NAMPA — In the early morning hours of Aug. 13, 10 Northwest Nazarene University students anxiously counted down the seconds to a once-in-a-lifetime moment — watching an experimental project they designed and built launch into space.

They counted down from 10, then five, their voices a whisper in the final seconds.

“I barely got my phone out in time to record it,” said Drew Johnson, the mechanical lead on the project. “And the rocket takes off and it’s exhilarating with the roar of it, and it goes off and just all of the other students start screaming … and you just see huge smiles on everyone’s faces across the board. And there’s a revelation about five minutes later that ‘Holy crap, I just put something in space.’”

Johnson and his teammates worked under the direction of NNU electrical engineering professor Stephen Parke in a program called RockSat-X.

RockSat-X is a joint educational activity between NASA and the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. It is the highest level in the NASA program, Parke said, and NNU has been building research teams for the past four years to get to this level. The team partnered with Boise-based startup American Semiconductor Inc. to integrate the technology ASI created, the world’s first physically flexible portfolio of connected circuit chips called FleX, including microcontrollers, analog-to-digital converters, radio frequency wireless communications and non-volatile memory. 

“Last year we tested (FleX’s) radiation capabilities in space, and this year we tested its mechanical electrical properties in space,” Parke said.

The group traveled to NASA’s facility in east Virginia for the launch, and met with many NASA scientists. David Vinson, an electrical engineering major who did electrical and computer programming on the experiment, said initially he wasn’t sure how intimidating it would be to interact with them.

“They have their nice blue jackets on, looking really snazzy … But they asked questions and were really interested in what we were doing, so it was kind of back and forth. It actually turned out to be very human and friendly,” Vinson said.

Parke said the group spent about nine months on the project, with help from local experts and professors. The rocket went 100 miles into space before reentering the atmosphere and splashing into the Atlantic Ocean. The equipment needed to withstand -55 C temperatures in space and 700 C temperatures on reentry, so part of what the team worked on was its robustness. Aside from a few minor damages, the experiment was a success, Parke said.

“We were all jumping up and down and celebrating when the launch was successful, and to have the experiment returned and all of the data there, that was just icing on the cake,” Parke said.

The students and professors are aiming for an even bigger project next year, Johnson said, because they want to keep growing the program and competing with other engineering schools. Johnson hopes to work with nuclear reactors in the future, while Vinson has started to seriously consider a career with NASA.

Whatever comes next, Parke said he is grateful for the chance to be involved at this level.

“We just feel really blessed to be part of a program like this, and we treat it as a privilege and a blessing,” he said.

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