Graduating Senior Profiles: Going Weightless for NASA

Issue Date: 
April 27, 2008

Bennewitz, Bernardo, Chrin, and Wick to test research at NASA


From left: John Bennewitz, José Bernardo, Michael Chrin, and Adam Wick update a virtual design of their experiment in Pitt’s Benedum Hall machine shop.

The video is so familiar to them that John Bennewitz, José Bernardo, Michael Chrin, and Adam Wick talk excitedly about their favorite part long before it comes.

On Bernardo’s laptop screen, a group of undergraduate college students soar above the Gulf of Mexico in a NASA aircraft. The plane banks into a sharp nosedive and the students rise from the plane’s bare metal floor as inertia cancels out gravity.

Bernardo cuts to the scene. The four shush each other. A girl somersaults in midair for five seconds. “That’s so cool,” Bernardo says, smiling. The others agree. They will get their turn—soon.

Bennewitz, Bernardo, Chrin, and Wick graduate from Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering today, three with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering, and one, Chrin, in electrical engineering. But their last project as Pitt students is still two months off and several miles straight up.

They are the first Pitt team to participate in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program, or Microgravity University, wherein undergraduate teams propose and test in zero gravity research of value to NASA. Forty teams were invited this year to Houston’s Johnson Space Center to test their ideas aboard a reduced gravity aircraft—a C-9 airplane plummeting toward Earth, resulting in about 30 seconds of weightlessness.

The Pitt team, called Phoenix, flies in June with an experiment of their design that could improve the onboard thruster system that keeps a satellite in orbit. Pressurized helium used to regulate the flow of thruster fuel creates bubbles that plug the satellite’s fuel lines and interfere with the navigational thrusters. The problem could stem from the fuel tubes on modern satellites being either straight or sharply bent, Bennewitz explained. The team proposed using curved tubes to prevent the blockage. NASA called the proposal “technically strong,” Wick said. Now they will see if it works.

Space Dreams

Four guys with a lifelong fascination with space can’t help but smile excitedly when talking about their upcoming flight, no matter how seriously they take the science end.

“That’s why we applied,” Bennewitz admitted. “We wanted to know what it’s like to be an astronaut.”

As a kid growing up in Easton, Pa., Bennewitz built model rockets with his father, a mechanical engineer. Now he plans to build real ones. Bennewitz will attend the Georgia Institute of Technology in the fall to pursue a PhD degree in aerospace engineering with a concentration on rocket propulsion.

Chrin, of West Chester, Pa., also plans for a life behind the machines that go into space. A robotics enthusiast in high school, Chrin knew after the 2004 landing of the NASA Mars rover Spirit that he wanted to build robots that explore space. Unfortunately, the robots get all the fun.

“Our flight in June is the closest I’ll get to going into outer space,” lamented Chrin, who will go to work for a local power conversion company after graduation. “This is my last chance, really.”

Zero Gravity Test

Finals, graduation, and plotting life’s next step means the four scrounge for time in the Benedum Hall machine shop to assemble their experiment.

They designed a box with one straight tube and three tubes with varying degrees of bend, two pumps, and two bladders of water and a water-ethanol solution to simulate thruster fuel. But NASA limits each experiment’s size to 300 pounds and 24-by-60-by-60 inches, a lab in a box. The team must squeeze the pumps, tubes, and mechanisms into a box roughly the size of a pet store aquarium.

Once in Houston, the team will conduct 40 trials in zero gravity over two days. As the plane dives, the tubes—one per trial—will be flooded with the faux fuel until a bubble plug forms. Once the team knows how much fluid must pass through a certain tube before it becomes blocked, it can determine which bend degree is the least susceptible to obstruction, Bernardo said.

A testament to the caliber of the team’s experiment is that many of the other teams in the NASA program come from universities with an aerospace focus, including Purdue University, one of the world’s premier aerospace institutions, said the team’s advisor, Jeffrey Vipperman, a professor in the Swanson School’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science.

The Swanson School does not have a formal aerospace program.

“They were accepted to a program that draws largely from formal aerospace programs, and it’s a really elite group of undergraduates who are accepted,” he said.

“These four found a problem somewhat outside of their expertise, they researched it, and put together a comprehensive approach to solving it. For them to participate says that they are natural scientists and engineers, but it also means that Pitt students can successfully compete in this program,” Vipperman added.

“The Right Stuff”

Bernardo owns two copies of the movie Apollo 13 and casually admits to watching it at least a dozen times. Born in Perú and raised in Pittsburgh since age 5, Bernardo saw the film when he was 10, and he’s never thought of being anything but an astronaut since.

“My driving force is to be an astronaut,” said Bernardo, who also will attend Georgia Tech in the fall. After the team applied for the NASA program, Bernardo nervously awaited the verdict. The whole team wanted it, but Bernardo depended on it.

“This program is a big step for me,” Bernardo continued. “I’ll be able to experience space, meet astronauts, network, and get a glimpse of the life I hope to have. I want to say that I’ve been through training, to know how I’ll react, to say that I’ve been in microgravity and didn’t throw up. I want to know if…”

“…if he has the right stuff,” Wick interrupted, referencing the iconic book about the American space program.

The team’s most intense personality, Wick, of Karns City, Pa., is as quick with a wisecrack as he is intent on not wasting time. He’ll head to the University of California at Los Angeles in the fall to study astronautics.

“I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation and was making Lego spaceships when I was knee-high,” he said with a mixture of sincerity and self-mockery. “People should explore space. Limiting our existence to this half-green, half-blue ball of dust is narrow-minded. As a species, we need to want more if we’re going to progress.”

The Real Thing

Constructing a functional experiment turned out to be more educational and difficult than the team expected, Chrin said.

“There’s a big difference between designing something in class and producing it,” he said. “This project has changed drastically since we first designed it. When we started to build it, we found that many of our original ideas wouldn’t work.”

To manifest an idea, to be hampered by good concepts that don’t work in reality, or to ditch an entire design and start over—these define life as a working engineer.

“In school, we are told the difficulties of building something, but we don’t experience it,” Bernardo said. “In college, you produce the project to get the grade—no one has to use it or live in it. The experience here is invaluable. We’ve learned the importance of details, the little things that matter when building a real object.”

Looking Up

The teammates are part excited, part nervous, part curious about the June flight.

“We still don’t know what to expect,” Bernardo said. He’s asked about the somersaults from the video.

“Oh, we’re all going to do those,” he said. “I’m sure.”

The team writes a blog about its ongoing work and plans to post dispatches from Houston at