Spring 2013 Magazine

The Brain

McCormick Experiment Blasts Off Into Space


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Chris Hadfield, Canadian Space Agency

The Dragon, the SpaceX vessel that delivered 1,200 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station in March, also carried precious scientific cargo—including a set of experiments that studied crystal formation in space for Peter Voorhees, Frank C. Engelhart Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and graduate student Thomas Cool.

The DragonSix one-foot-long furnaces, each holding tin crystal formations known as dendrites, underwent a series of carefully regimented tests at the space station that can’t be conducted on Earth. In the absence of gravity, researchers can more fully understand the growth of dendrites, snowflake-like shapes that form when a metal or other material solidifies. Back on Earth, that knowledge could translate into better high-performance materials for aerospace and other applications.

With space station astronauts on a strict schedule, the experiments were designed to run autonomously. Following a book of instructions, the astronauts—including Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency (pictured above)—only had to place the furnaces into a laboratory module called the Microgravity Science Glovebox, connect the proper ventilation, and flip a switch. However, they had to return periodically to change the furnaces and troubleshoot problems.

The Dragon marked the second nontest launch by the private space company SpaceX. McCormick alumna Gwynne Shotwell (BS mechanical engineering ‘86, MS ‘88) is the company’s president.