Team Space: Columbia Space Initiative Taking Engineering to Extreme New Places

CSI members, left to right: Marco Nedungadi, Tyler Cowan, Kristina Andreyeva, James Gong, Keenan Albee, and Jake Lee

Columbia Space Initiative, one of Columbia’s newest clubs dedicated to all things space and space technology, is less than a year old, but it’s already seen success. Members of CSI recently presented and tested their design for a meteor anchor at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, and others in June will be competing with their proposal for exploration on one of Mars’ moons.

The genesis of CSI can be traced to The Martian and to Extreme Engineering.

Cofounded by Julia Di ’18SEAS and Keenan Albee ’17SEAS with five friends at the beginning of this school year, the Columbia Space Initiative is “totally dedicated to space technology and outreach,” Di said. And while Di and Albee, friends through Columbia’s Formula SAE racing team, had separately been mulling the idea of starting a group that reflected their interest in space, the plan crystalized at a September talk centered on the Ridley Scott film The Martian. The discussion, the inaugural event of the Engineering School’s Extreme Engineering program, featured clips from the film and a discussion from NASA engineers, as well as Mike Massimino BS’84, professor of professional practice and NASA astronaut.

Spearheaded by Massimino and Dean Mary C. Boyce, Extreme Engineering spotlights speakers who reflect the incredible diversity of cutting-edge careers available to engineering students. The School has already cohosted seven events under the Extreme Engineering banner and launched a video series, hosted by Massimino, that showcases faculty and their “extreme” research.

In April, one CSI team planned and launched a high-altitude weather balloon.

“We were looking for things that would excite the students—not just in space but things that are very cool in the field of engineering,” Massimino said.

So far, it’s working: CSI is proof.

After the panel in September, Di and Albee said they approached Massimino to ask if he’d help them launch the club as their advisor, and with that, the group was off and running.

“They’re out of control—they’re great,”Massimino said of the 30-strong club. ”I’m amazed at everything they do. Truthfully, I just try to stay out of the way.”

In their first year, CSI has racked up some impressive accomplishments.

As an umbrella organization overseeing a number of projects—“we call them missions, because we’re a space club,” Albee said, laughing—the group has members working on a number of things. In April, one team planned and launched a high-altitude weather balloon. A separate team is heading to the Kennedy Space Center in Port Canaveral, FL, in June to present their proposal for exploration, to send a crew of four astronauts to Deimos (one of Mars’ moons) for 300 days as one of the 12 finalists in NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace’s RASC-AL competition.

And another team—one that counts both Di and Albee as members—headed to Houston this month for NASA’s Micro-g NExT challenge. The team live-streamed from NASA May 24, documenting the success of their design for Lion Claw, a tool that anchors an astronaut to an asteroid created with input from Massimino’s first-hand spacewalk experience. Surpassing the Micro-g challenge, CSI’s device proved even stronger than expected, recording the ability to hold 30 pounds of force, 20 pounds over the challenge goal.

Watch the team prepare and launch their balloon equipped with a GoPro, GPS trackers, sensors, and mascot Roar-ee.
—Video courtesy of the Columbia Space Initiative

The CSI team, one of a small number of teams selected to present in Houston, has received funding from NASA, the Columbia College Student Council, the Columbia Engineering School Student Council, the Columbia Engineering Alumni Association, the Joint Council Co-Sponsorship Committee, and the SEAS Dean Travel Fund to work on their prototype. While in Houston, CSI members also toured facilities and attended seminars.

Di and Albee say that CSI has cemented their commitment to pursuing careers in space exploration and technology. In fact, Albee said, the group has started advocating for an aerospace major/minor program at Columbia Engineering, and has started talking with the student council and faculty members about possibilities.

And Massimino said CSI can have a huge impact.

“Membership has grown and they’ve done outreach around New York City, and they’re very involved with doing things with local schools: they’re totally terrific and energetic,” he said. “And the relationships they’re building [at Columbia and at their competitions] will help them achieve—and as astronauts or scientists, they’ll see each other for a long time.”

—by Jennifer Ernst Beaudry 

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