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Student machinists partner with NASA

Using a computer controlled milling machine to cut the pieces for a metal locker wouldn't ordinarily be a challenge for an advanced student in the Manufacturing and Machine Technologies program at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center, but then, a locker isn't ordinarily orbiting the earth at 17,500 miles per hour. Three students in the program are currently machining parts for NASA that may one day fly on the International Space Station.

"We definitely had to go outside of our comfort zone on this to be able to perform the task because it wasn't your usual parts," said Zach Plank, one of the students working on the project. "[The locker has] got some different angles on it and stuff, things we've never had to do before."

Plank and his classmates Brooks Daniels and Walter Stathers are working on the locker as part of the NASA HUNCH program, an 11-year-old program also known as High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware, according to Rob Thate, HUNCH program manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

"The benefit is two-fold. For the students, it's a great opportunity to take the skills they are learning already in the classroom and apply them to a real world project," Thate said. "We are [also] trying to inspire the next generation of scientists, technicians and engineers. One day I am going to retire and we need to pass our knowledge on to the next generation."

The Carroll County Career and Technology Center is one of only two schools in Maryland to participate in the program, according to Thate, the other being the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center in Leonardtown.

NASA approached the Carroll County Career and Technology Center about participating in the program after noting its back-to-back gold metal performances in Computer Numerical Control milling at the SkillsUSA Maryland state competition, according to Tim Blizzard, the Manufacturing and Machine Technologies instructor.

"They came by the first week of school this year, back in August. They have to look at the facility to see if we even have the equipment for making their parts," Blizzard said. "It's pretty high-end stuff and a manual machine will not make it. You have to have Computer Numerical Control milling."

NASA has provided the students with high-grade aluminum alloy and the specifications for a locker, according to Blizzard. The parts start out as 10 by 18 by 2 inch thick plates that his students must then machine down to fit NASA's rigorous specifications.

"When they are finished, there are some angles and sides, but the parts will be approximately thirty-thousandths of an inch thick, to lighten it up as much as possible," Blizzard said. "I specifically gave them the parts and said, 'here you go.' I wanted to see how they would do it."

Thus far, Blizzard said, they seem on track to finish their milling by the end of the year.

The finished components will be part of a versatile locker that is common on the International Space Station and can serve as everything from a simple storage bin to the housing for scientific experiments, according to Thate. The components Blizzard's students complete this year will be installed in mirror image of the space station at Johnson Space Center and next year, where astronauts will practice using them in water tanks to simulate working in weightlessness.

If all goes well, next year Blizzard's students could be making pieces that actually fly.

"They start out at the training level and then if the parts are of exceptional quality ... they will go through the process of qualifying the pasts for spaceflight," Thate said.

Unfortunately, the three current Research and Development students in Blizzard's class will be graduating this spring so it will be the next crop of top students who will have to carry the torch all the way to space. Still, Brooks Daniels said that just being a part of the program has been a unique experience.

"To get your name on something that big is pretty important and exclusive," Daniels said. "Not many people can say they can do that."

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