HAMPTON, Va. (AP) — Brandon Hogan smiled broadly on Thursday as he sat in a chair at NASA's Langley Research Center that spun around and around, intentionally making himself dizzy.
But the high school senior in blue jeans and a green T-shirt wasn't goofing off on a facility tour: He was testing out a chair that will be used by astronauts and he helped build.
"It feels like a roller coaster," Hogan said after getting out of the slowly-spinning chair he helped weld together. "Now that it's all done and you can sit it in, you're like 'Wow, it's done. We built that.' It's a good feeling."
Hogan is one of 16 high school students from the area who helped design and build what's called a Barany Chair — which teaches pilots what it is like to be disoriented — under a program that was new to Langley this school year.
Called High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware, or HUNCH for short, the idea is to get high school students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to build real-world hardware for NASA. The program originated at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston about a decade ago and also has a presence at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
Nationwide, the program involves 108 high schools. Other products that students have developed for NASA related to the International Space Station include cargo transfer bags, mid-deck lockers and glove box mock-ups. Many of the participating schools are in Rocky Mountain and Gulf Coast states, but Langley officials say they anticipate taking the lead for getting more schools on the East Coast involved with the program.
"The Barany Chair is just the beginning," said Roger Hathaway, Langley's director of education. "We look forward to working on other projects for years to come."
Even though President Barack Obama's budget proposal calls for slashing NASA's education spending by $45 million — nearly one-third of its education budget — Hathaway said the HUNCH program should have a strong future because it is funded out of the International Space Station program.
Tammy Cottee, who works with the HUNCH program at Langley as part of the engineering directorate, said next year's student project hasn't been decided yet. But she said one possibility is having students run the HUNCH website, which is currently done by NASA staff in Texas. Another possibility is having students build a mockup of the International Space Station's Destiny laboratory, which could take several years.
In a few weeks, the Barany Chair will be shipped to Johnson Space Center's Human Test and Space Medicine Division. There, it will be used to teach astronauts and pilots about the effects of spatial disorientation and how abrupt head movements affect them during flight. Astronauts must undergo a refresher course in the chairs every four years. Among other things, the training chair helps prevent pilots from getting airsick and astronauts adjust to being in space.
"Public enemy No. 1, really, for pilots is spatial disorientation: their inner ear," said Kyle Ellis, an aerospace research engineer at Langley. "So the best way, actually, to get them to trust their instruments is to get them not to trust themselves. So that's really what this chair does."
The chairs are used by pilots all over the world and high speeds aren't necessary to achieve the desired effect. A bystander hand-spins the person in the chair at speeds much slower than an amusement park ride. But whoever sits in one and rests their head on a bar surrounding the chair as it spins becomes dizzy and loses their bearings as they lift their heads and raise their arms.
When Hogan and other NASA staff used the chair for the first time after completing it Thursday, it worked perfectly. Although he's wrapped up his internship at Langley, Hogan said he hopes to return one day.
"It was a great experience," Hogan said. "I took a lot from it. I want to go to school, do something with engineering and hopefully get a job here one day. Basically, take engineering and welding as far as I can go."
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis