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Sending Science Experiments Into Space

A group of Texas hardware hackers and space aficionados gathered in Dallas at the Frontiers of Flight Museum this weekend. Their goal? Learn how to build experiments to take into space.

Five years ago, if you wanted to send a science experiment into space, you either needed access to the international space station or several million dollars. Today, you just need a good idea, or a few grand.

“Coming up in the next six months, you’ll be able to design your own experiment in a small box, put it on a vehicle and for several thousands of dollars, fly it to space and back," says Andrew Nelson.

Nelson is chief operating officer of XCOR – it’s one of the leading private space-flight companies. Within the next year, XCOR plans to launch its first of thousands of suborbital flights on its two-seat spacecraft called the Lynx. The spacecraft is being built in Mojave, Calif.; it will soon be moved to Midland, Texas (a move another private space flight company, SpaceX is still considering). The Lynx will carry one passenger and a dozen or so science experiments into low-Earth orbit.

“People want to understand better how, for example, planets formed in the early days of our solar system," Nelson says. "So they put together materials in a box, in microgravity, and they film it and watch how it comes together.”

That’s just one possibility. Some people want to test electronics in the vacuum of space. Others, to grow crystal proteins in microgravity that could give clues to future cancer treatments.

Space Hackers Dream Big

At the Frontiers of Flight Museum, several dozen hackers, students and scientists are brainstorming ideas for experiments they could send into space.   

Jan Stolze, a math teacher at Carroll High School, wants to do an experiment with polymers -- plastics and other materials we use on a regular basis. 

“I’ve actually applied to be an astronaut twice but I have a heart condition and bad eyes, and I’m old now so I could probably never be a NASA astronaut but this is something maybe I could do,” she says.

There are some guidelines Stolze will have to follow for her polymer experiment. For one thing, it’ll have to fit into a clear plastic cube the size of a Chinese takeout box. Most of the experiments will be automatic – programmed to turn on once they hit near zero gravity. If they need adjusting, a citizen astronaut who is on the spacecraft with the pilot will be responsible.

Someone like Michael Johnson, of De Soto. Johnson, who was outfitted in a blue and red space jump suit, is among a handful of citizen scientists the Dallas-based nonprofit Citizens in Space selected to go on XCOR’s Lynx and operate ten experiments. He's also an aviation teacher at Irving and DeSoto high schools.

“So my ideas are going to come from [my] students." Johnson says. "I’m going to teach them how to work with the electronics and how to do the programming and just see what can come from them.”

Citizens in Space will select 100 science experiments, so break out your tools and get tinkering.

*Find out more about Citizens in Space, and future workshops here.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.