In a small work room about the size of a walk-in closet at Linn-Benton Community College, Levi Willmeth and Delphine Le Brun Colon fire-up their laptop. Electrical wires, test equipment, homemade components and spare parts cover the work benches. There’s little room for error. The device they are building is going for a ride to the top of the atmosphere, almost 20 miles above the Earth.
Their endeavors will pay off on August 21. Willmeth, Colon and a team of Linn-Benton and Oregon State University students launch a high-altitude balloon from an OSU research vessel, the Pacific Storm, about 30 miles off the coast to view the first solar eclipse to run from the Pacific to Atlantic since 1918.
“Our goal is to be right on the coastline to get video of the shadow on the water and as it first touches down on land. It’s pretty exciting,” says Willmeth, who graduated from LBCC in computer science. He is now an undergraduate in the College of Engineering at Oregon State and a software developer in OSU’s Open Source Lab.
Colon graduates from LBCC this June with an associate's degree in mechanical engineering, and will enroll this fall in mechanical engineering at OSU, with a minor in aerospace engineering.
In addition to their work on the eclipse project, both Willmeth and Colon have secured NASA internships this summer. Willmeth will spend 10 weeks in Fairmont, West Virginia, where he’ll test software for drones and satellites. Colon will be stationed at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, working on the space launch system RS-25 engine, which is designed to send astronauts on missions beyond Earth’s orbit.
During the eclipse, the team has a two-minute window to catch the action. The whole mission will be a relay race of sorts, with 17 eclipse teams across Oregon and 55 teams nationwide picking up the video feed one after the other. Timing will be everything.
As each team captures the eclipse from its unique vantage point, NASA will live-stream footage for viewers to watch. For many in the 70-mile-wide “path of totality,” from the Oregon coast to South Carolina, the chance to experience total darkness as the moon’s shadow fully blocks the sun will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Willmeth is excited to be part of the team. His software has controlled three generations of LBCC Space Exploration Team projects, from space-rocket instrumentation in 2015 through high-altitude balloon video this year.
For Willmeth and Colon, the hard work and time spent has paid off. Gaining a NASA internship is a very competitive process, says Willmeth. Turns out he did so well in his interview, they offered him the internship the very same day, something they usually don’t do, he said. "I know the projects I worked on with the club helped me stand out from other applicants."
While interning at NASA, Willmeth will work with drones and satellites that have a lot of sensors to control pitch and make adjustments as needed. "I’ve worked on a few projects where you program the amount of pitch, but not where you make adjustments to it. It will be new territory for me.”
NASA projects are on a much larger scale, he added. To give perspective, his past projects used one Inertial Measurement Unit, or IMU, that provided 12 different measurement options, where NASA projects use 32 IMU’s, each having around that same number of measurement options
Colon's internship includes working with the world's most powerful rocket engine, the RS-25, which will power NASA's Space Launch System, the world's most powerful rocket, on America's human exploration of interplanetary space. It's known as the people-to-Mars rocket. Colon has landed a number of awards and scholarships while at LBCC.
“I'm living the dream! Once I'm finished with college, all I want to do is participate in human's grand journey to space, even if it's a minuscule contribution," Colon said.
Willmeth expressed the need for college clubs like Space Exploration, which help students gain experience that lead to opportunities like the internship and the eclipse project.
“I received some great scholarships from the Oregon Space Grant program, and I’m sure I got them because of my involvement in the club. Being involved gives you things to talk about on your application and in interviews.”
Instructors like Parker Swanson are also instrumental in student success, says Willmeth. As club advisor, Swanson gives much of his personal time to coaching the club and finding opportunities for students.
“Parker is always here for us. He makes sure we do presentations and make connections with a room full of people from NASA or other space exploration companies like SpaceX. You can’t help but gain confidence talking to these people,” said Willmeth.
Swanson also finds opportunities for students to present their projects to local schools and organizations, like OSU Cascades Campus and OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center. “Both Levi and Delphine have been key leaders for the past three years in our Space Exploration Team. As the team's adviser, I will miss them during their 10-week internships."
"Somewhere on campus right now is next year's NASA intern," said Willmeth. "I want to help motivate students to get involved with the many STEM clubs and opportunities that the college has to offer, and encourage them to go apply.”
LBCC Associate of Science, Computer Science, Graduated Fall 2016
President, LBCC Space Exploration Team 2016/2017
Project Manager, LBCC/OSU Eclipse Ballooning Mission 2016/2017
OSU transfer student, Computer Science major, Graduating spring 2018
Delphine Le Brun Colon
LBCC Associate of Science, Mechanical Engineering, June 2017
LBCC/OSU Eclipse Ballooning Mission 2016/2017
OSU transfer student, Mechanical Engineering major, Aerospace minor
LBCC Space Exploration Club serves to promote education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics(STEM) through a process of design, build and launch of High Altitude Balloon science (HABS) missions. The club is a student organization that consists of LBCC students of many majors with a common interest in space exploration.
1. Levi Willmeth with prototype payload in front of Madrone Hall.
2. Delphine Le Brun Colon and Levi Willmeth work on payload in Industrial A workroom.
3. Space Exploration Club members check launch data.
4. Club advisor and LBCC computer science faculty Parker Swanson.
5. Club members ready balloon for launch at the LBCC track.
6. Delphine Le Brun Colon holds the payload as team members ready for launch.
7. 2016/17 Space Exploration Team members gather on practice launch day.
Story by: Lori Fluge-Brunker
LBCC Advancement Office
Delphine Le Brun Colon & Simon Hutton, Space Exploration Club