Skip to Main Content

Orbital Ospreys reach the stars

Members of the Orbital Ospreys team hold up a UNF flag above

There’s nothing quite like the view from the top.


It’s a lofty vantage point that many college students dream about reaching after they graduate. One group of University of North Florida students has already experienced such great heights, and their future aspirations are out of this world.


The Orbital Ospreys team, a dynamic cohort of nine students from the College of Computing, Engineering and Construction, was among a select group chosen by NASA from universities across the country to fly their own research experiments aboard the agency’s G Force One aircraft this past June. The opportunity was offered as a part of NASA’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, which takes student-designed projects and places them in a reduced-gravity environment generated by a state-of-the-art NASA aircraft. The plane launched into roller-coaster-like peaks and quickly dove to produce periods of weightlessness and hyper gravity. Many of the UNF students were able to fly along with their research prototype, allowing them to experience what it would be like to travel to space.


“There’s nothing quite like being in zero gravity,” said Chelsea Partridge, a mechanical engineering senior who led the student team. “For the very first parabola, the folks from NASA told us to lie down or sit against the wall. Then, all of a sudden, you’re just floating. Some people had some motion sickness, but I was fine. Basically, it was like having a superpower for a moment.”


Each parabolic pattern led to almost a half minute of weightlessness. Getting to that point, however, was years in the making.


UNF students past and present contributed to the project that led NASA to select the Orbital Ospreys team from a host of other distinguished universities from across the country. Other participants included Northwestern University, Purdue University and Stanford University, as well as the University of Florida.


“This is just another example of the extremely high quality of the University’s engineering programs,” said Dr. Mark Tumeo, dean of the College of Computing, Engineering and Construction. “NASA received proposals from across the country from the top engineering schools in the nation. UNF students and programs compete well with the best.”


Each of the teams designed and built the experiments on campus and transported them to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for a battery of tests aboard an aircraft modified to mimic a reduced-gravity environment. The Orbital Ospreys created a prototype bioreactor to study the effects of radiation on bone cells and tested it in the zero-gravity environment to emulate blood flow in the human body. The team believes that a similar system could be further developed in the next generation for use in long-term space biomedical experiments.


 Dr. Daniel Cox, a mechanical engineering professor and faculty adviser for the Orbital Ospreys, said the UNF project stemmed from the work of 2011 UNF graduate Harry Vaswani. Vaswani attended high school in Jacksonville and entered the University with the framework for an experiment on bone cell density. He developed that idea under the tutelage of Dr. Cox into a poster and presentation and left his research work with UNF when he graduated. Another student cohort of five mechanical engineering scholars picked up where he left off the following year and advanced the project even further. By the time Partridge and what later morphed into the Orbital Ospreys team got involved, the research was primed and ready for one giant leap for Osprey-kind.


“The third group has been quite the charm,” Cox said. “The first step was to miniaturize Harry’s project, and a second group for special topics advanced that research even further. The third iteration has taken it to another level entirely.”


He credits Partridge and the rest of the Orbital Ospreys for their proactive work habits and dogged focus on getting NASA’s attention. Very few programs that are new to the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program are accepted after submitting their first proposal. UNF’s team did just that. Cox credited the project with giving this talented group of students the opportunity to pool their collective skills and work toward producing a piece of equipment that was up to NASA’s exacting standards.


“They went above and beyond what we were doing in the classroom,” he said. “This was a project where they learned many useful mechanical engineering and software skills, and they learned a lot of it by doing it themselves. It’s a proud moment for an adviser when the students, especially undergraduates, are motivated to accomplish a common goal and driven to do the best work possible.”


Once they finished their bone density bioreactor prototype, the team traveled in June to Johnson Space Center for an eight day NASA crash course in preparation for their two-day flight window. Christie Sauers, a NASA engineer who served as the team’s professional mentor, worked with the Orbital Ospreys for months as they reviewed design issues and assessed areas for improvement. The NASA flight was the beginning of the testing phase — the moment of truth for the team. Sauers said she was there to calm their nerves and help them over any hurdles as they got ready to take to the skies.


“This team in particular has been excellent,” she said. “This is definitely a challenging experience because of the diversity of everything involved — from electrical to mechanical to fluids. They brought it all together and worked through any issues related to the nuances of all these test phases. It’s just phenomenal how committed they were to putting in the time and making this work as an extracurricular.”


However, disaster nearly struck the team shortly before lift-off. During the Orbital Ospreys’ second flight day, they were all mortified when they found that the bioreactor was completely dead.


“We were all freaking out because there’s someone from NASA prepping the plane for takeoff, and we’re sitting here with a nonfunctional project,” said Eric Rutherford, a junior electrical engineering major. “They’re loading up the plane and it’s running. It wasn’t like we could say, ‘Hey, let’s take a little break.’ We had to figure out how to get it up and running in five minutes.”


Rutherford said he and the rest of the team managed to get the bioreactor online in record time after fixing two different mechanical issues. It was important to every member of the Orbital Ospreys that their maiden voyage go as smoothly as possible. He said they all viewed this opportunity as a way to establish a relationship with NASA and advertise the UNF brand to all of the power players in the mechanical engineering world. A little mishap wasn’t going to derail their goals.


“We wanted to represent UNF and our Osprey pride in the best light possible,” he said. “UNF helped us out tremendously in getting to this point. From my perspective, UNF has been amazing. I spent two weeks before this in China to study abroad and then went up and experienced zero G. Not a lot of students can say they’ve done one of those things, much less both.”


That feeling of utter freedom, of being untethered and weightless, was life-changing for Jimmy Beeler, a spring 2014 mechanical engineering graduate. When he first joined the team with Partridge in the early stages of the third iteration, he said he found the project to be a nebular concept.


“We’re making this thing to ultimately go up into zero gravity, but it just seemed so far away,” Beeler said. “I couldn’t believe it would happen. And then, when I was up there floating around, it struck me. All that time working toward our goal had paid off. We were in a NASA plane testing our research. This is happening.”


 After successfully completing what many researchers could only dream of, the Orbital Ospreys would be well within their rights to wind down their project. However, Partridge and the rest of the Ospreys who haven’t yet graduated are just getting started. They’re in data-analysis mode, reviewing the readings they received from the bioreactor during those 20-second bursts of weightlessness. They plan to file a final report with NASA after compiling all of the data and then launch the next phase of the project, which involves miniaturizing the bioreactor technology so it would be compatible with a CubeSat — a miniaturized satellite designed for space research. The smaller bioreactor would be transported into space via one of these CubeSats and left to orbit the planet, generating data the entire time.


There are a number of proposals to write, funds to raise and hoops to jump through before the Orbital Ospreys will be able to secure a CubeSat, but Partridge is optimistic. They took what started out as a high school science experiment and built it up to the point that it caught the eye of the nation’s space agency. Securing a satellite should be child’s play.


“We have the momentum and a good team in place,” Partridge said. “After going on a NASA-sponsored trip, we feel like there isn’t anything we can’t accomplish. We won’t settle until we get to space.”