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UT’s WIALD Women Reach the Edge of Space

Testing a student project in the real world is one thing. Sending a project out of the world to test it, as these female aerospace students, did is something else.

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Six months ago, most members of the Women in Aerospace Leadership and Development (WIALD) student organization at The University of Texas at Austin didn’t know what an inertial measurement unit (IMU) was. Now, thanks to networking and a generous donation from Millennium Engineering and Integration Company (MEI), they have built three IMUs and launched them to the edge of space.

An IMU is a device that measures and reports a spacecraft’s velocity, orientation and gravitational forces. WIALD built three of these units and launched them aboard Space Loft 6, a mission funded by the Department of Defense Operationally Responsive Space Office and that offered the additional payload space required. The purpose of the project is to find commercial, off-the-shelf products to construct an IMU. By testing cheaper versions of professional-grade products, WIALD hopes that future missions can quickly assemble IMUs with decreased cost and production time and still obtain accurate results.

The idea for the project began after Katie Lodrige, WIALD’s vice president who is a senior in the Cockrell School of Engineering, and Shaina Shapiro (B.S., Aerospace Engineering, 2011) interned with MEI at the Defense Department offices in New Mexico last summer. They worked with Launch and Range Chief Engineer Steven Buckley, who complimented the women’s knowledge and work ethic. After Lodrige and Shapiro’s successful eight weeks in New Mexico, the company encouraged WIALD to consider an IMU payload as their next project and provided the funding.

WIALD’s IMU payload was selected to launch aboard a rocket from Spaceport America in New Mexico. After reaching the edge of space, the IMUs will capture and record important data to inform future missions.

“This project is a big advance for us,” WIALD founder and Aerospace Engineering senior Rebekah Sosland said. “This IMU payload is going much higher in altitude than the camera we built last year. It will reach the edge of space and remain in zero-gravity for approximately four minutes.”

In addition to providing hands-on experience for a group of mostly underclassmen, the project has allowed for a great deal of leadership growth one of the driving forces behind WIALD.

“We set deadlines and frequently go beyond our normal meeting times to hit our targets,” said Bryse Ed, an Aerospace Engineering senior who is the group’s external vice president. “We have volunteer team leads for each part of the project who take on the responsibility of meeting MEI’s requirements and keeping the larger group on track.”

The women honed their networking and presentation skills on the project by asking for input from other engineers to create the most cost- and time-efficient IMUs.

“We’ve really had to network to make this project possible,” Lodrige said. “We’ve asked for help from the Electrical Engineering Department and from many graduate students in our department.”

Although previous projects provided the women with practical, hands-on experience, this year’s project has provided a new set of professional skills to prepare them for industry positions. The team had to write a nine-page proposal and budget to set the project in motion, and they are required to write a report about their findings and deliver a formal presentation after the launch.

The women say they are extremely grateful for their alumni connections at MEI who made the project possible Brian McKee, the company’s founder and chairman (B.S., ASE, 1980); Dan Deans, vice president of corporate development (B.S., ASE, ’90); and Jill Marsh, launch integration lead engineer (B.S., ASE, ’09).

“Mentoring these women throughout the project has been a wonderful experience. They are learning how to procure hardware, develop timelines, communicate and work as a team to design and assemble a complex system. This is exactly the type of experience industry demands and what MEI wants to see in future employees.” Marsh said.

The big day finally arrived on April 5. WIALD’s IMU payload was successfully launched at Spaceport America in New Mexico and re-entered at White Sands Missile Range for retrieval and analysis.

“The launch was a huge success,” WIALD president Sarah Hand said. “It launched at 8:18 a.m. on April 5. The flight was 14 minutes and reached a little over 73 miles high. This is above the Earth’s atmosphere, in real space. The rocket remained in space for four minutes and re-entered with a sonic boom. We have verified that all of our IMUs collected data, and we will be processing it over the next couple of weeks. This was an unbelievable opportunity for the WIALD women, and we learned so much from our experience.”

For more information about WIALD, visit their website.

To learn more about the ASE/EM student projects and/or to support our teams, please contact Amanda Brown at 512-471-4046 or amanda.brown@austin.utexas.edu.