When Anastasia Muszynski's third-grade teacher taught her how to make an origami crane, the University of Colorado sophomore never imagined the paper-folding art would unfold as the inspiration behind a project designed to improve space flight.

"This summer, I got to build spacecraft with my best friends," said CU sophomore Alexandra Paquin. "I had the best summer ever."

Last year, Muszynski and her peers were brainstorming ideas for the High Altitude Student Platform flight program, supported by NASA and the Louisiana Space Consortium. HASP is a device that takes flight using a zero-pressure balloon carrying up to 12 student projects at an altitude of more than 20 miles in the air so students can test their work at near-space conditions.

"The payload platforms where students' work goes are the size of a small car, and the balloon is the size of the Pepsi Center," said Brian Sanders, deputy director for the Colorado Space Grant Consortium.

Sanders served as a mentor for the CU students who applied to get their project aboard HASP and won a spot thanks to Muszynski's knack for fiddling with paper and the team's collaboration.

Myszynski and her peers noticed an existing inflatable, soft-sided module for long-duration space flight on the International Space Station wasn't reusable.

"Once you were done with it, you kind of just had to pop a hole in it and let your billion-dollar module burn on entry," she said.


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Using a type of origami fold called the Miura, named after Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura, the 15-student team decided they could create a resuable habitat for space flight that could fold back into a more space-efficient form.

"We wanted to see if this technique of origami would be a good fit to apply to space-grade materials," said junior Dawson Beatty, who served as the team's project manager. "This was a way to test the structure in different environmental conditions."

University of Colorado student Mary Rahjes gives an overview of Project Miura on Friday on the Boulder campus.
University of Colorado student Mary Rahjes gives an overview of Project Miura on Friday on the Boulder campus. (Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer)

The students started their proposal process in December. Space Grant gave them the thumbs-up for their project to make it on the HASP balloon, which was taking off the following September in New Mexico.

The students got to work, with funding help from the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

"You come on with no experience," Muszynski said. "By the end, you kind of build from the ground up."

As the team tinkered with its prototype — an aluminum outer shell and a collapsible structure that sits in the middle, getting spun up and down as it extends and retracts — it learned invaluable engineering lessons.

Sophomore Andrew Pfefer rattled off skills the team strengthened: computer-aided design, machining, programming, wiring and circuitry, optics and image analysis and data analysis.

The team stayed in Boulder for the summer pulling long days and nights in the engineering center's Discovery Learning Center, where most of the hard work took place.

"There were so many late nights," Paquin said. "We would play music and sing and argue. We would stay up so late that we'd see the sunrise."

On Friday morning, the team presented its initial data findings to Sanders following the September flight.

As they prepared their presentation slides, the students chattered about NASA news, such as submitting their names for flight on the next mission to Mars.

Their conclusion: things didn't go as planned, but why? That question is their next project to dig into.

The prototype went through two successful extension cycles before something went wrong. The part of the system that experienced failure was not the module itself, meaning the goal to prove the origami design can withstand a space environment was achieved. The support structures still need some work, the students concluded, which will be elaborated on during a follow-up analysis in November.

"Being able to come up with an idea like this and actually follow through and see it through testing, it's just cool," Muszynski said. "Nothing like this has been done in this sort of way."

Sanders, who provided the team with constructive feedback during the presentation, has been working with CU students on HASP projects for 10 years.

"Seeing that group from 10 years ago out in the industry making huge impacts in space is great," he said. "And now I can just imagine where these students will end up."

Elizabeth Hernandez: 303-473-1106, hernandeze@dailycamera.com