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Space ... the final science frontier ...
Platteville teacher and students participate in NASA program
... and Michael Donovan (left) and Dean Loeffelholz.

Fifty years after the first American spacewalk, 46 years after Americans landed on the Moon, 43 years after the Skylab space station was launched, 34 years after the first space shuttle mission, and four years after the final space shuttle mission, mankind is still in space.

A Platteville High School teacher and his students got to experience probably the closest thing to space travel in their efforts to get their project into space.

PHS physics teacher Matt Heer and his students are participants in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Project HUNCH — High schools United with NASA to Create Hardware — in which student-driven science projects are tested on board the International Space Station.

The projects get a test in an environment as close to space as possible on this planet, the NASA Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. A plane known as the “Vomit Comet” is able to come close to simulating zero gravity for 30-second intervals in violent climbs and dives.

Heer and PHS seniors Dean Loeffelholz, Katelynn Quario, Michael Donovan, Max Frommelt, Jonah Barnet and Ryan Schroeder traveled to Houston to see their experiment.

“Kids pick out what they do, what sort of direction they want to pursue with the experiment,” said Heer. “Science is basically admitting we don’t know the answer; let’s find it out.”

Heer’s class’ experiment was determining a way to stabilize a camera in zero gravity. The experiment was based on a demonstration by an astronaut aboard the space station in which he spun a CD player in the opposite direction that the CD inside the player was spinning.

“So we just kind of took that into this demonstration,” said Heer. “That’s the cool part of going to Houston, to test it out for 30-second intervals.”

PHS juniors Blake Julius, Tom Lambert and Vince Momot also are part of the Project HUNCH group. The group met for six hours a week developing the experiment.

This is the second time Heer’s students have done a Project HUNCH experiment. The first time was when Heer taught at East Troy High School. His students were only able to leave their project at NASA’s gates in Houston. Heer then left East Troy for Platteville, reapplied for the program, and got accepted again.

“It’s real science; this is what real scientists do — they have questions, and they market the questions to persons who control the purse strings,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s Congress.

“People talk about we’re not going to space anymore. We have a space station that’s been fully manned every day for the last 12 years. They’re not setting foot on the Moon, but they’re finding answers every day.”

Heer said the experiment went “kind of as we expected — we expected it to work; we wish it would have worked better. That’s the next step, to optimize it. Does it work? OK, now make it work better — that’s all of engineering.”

Beyond the experiment, the students got to tour the Johnson Space Center, including seeing the original Mission Control building, and got to put on a helmet worn by one of the Mercury astronauts. They got to meet NASA astronauts, engineers and pilots.

“I hope they got out of it that they can do big things with their life,” said Heer. “You gave them an opportunity, and they came through in fine style. I want them to see there’s more to this planet than Platteville. I think every kid wants to be an astronaut because it’s cool. I want every kid to see the light at the end of the tunnel before they go through the tunnel.”

Beyond stabilizing cameras in space, Heer said, “The biggest thing they get out of it is responsibility. They’re given $2,000 from NASA. The U.S. taxpayer gives $250,000 to test it out of a plane. You’ve been given a big responsibility. You feel a sense of responsibility for delivery and to not take it lightly.”

While the space program gets less media attention with the end of the space shuttle program, social media is another universe.

“Social media is a big thing nowadays,” said Heer. “Forty years ago, space was the front page. You don’t see it on TV anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there. So we’re trying to develop that avenue by trying to hold a GoPro [camera] in any direction. It’s a way to help them promote science.”

The bad news for Platteville is that funding for Project HUNCH has been cut as part of federal budget cuts, meaning the chances of the students’ experiment’s reaching space has been diminished significantly.

“It’s just heartbreaking, and it’s not that they’re doing a bad job; it’s that their funding was cut,” said Heer. “We need people who appreciate science and they vote. In my opinion it’s important.”

One funding option is the Center for the Advancement of Science In Space, which manages the U.S. portion of the International Space Station. CASIS will be funding one student experiment, and of the 16 schools that applied, “We think we’re one of the top four,” said Heer. 

The other option is to find someone willing to fund the PHS experiment.

“We’re hoping people will see this as what it was intended to be,” said Heer.