KENOSHA — It’s been almost 50 years since Apollo 11 landed on the moon during the summer of 1969.
Some might remember that there were some slight complications before millions of people watching the mission live heard Neil Armstrong famously utter the words, “The Eagle has landed.”
One of those complications included the frantic search for a smooth landing area as the spacecraft was quickly losing fuel. The alarm on board Apollo 11 sounded off, as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were notified that they had only 30 seconds of fuel left. However, it was later learned that this was inaccurate — in fact, Armstrong and Aldrin had more fuel left than they thought they did.
This is something that aerospace engineers have been trying to fix ever since — including a team in Kenosha at Carthage College. The Carthage Microgravity Team, led by Professor Kevin Crosby, was able to see its work on this subject literally take flight just a week ago.
The aerospace company Blue Origin launched their New Shepard vehicle into orbit on Jan. 23 — on board was an experiment that the team at Carthage had been working on for over eight years. Crosby said the launch, which took place in Van Horn, Texas, was nothing less than “phenomenal.”
“I’ve seen a lot of launches, and every time it surprises you with thundering noise and the bright lights,” Crosby said. “It’s always breathtaking, and it’s amazing every time.”
The launch vehicle carried eight research payloads with it that day, including the payload that the Carthage team has been developing along with a Kennedy Space Center lab. The payload gathers data for a technology called modal propellant gauging (MPG), which essentially gauges the amount of fuel left in a launch vehicle’s tank through sensors.
Crosby and around 20 students from Carthage have been working on the technology since 2011. Student researchers Celestine Ananda, Nicholas Bartel and Taylor Peterson — who have all been working on the project recently — watched the spacecraft take flight along with Crosby in Texas. Ananda said the team has recently been working on the project for 18 hours a day over the weekends.
“It was our entire lives this semester,” she said. “I would imagine that other people looking at me would’ve considered me stressed out, but I just really, really enjoyed it. It’s amazing to have these opportunities and to not just dream about working on projects like these, but to actually do it is worth every second.”
Over the years, the team had to design and build the technology and make sure all the software and electronics were working properly. Additionally, the team had to make sure the payload survived the launch.
“We kind of joke around that we literally had to use a pound of glue just covering everything so that not a single thing would come off,” Ananda said.
The spacecraft came back down about 10 minutes after takeoff. The payload captured video of the liquid within the tanks — video that will be reviewed by researchers to better understand the behavior of propellant inside tanks in the weightless environment of space, according to Crosby.
They are now researching the data to fine-tune the technology for future launches. Crosby said this technology is important for the future of space travel, as there is currently no way to measure exactly how much fuel is left in the tank in a zero-gravity environment.
“It sounds simple, but it has been a problem that has plagued the launch industry and space launch systems since the Apollo-era of when we landed on the moon,” he said.
The MPG project started at Carthage, but it is now supported by a team of engineers at two space centers that is working to turn the experiment into a reliable technology, according to Crosby. Crosby has been working full-time at both the Kennedy and Johnson space centers as a senior scientist on the MPG project as well. He said he is proud of his students for their hard work.
“It’s a great experience, and it gives you invaluable opportunities to participate in the whole cycle of designing and experimenting, building it and then flying it and analyzing the data,” he said. “Experiences like this will allow them to be super competitive.”
Ananda, a physics major at Carthage, said she is proud to have worked on the technology. She will be graduating next year and is considering either going to get her master’s degree in aerospace engineering or working for an aerospace engineering company.
“I cried. … I don’t cry at much of anything and I haven’t cried for years, but it takes your breath away,” Ananda said about the launch. “Seeing it go, and seconds later hearing the sounds and feeling your heart beat in your chest was just astounding. But then, actually realizing that we had something to do with it, it just brought me to tears.”