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LADEE Mission Photo

To the Moon

UI students contribute research, designs to NASA's latest moon mission

By Tara Roberts

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer swung into orbit around the moon in October – and University of Idaho students helped it get there.

Multiple students in the UI College of Engineering worked on the robotic explorer, known as LADEE, while interning at the NASA Ames Research Center through the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium.

“I’ve always loved space, so to have stuff that I designed and touched in space is pretty cool,” says Ingrid Kooda, a senior mechanical engineering major who interned at Ames in summer 2012.

The LADEE spacecraft launched Sept. 7 and took a long, looping path to the moon, which it began orbiting Oct. 6. LADEE will spend four months studying the moon’s slight atmosphere and unusual dust.

Kooda worked with a research group focusing on LADEE’s structure, taking on any projects that needed an extra hand. Her assignments included testing the spacecraft’s material for failure, then analyzing what failed and why.

When the team discovered that a set of washers were tearing through a layer of foil covering LADEE, Kooda designed new washers that couldn’t turn, which protected the foil. Her solution became part of the final design.

Kooda enjoyed the opportunity to put her education into practice at Ames.

“It helps you solidify all the basic things you learned in class,” she says. “You see the groundwork you learned actually applied.”

Dan Mathewson, who earned his master’s in mechanical engineering at UI in 2013 and worked on LADEE in the summers of 2010 and 2011, also had a piece in the final LADEE design – modified brackets that attach some of LADEE’s sensors.

Like Kooda, Mathewson was responsible for whatever projects the research team he worked with threw at him. He helped with ground support equipment, tools that were used to build the craft and “all sorts of random analysis.” If the engineers didn’t have time to computerize a design, they’d hand-draw a sketch and give it to Mathewson to translate to the screen.

“Anything they were overwhelmed with landed in my lap,” he says.

Kevin Ramus, a graduate student in electrical engineering, worked on LADEE in summer 2011. His job involved testing the equipment used on the ground during the explorer’s launch – and testing the testing equipment as well. Ramus is excited to see a project he worked on come to fruition, but says the most useful aspect of the internship was the inside view of NASA.

“Being able to work with NASA scientists, NASA engineers and see a spacecraft go together – there are a lot of delays and planning and communication and adjustment that had to come together,” he says. “It’s a large-scale project and they had to keep a lot of people in the loop about it and handle really difficult problems.”

And while Mathewson enjoyed being part of the NASA team, he still is amazed to look up into space and know something he helped build is there.

“It’s a large disconnect to know what I do on a computer screen and to see it come to life,” he says. “It doesn’t sink in that hey, what you played with is on its way to the moon.”