli Magday agrees.

"In the classroom, we know there's an answer; it's set up that way," she said. "But here, there are no clear answers. There's a lot more ambiguity. It's what real research is like. We don't know what we're going to get, and you have to figure out if what you do get is relevant to the study."

NASA study
At NASA, Cadets 1st Class Joshua Castagnetta and Robert Larson learned the same thing - their idea to develop a commercial unmanned aerial system NASA can use for microgravity experiments, might not work.

"We had to work to make sure the idea was even feasible," Castagnetta said. "And we did find that it got a little unstable at some of the flight conditions. We're working on comparing the wind tunnel results from our wind tunnel model to computer predictions of the actual size plane. We needed to define the baseline aerodynamic characteristics to determine if the aircraft was capable of flying the zero g parabolic profile."

Currently, scientists conduct microgravity experiments - simulated zero gravity tests - using what is popularly known as the "Vomit Comet," a Boeing 727 jet that performs a pull-up and push-over maneuver to provide seconds of zero gravity at the top of the parabola. The jet is difficult to schedule and expensive, says Dr. Thomas Yechout, an aeronautics professor and a faculty mentor for cadets.

The NASA wants to know whether a commercially available DV8R remotely piloted aircraft can take on some of the payload, taking small experiments and equipment into the parabolic trajectory that creates zero gravity for a few seconds at a time. So they turned to the Academy for help last fall.

"We've been working with the DV8R drone to see if it can withstand the speed and pressures of the climb and dive," Yechout said. "This spring, the cadet team conducted wind tunnel experiments with a model a quarter of the size of the real drone. What they discovered is promising."

Early experiments proved so promising Castagnetta and Larson went to Houston this summer to use Johnson Space Center computational fluid dynamics analysis software (or tool) to complement their wind tunnel testing. They'll continue their work in the fall during an independent research project.

"Computational fluid dynamics provides an independent prediction of the air flow and pressures around the plane," Yechout explained. "They'll bring what they did on the computer back here, and we'll see if it matches what we discovered in the wind tunnels.
"NASA would like to make this work," he said. "But first, we need the aerodynamic characteristics of the UAV. We modified the DV-8R, which is commercially available, and we're making sure it can be used the way NASA wants to use it. We're defining the lift, the drag and stability characteristics across the flight envelope."

Last semester, the two senior cadets and Cadet 1st Class Nate Dickey tested the wind tunnel model to obtain force and moment data. It was painted with pressure-sensitive paint to measure the surface pressures. Those tests proved successful and the cadets are now working on the control aspects. For Castagnetta, spending five weeks at NASA was a researcher's dream.

"It's just amazing," he said. "These people are the all-stars in their fields. Some of the old-timers worked on the space shuttle. They were here during the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Their experience is just incredible. It was a great career opportunity; I was literally involved in space history."

Spectranetics has a long history with the Academy, a history that will most likely continue thanks to Magday, who conducted absorption studies to determine the best lasers for calcified deposits in the arms and legs. Essentially, she helped characterize the difference in laser strength and effects on both biological and non-biological samples, assisting the company in creating a wider knowledge base of the types of tissue available for laboratory testing.

This is Spectranetics main line of work; as the company makes lasers and the fiber optics doctor use to remove blockages and infected leads from pacemakers from patients' appendages.

Magday's research serves as the start of the future of medical lasers, and Spectranetics officials were pleased.

"Getting to work with the brightest students - that's an incredible help," said Greg Ebbets, Magday's adviser at Spectranetics. "Marcelli's work advanced what we do, but it was a project we couldn't find the time for. And when we looked for a partner, what we discovered was that the best laser laboratory in the nation was just across the highway. We're fortunate to partner with the Academy."

The cooperation between the Academy and Spectranetics continues during this fall; Spectranetics is using the biology labs and the Laser and Optics Research Center to develop next-generation lasers to use to remove blockages from arteries.

"This is one of our technology division projects," Ebbets said. "We test pretty far out for commercial products. We need to know about the physics of how the laser works in different settings so we test things like hot dogs, potatoes, some synthetics, plastics. The better we understand how the laser works in the laboratory, the better we can determine what strength to use moving forward."

Magday's work served as the basis for the ongoing partnership - an experience every cadet should have, she said.

"It was a huge help to me," she says. "I'm hoping to go on to nursing school after I graduate. Having this hands-on experience - finding solutions that you aren't sure are there - that's going to be a big help in my future career in the Air Force."