In microgravity flight, USU gas team honors former teammate

LOGAN – Student members of Utah State University’s Get Away Special ‘GAS’ space research team are excited to head to Houston’s Johnson Space Center July 12-21, as they make final preparations for weightless flight aboard a specially modified NASA jet. But the anticipation is bittersweet as they remember the loss of teammate Rob Barnett, who accompanied the team on two previous Texas trips and frequently pulled all-nighters to ensure the team’s experiments were prepped for the rigors of simulated space flight.

“I think about Rob every day,” says Ryan Martineau, GAS team project leader. “I spent hours in the lab learning from him. He even invited me to stay with him a couple of days last summer when I was in between housing contracts. We’ll miss him a lot on this year’s trip.”

Barnett, who graduated from USU with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in May, 2011, passed away December 30, 2011, in Salt Lake City. He served as a ground crew member of the team at NASA’s Microgravity University in 2010 and 2011, where teammates say he made invaluable contributions to the team’s success.

“Without Rob’s work and skills, we would never have been able to get our microgravity experiments to work, let alone work as well as they did,” says Troy Munro, USU graduate student and GAS Team coordinator. “We are really going to miss Rob, his humor and his awesomeness.”

To honor Barnett’s memory, this year’s microgravity experiment carries a humorous image of the Cache Valley native pretending to float in weightlessness, along with a badge reading, “In Memory: Rob Barnett, 1981-2011.” The team is also seeking permission from NASA to fly a frozen burrito on the zero gravity flight as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to their friend.

“You kind of have to understand Rob to get the joke,” Munro says. “Most of his meals were out of a vending machine and he often had a half-eaten burrito on his desk at the lab. He just seemed more interested in solving complicated engineering challenges than eating.”

Barnett’s mother, Derri Dee “DD” Leonard, confirms her son rarely finished a meal.

“Our whole family is really touched by the tribute, which captures Rob’s sense of humor,” says Leonard, a Logan resident. “It means so much because he loved working with the GAS team and his NASA experiences.” 

For the third consecutive year, USU’s GAS Team is among a select few university teams chosen to participate in NASA’s competitive Microgravity University. The team’s experiment, called “<em>Follow-Up Nucleate Boiling On-Flight Experiment 2.5”</em> or FUNBOE 2.5, builds on the team’s 2010 and 2011 experiments as well as a previous GAS team experiment that flew on Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2001. 

The FUNBOE experiments examine fundamental questions about boiling water and other liquids in space. FUNBOE 2.5 will continue to test a novel idea of cooling using boiling heat transfer on a micro-fabricated silicon chip.

“The ability to control bubble generation and use boiling as a mechanism of heat transfer could have multiple applications,” Martineau says. “This includes thermal management solutions critical for long-term space travel to Mars and beyond.”

Martineau, who flew on NASA’s microgravity plane, known as the ‘Vomit Comet,’ in 2011, will serve as team leader, ground crew member and alternate flyer for USU’s 2012 five-student team. This year’s flyers are undergraduates Jacob Kullberg, Brycen Mills, Jon Thorne, Eric Torres and Chris Trumbull.

The Aggies will experience weightlessness as the NASA jet, following a parabolic path, repeatedly climbs and dives from 32,000 feet in a series of about 32 controlled free falls above the Gulf of Mexico.

“I can’t wait to get to Houston, experience microgravity and learn more about NASA,” says Torres, a mechanical engineering major from Menan, Ida. “I like studying applications of heat transfer with spacecraft. We need a more efficient method of heat transfer to maintain electronics on long space missions.”

Martineau looks forward to showing his younger team members the ropes and providing technical guidance, as Barnett did for him in previous years.

“It will be tough going without Rob,” he says. “He’ll be deeply missed not just for his electrical engineering skills, but for his camaraderie as well. It was impossible to be unhappy when Rob was around.”

Barnett produced and narrated a final video report, a NASA requirement, of the GAS team’s 2010 trip to Microgravity University:  <a target=”_blank” href=”;feature=related”>;feature=related</a>   

He’s also among the students featured in a 2010 Utah Public Radio story about the team’s experience:  <a target=”_blank” href=””></a>

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