BOREALIS Program Offers MSU Students NASA Internships at Home in Montana
BOZEMAN — Thanks to the Montana Space Grant Consortium, Montana State University students can take part in NASA internships without leaving the state, and this summer, senior Sam Riebling became the first technology education student to join the cohort.
Riebling, originally from Colorado, hadn’t intended to pursue the BOREALIS internship, but after taking courses from Montana Space Grant Consortium flight director Mike Walach, she found herself drawn to the program, which is open to all majors. While most interns come from the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, Reibling became one of the first from MSU’s College of Agriculture and the very first from the Department of Agricultural and Technology Education.
BOREALIS, which stands for the Balloon Outreach, Research, Exploration and Landscape Imaging System, runs fully student-designed and -led flights of specialized balloons to near-space altitudes, around 100,000 feet above Earth’s surface. It’s as close as researchers can get to space without using a rocket.
“You have about 99% of Earth’s atmosphere beneath you and you’re in a spacelike environment,” Walach said. “You have the darkness, the cold, the heat, the radiation. Plus we can see the darkness of space and the curvature of the Earth from that altitude.”
Riebling, who hopes to become a technology education teacher after she graduates in spring 2022, was one of 10 students selected for the BOREALIS summer internship.
“It can look intimidating, but everybody comes in as a novice,” Walach said. “It’s an experience that can benefit everyone.”
Riebling’s internship focused on outreach and education and included planning community events and working with program partners to plan launches. But she also spent time watching and learning about the technical aspects of the balloon flights. BOREALIS uses three types of balloons, each of which expand to be around 50 feet in diameter once they reach a high altitude, where air pressure is very low. The first type, like a large party balloon, is made of strong latex and filled with helium. The second type, called zero-pressure balloons, are also filled with helium but have a hole on the bottom. They do not pop at higher altitudes because they are not under pressure, coming to float when they reach neutral buoyancy. The third type, solar balloons, are covered with charcoal powder so that sunlight heats the air inside and allows them to float.
Riebling practiced going through every stage of a launch and flight with all three types of balloons, a process that requires calibrating GPS systems and checking the balloon’s payload to ensure data is being transmitted to receivers on the ground. Everything must happen in exactly the right order, she said, or the entire flight is wasted. After coordinating with local air traffic control, the balloon is ready to launch.
“The whole process started with little responsibilities and I slowly gained more as I learned more,” she said. “Every launch I would shadow our lead, which ended up being a great benefit because on one of our last launches I was responsible for all of those steps.”
There are generally seven balloon launches each summer, said Walach. For the final launch of Riebling’s internship, the student usually overseeing those technical elements couldn’t be present. It gave Riebling a chance to put into practice everything she’d been learning.
The BOREALIS program is focused on the technical aspects of balloon flight and designing the systems that carry it out. Researchers from all over the country can then reach out to utilize those systems for their own projects. The flight that Riebling oversaw carried a payload from researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico measuring and detecting neutrons in Earth’s upper atmosphere. That payload will ultimately reach the moon in a NASA-directed flight.
Later in her internship, Riebling had the opportunity to blend her technical experience with her passion for education and her degree program in the College of Agriculture. She served as one of the instructors for the MSU Explore: Earth, Space and Science Camp in July, a weeklong camp designed to provide an immersive experience in science to underrepresented students from Montana’s rural towns and reservations.
“We led a workshop that was aviation themed and taught the students about the science of flight,” Riebling said. “By the end of the week they were building and testing gliders, making changes based on how well they flew and learning the elements of some flight engineering. It was really neat.”
While she had been uncertain at first about joining BOREALIS, Riebling said the experience has made her into a better educator and a better student. She hopes to be able to make careers and research in STEM fields as approachable to her future students as the BOREALIS program made them for her.
“I also want to take the things I learned and put them toward tech ed outreach,” she said. “I think we need to focus on getting kids in our program and letting them know that this is an option for their careers.”
NASA funds space grant consortiums in all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., designed to allow all students access to space-related internships and programming regardless of location. To learn more about the Montana Space Grant Consortium visit https://spacegrant.montana.edu/.
“This program allows us to look at a wide range of things,” said Walach. “We have two faculty mentors, but we’re really just there to guide and support. The students are the real driving force for these projects. This program really gives them a lot of things they can utilize both in the classroom and in their futures.”
-By Reagan Colyer, MSU News Service -