Published: June 1, 2011 By


CU aerospace engineering professor and former NASA astronaut Jim Voss (MAero’74, HonDoc Sci’00) poses with students and the Dream Chaser mock-up. To his right are aerospace graduate students Christine Fanchiang (MAero’10) and Taylor Donaldson. Inside the cockpit are Chad Healy, left, and Ben Kemper, an aerospace engineering undergraduate student.

Christine Fanchiang (MAero’10) wants to go to space.

The key to fulfilling that dream is a wood and fiberglass mock-up of the Dream Chaser in the Engineering Center. The 30-foot spacecraft could someday carry seven passengers into orbit. Fanchiang, a doctoral student, wants to make sure she’s one of them.

In February representatives of CU, NASA and Louisville, Colo.-based Sierra Nevada Corp. announced a partnership to chart the future of human spaceflight and design. This will allow the university to help fill the tremendous hole created when NASA retires its 30-year-old, nearly $200 billion space shuttle program this summer. After Atlantis makes the 135th and final shuttle mission planned for late June, CU aerospace faculty and students will find themselves helping enterprising industrial space companies working to commercialize space travel.

As a researcher of bioastronautics — the study of supporting life in space — 25-year-old Fanchiang is right where she wants to be. The Dream Chaser is designed to be a shuttle service to the International Space Station and to launch tourists into Earth’s orbit.

“I’m probably the luckiest grad student in the world,” says Fanchiang, who used the Dream Chaser as a model for her master’s project developing a software program to test the efficiency of a spacecraft’s interior layout. “This is something very important that can potentially fly in the next five years.”

The Dream Chaser, owned by NASA, enables students to do a variety of research. For her doctoral thesis, Fanchiang is researching ways in which a spacecraft can best utilize a crew to ensure optimal performance and make a mission a success.

A San Francisco native, Fanchiang attended “star parties” given by the San Mateo County Astronomical Society and watched members peer into telescopes to see planets and stars. She says she became amazed at the smallness of Earth compared to the rest of the universe.

Despite her early fascination with space, Fanchiang went to college to become a cognitive scientist. But she discovered the engineering aspect of science, which she found more challenging than biology, and switched majors. She graduated from MIT with an aerospace degree in 2007.

“I realized that rockets are really cool,” she says. “[Engineering] was a good mix.”

Fanchiang became interested in attending CU after learning about its unique bioastronautics program. She also was inspired by David Klaus (MAero’91, PhD’94), her professor for a distance education class who serves as her doctoral advisor.

“She is a very motivated student on the cusp of human spaceflight,” he says. “She is a very hard worker.”

The university was involved in space research long before NASA was founded in 1958. Aerospace became a degree in 1943, and within 11 years landed on MIT’s list of the best aeronautical engineering programs.

Furthermore, 18 CU-Boulder alumni have flown in space and an alumnus has ridden on each of NASA’s space shuttles: ColumbiaChallengerDiscoveryAtlantis and Endeavour.

CU astronauts include Scott Carpenter (Aero’49, HonDocSci’00), the second American to orbit Earth and remembered for his suspenseful Atlantic Ocean landing hundreds of miles off course. Jack Swigert (MechEngr’53) delivered the famous line, “Houston we’ve had a problem here,” aboard Apollo 13, which failed to make it to the moon after an oxygen tank burst.

obama getting away

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visit with crew members in April before the delayed launch of Endeavour’s STS-134 mission. As NASA prepares to retire its shuttle program this summer, CU aerospace students and faculty find themselves helping research commercial space flight.

Ellison Onizuka (Aero’69, MAero’69, HonDocSci’03) and Kalpana Chawla (MAero’86, PhD’88, HonDocSci’03) were killed in the tragic explosions of the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, respectively. Jim Voss (MAero’74, HonDocSci’00), who flew on five space shuttle flights, teaches a CU human spaceflight course, advises graduate students and serves as vice president of Sierra Nevada Corp.

CU equipment was present on Apollo 11 — the first spacecraft to land on the moon ­­— in July 1969 with its laser-ranging retroreflector used to measure the distance from Earth to the moon. The last lunar flight, Apollo 17, had a CU ultraviolet spectrometer that searched for lunar water and atmosphere in December 1972.

Since then, many space flights have carried equipment and experiments designed by CU students through BioServe Technologies located in the engineering center. Founded in 1987 and sponsored by NASA, BioServe strives to inspire commercial research interest in space, including life science space research, by employing students for hands-on experience. Fanchiang has had some of her projects launched into space, including one to study plant growth on the shuttle Endeavour’s STS-130 mission last year.

“As students at CU, we have the most amazing opportunity to work on spacecraft,” she says. “I never knew I would do this.”

By 2012 it is likely people will be able to pay for a brief, four-to-five-minute trip into zero gravity for a price of $200,000. A longer orbital experience will cost millions of dollars. To date, a small group of wealthy people have pioneered space tourism since 2001 when Russian space agency Roscosmos and Space Adventures formed a partnership. In 2009 Charles Simonyi, a Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire, became the first person to go into space two times as a tourist. The 60-year-old paid $60 million for two voyages to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

CU instructor Joe Tanner, an astronaut on four shuttle missions, says the experience of being in space is one that cannot compare to any feeling on Earth. He describes it as a relaxed and continual floating sensation like being underwater.

“You feel happy to be alive,” he says.

Tanner, Fanchiang and those involved in space research understand funding for space initiatives like commercial flight remains inextricably linked to public support and confidence. Researchers must execute all experiments as thoroughly as possible, so launches run smoothly.

This is what excites Fanchiang about her work.  Studying space is a way to grant people opportunities they never thought possible.

“You know you are studying this to give back to humanity,” she says.