Houston, We Have A Problem

“Houston, we have a problem.” While a major component of the Quest for Space program is devising a solution to a problem, an essential part of all the experiments is the problem itself. What outcome will be most meaningful? What ideas are actually monetarily and physically feasible? What experiment will challenge the bounds of our understanding to affect humanity and our world in the most impactful way? Teams take this all into consideration while choosing a topic for their research.


The projects students send aboard the International Space Station are revolutionary, so all new topics must set teams up to achieve that groundbreaking success. As Issac Newton once said, “It is the weight, not numbers of experiments that is to be regarded.” Just so, the ISS experiments, both on Earth and in space, must have innate applications and real-world benefits to make the nine months spent designing, programming, and building the experiment worthwhile. It is their impact—their weight—that is most important, as it must be.


Outerspace may be vast, but space within the ISS itself is at a premium. Individual compartments for each experiment, known as the micro labs, are only about 2x2x4 inches in size, meaning the design and programming contained within must be efficient and extraordinary to make up for the experiment’s small stature.


As for how each team chooses their problem, the first step is research. Like with other professional experiments, research and observations are the foundation of forming a hypothesis and problem. Students derive their ideas for topics from a variety of fields, utilizing materials such as scientific journals or previous ISS experiments, to help form the complexity of proposed problems and growing their own personal knowledge.


After each student has their idea, they put them into a special decision matrix to rate the topic in many ways as seen in the example below. Areas like feasibility are extremely important since using the small hardware and micro lab provided can lead to some serious constraints in mechanics and production, which can determine the overall success or failure of the project. The different areas in the decision matrix have different weights they hold over the total score of the topic idea because areas like “coolness” have less meaning than other categories like space applicability, leading teams to accurately estimate the true meaning that will be found in the experiment.


Once all members of the team have collaborated to run ideas through the decision matrix, they present the top two ideas in a slideshow to the student honors fellows who specialize in either the mechanics, electrical, or software components. From there, the honor fellows help team members narrow down their idea to one final choice by running it through the matrix again and then showing it to the mentors.


As American author Elbert Hubbard once said, “Thoroughness characterizes all successful men. Genius is the art of taking infinite pains. All great achievement has been characterized by extreme care, infinite painstaking, even to the minutest detail.” The ISS Level 3 team members follow the same idea for topic selection. Thorough assessment and research lead to the genius of the end products, so the painstakingly detailed and time-consuming process of selecting a problem for experimentation is necessary. The problem is the glittering sun around which the rest of the project revolves. It is the cornerstone of the building. It is the essence of the Mission For Space we all seek.

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