From Portland State to outer space

Outer space may seem far away, but from Portland State it’s actually much closer than you think. PSU mechanical engineering students are able to directly communicate and run experiments with astronauts on the International Space Station, thanks to a little gem hidden in PSU's Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science (MCECS) called the NASA-PSU Telescience Support Lab. 

The lab, which is located on the fifth floor of the Engineering Building, is a secure room for conducting experiments with American, Japanese, Canadian and European astronauts in real time. Several monitors allow students to watch and communicate with astronauts — even giving them direct commands — as they perform various experiments to provide data that could one day be used to develop technology for NASA missions to the moon and Mars. 

The lab was created in 2004 because NASA wanted to make it easier for the Capillary Fluidics and Dryden Drop Tower Laboratory at PSU — also located in the Engineering Building — to get access to their experiments in space. When the students are not conducting experiments, they can see live video footage of a rotating Earth and moon from the perspective of the space station. 

Although there are other labs in the country that are similar to this one, what makes the PSU lab one-of-a-kind is its continuous involvement with astronauts. Labs of this nature are usually set up and taken down once the experiments are done, but this one has remained active for years due to the significant amount of experiments conducted.

Mark Weislogel, an MCECS mechanical engineering professor and former NASA microgravity researcher, manages the lab and assists his students with projects and experiments that are conducted in the control room lab. 

“These are pretty intensive experiments that my students are doing,” Weislogel said. “All of this pushes them academically, and although can sometimes be a lot of pressure, the students are getting the job done.” 

The experiments — designed by students, NASA scientists and sometimes astronauts — have included ping pong paddles that can bounce water in space and a coffee cup that allows astronauts to easily drink liquids in zero gravity, which is nearly impossible with a regular cup. 

One of the engineering students’ current projects involves watering plants in space hydroponically, a project that may someday help NASA supplement astronaut diets with fresh produce. Developing a solution to grow crops in low gravity would be essential for future missions to the moon and Mars.   

“Watering plants without gravity is very difficult,” Weislogel said. “Plants and soil are used to gravity, so if it’s gone, a plant will die, drown or grow fungi. It’s been a very difficult problem for years, but we think we have a chance to solve it using experiments in space.” 

Rihana Mungin, a mechanical engineering graduate student who’s working on the plant watering experiment, said she learned a lot from NASA engineers on this project, an experience that will help her professionally in the future.

“When I graduate, I won’t only have this educational experience, but I’ll also have this operational, project management and business experience that will help my career,” she said.

Weislogel agrees with Mungin. “At some point, all of my students will realize that they have this very unique experience and know-how that will be useful for aerospace companies and small companies that are doing things in space and seeking talented engineers,” Weislogel said.
Students have conducted over 100 experiments in the control room lab, said Mungin, adding that they have had an extreme impact and amazing results.
“You used to not be able to have any open containers on the space station,” she said. “But that changed with our coffee cup, which was a direct result of the work that we did right here in this lab.”

Story by Jennifer Vo-Nguyen
Homepage photo by Kelly James
Video by Peter Simon

Homepage photo caption: Mark Weislogel (left), a PSU mechanical engineering professor, and Brentley Wiles (right), a PSU Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science mechanical engineering graduate student, observe the International Space Station orbiting Earth from PSU's NASA-PSU Telescience Support Lab.