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Using High-Altitude Ballooning to Give Freshmen a Hands-on Introduction to the “Space” Side of Aerospace

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Aerospace Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1318.1 - 23.1318.17



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Paper Authors


James Flaten MN Space Grant / Univ. of Minnesota

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Dr. James Flaten is the associate director of the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, a NASA higher education program whose goals include promoting interest in space science and space exploration. Though housed in the Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics (AEM) Department at the University of Minnesota -- Twin Cities, Dr. Flaten’s academic background is actually in experimental physics and he has also taught many physics, astronomy, and basic engineering classes in the past. He enjoys using high-altitude ballooning and high-power rocketry as relatively lost-cost means of giving students hands-on experience building and flying space-related hardware.

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Using High-Altitude Ballooning to Give Freshmen a Hands-on Introduction to the “Space” Side of AerospaceIt is challenging to provide undergraduate students with meaningful, hands-on activities on the“space” side of aerospace due to the complexity of spacecraft and the tremendous expense oflaunching them into outer space using rockets. Helium-filled latex weather balloons, sometimescalled high-altitude balloons, can carry miniature spacecraft designed and built by students toaltitudes in excess of 80,000 feet into the stratosphere. The view and the environmentalconditions in this part of the atmosphere are quite similar to outer space, so these balloons aresaid to travel to “near-space.” Student participation in the entire near-space mission, includingthe launch, tracking the balloon using GPS-enabled radios, and post-flight data analysis, makeshigh-altitude ballooning an engaging yet relatively inexpensive microcosm of full-scalespaceflight programs that is well-suited for undergraduate education.The Aerospace Engineering Department at the University of , in conjunction withNASA’s Space Grant Consortium, has developed a freshman seminar entitled“Spaceflight with Ballooning” and offered it four times since 2008. This no-prerequisites classis part of a suite of curricular and extracurricular aerospace activities offered by theSpace Grant to complement the Aerospace Engineering undergraduate program at the Universityof . Students in the class of about 20 work in teams of 4 or 5 to design, build, and test arobust near-spacecraft to take photos or video and to use sensors to collect basic atmosphericdata which is saved on HOBO data loggers and on miniature flight computers the students soldertogether and help program. Each team must also perform one unique student-generated scienceexperiment, built within weight and cost budgetary constraints. Over the course of the semesterstudent teams do a series of three oral design reviews and submit three revisions of a writtenreport, to document their payload. The final oral presentation and report submission are after theballoon mission and emphasize data analysis. The course also includes lectures on full-fledgedouter space flight plus explicit time for discussion about what it means to be a freshman and howto thrive in college.This paper will discuss the results from the four times this seminar has been offered, includingboth the joys and the challenges of doing genuine aerospace design/build work with freshman,all of whom are interested but some of whom have limited science and math backgrounds. Itwill also touch on how this class fits into a larger suite of high-altitude ballooning activities, for abroader range of ages, as well as a broader set of freshman seminar offerings, to engage studentsin aerospace engineering content earlier, without necessarily waiting for completion of calculusand physics prerequisites. Such classes can motivate interested students to stick with theprogram, despite early non-aerospace class hurdles. They can also engage and capture theimagination of students who were not even considering majoring in aerospace-relatedengineering or science fields.

Flaten, J. (2013, June), Using High-Altitude Ballooning to Give Freshmen a Hands-on Introduction to the “Space” Side of Aerospace Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22703

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