The Student Partnership for the Advancement of Cosmic Exploration at West Virginia University is working to encourage students and the general public to take an interest in space exploration.

SPACE is a student organization, founded Aug. 28, 2008, by eight students united by their interest in space exploration and their desire to impact the lives of others, according to Kerri Phillips, co-president.

Over the past two years the organization has grown to encompass students from the physics department and several engineering disciplines at WVU and works closely with the West Virginia Space Grant Consortium, Phillips said.

Dr. John Kuhlman, professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at WVU, works with SPACE students in his “Balloon Satellites” course. The course is actually two semester-long classes where students put together payloads to launch with balloons.

These payloads can measure temperature and pressure in the high atmosphere to compare with published data or take pictures and video, Kuhlman said. Students can also perform experiments in microgravity in another course taught by Kuhlman.

“One student designed an experiment to test the effects cosmic rays on fruit flies at high altitude,” Kuhlman said, which would also be beneficial to studying their effects on airplane pilots.

He said they have also been working on a “cut-down” system for the balloon payloads which would drop them if they started going somewhere they don’t want them to go (for instance, unauthorized airspace) but have not yet been successful.

Dr. Dimitris Vassiliadis, research associate professor of physics at WVU, also works with students developing payloads to launch into high atmosphere, only his students launch them using rockets provided by NASA.

NASA provides two-stage rockets to which students attach their payloads and are launched at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Va. The rockets travel 110-120 km into the atmosphere and the payloads perform experiments to measure things like cosmic rays and magnetic fields.

“WVU has extreme potential to be involved in space exploration, and in fact, already is,” Phillips said. “Research is being conducted in the physics and engineering departments ranging from astrophysics and plasma physics to developing intelligent systems for application on exploration vehicles.”

She said that WVU cannot help but be involved since there are so many disciplines required to be involved when it comes to space exploration.

“SPACE has had members participate in internships with NASA IV & V in Fairmont to assist NASA with a project based out of the Wallops, Va. facility,” Phillips said.

Vassiliadis said some of his students have also gone to NASA facilities to work with engineers for a few days, and others have visited the W. Va. facilities of aerospace and defense giant ATK to conduct tests with engineers there.

Phillips believes space exploration will always be important to humanity.

“The technologies that we appreciate here on earth have stemmed from our space program,” she said. “Our Global Positioning System stems from our ability to put satellites into orbit and developing that technology through our space program.

“Cordless tools, cell phone technology, smoke detectors, firefighting equipment, and countless medical advances have been made possible due to technology developed through our space program. Just think of the things we could still develop if we continue exploring,” she said.

Phillips also said studying how long the human body can withstand the effects of zero gravity without bone and muscle deterioration, and being able to curb that in space, could be applied on earth to try to prevent osteoporosis.

“Space exploration will always be important to humanity, the difficult task is convincing the public and politicians that it’s worth it,” she said.

According to Phillips and the SPACE Web site,, the organization was founded on five main values: curriculum development, research development, student financial support, student professional experiences and student and public outreach.

“SPACE strives to assist students in finding research opportunities, internships and scholarships,” Phillips said. “We strive to increase awareness about space exploration and how it benefits humanity as well.”

She said they have conducted several outreach events to K-12 students as well as the general public such as sessions to inform them about space exploration, new technologies and their future and a 3-day Summer Aviation Camp for 7th and 8th graders with the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex and WV Space Grant Consortium.

They have also hosted, along with professors and other student organizations, speakers to lecture such as Dr. Norman Augustine, CEO of Lockheed Martin, and former NASA project leader Dr. Peter Smith from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona.

Philips said some of their goals are to offer a “for students, by students” scholarship from the SPACE Foundation and to expand and create new chapters at other institutions.

Alan Didion, another SPACE co-president, said space exploration is important because there are legitimate threats to our planet.

“The truth is that the Earth won’t last forever. Whether it be by our consumption of its resources, destruction from space or else, it can’t last. We really must start thinking about putting some of our eggs in a separate basket,” Didion said.

He thinks that humanity will establish a presence on Mars because it is necessary for our survival to branch out and it will be beneficial in the resources and knowledge we get from it.

“This nation itself owes its existence to exploratory instinct in the face of skepticism, I think we should indulge it at least a bit,” Didion said.

By Devin Crum
For WVU University Relations/News



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