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Northwest Nazarene athletes shoot for the stars

By Andrew Crum

For most people, the chance to work with the NASA space program is a dream as far away as the moon.

For two Northwest Nazarene student-athletes, that dream is a reality.  

Weston Patrick, a double major in physics and engineering, and Jesse Baggenstos, an engineering physics major, were a part of the student team named “Team Super Hydro.” That group’s research project was one of nine that NASA selected for its 2011 Microgravity University Systems Engineering Educational Discovery (SEED) program at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. 

The student team, along with professors and project sponsors Stephen Parke and Dan Lawrence, submitted a proposal in November 2010. Patrick, the team lead, received a congratulatory phone call a month later from NASA. “I was very excited but a little shocked that we had been selected,” he said. “But I knew our experiment was pretty good.” 

As the first Northwest Nazarene team selected, it was a “David and Goliath story” for Parke. 

The team spent countless hours preparing over four months before flying to Houston in April 2011.

Over the next 11 days, the team tested how water interacts with super hydrophobic (water repellent) coatings technology recently developed under John Simpson at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The team conducted two experiments nicknamed “David” (firing water droplets on surfaces like skipped rocks) and “Moses” (making water part and stand up like a wall) to study the material in zero gravity. The studies were under the direction of Greg Pace, a NASA representative from the Ames Research Center.  

The experiments were completed aboard NASA’s G Force 1 (commonly referred to as the “vomit comet”) during two separate flights. Patrick acknowledged that G Force 1 lived up to its nickname in his case.

“I did vomit, but then I was fine after that,” he said reluctantly, admitting he was the lone team member to become sick. 

Each flight consisted of a series of 32 parabolas, a steep climb and a free fall producing a 30-second period of weightlessness each time.

NASA scientists have shown interest in the material for pipe coating and the inside of the spacecraft as they seek new ways to conserve water during future missions. 

“The SEED program allows NASA engineers and students to share ideas, a ‘win/win’ for the engineers that benefit from the research and the students for future job opportunities,” Lawrence said. 

Patrick, from Wasilla, Alaska, also is on active duty with the Navy besides being a member of the soccer team. But he likes it that way, “I work best with a lot on my plate,” Patrick said. 

He grew up skiing and didn’t start playing soccer until age 13. He dreamed of becoming the first athlete to compete in both the summer and winter Olympics. He came to Northwest Nazarene University because of the engineering program, but he wanted to play soccer, so he contacted coach Coe Michaelson. After a few emails back and forth, Michaelson was interested. 

“He was a good student, had good values and has upside athletically,” Michaelson said. As a freshman, Patrick was redshirted because of a hip injury, but he won the team fitness test anyway.

Patrick, now a junior, “has developed into a solid role player as a defender for us,” Michaelson said. He recalled that Patrick’s defensive performance against one of the nation’s top players was so good that even the opposing coach praised the effort. “He is the total package as a student and an athlete,” Michaelson said.

Patrick hopes to use his NASA experience to become a nuclear submarine officer or a nuclear reactors engineer with the Navy. He is on active duty for six years after school with the Navy and may take two years on shore duty to pursue a master’s degree. Because of his interest in aeronautics, he’s sure that he wants to get his pilot license over the summer.

Baggenstos, from Renton, Wash., competes on the cross country and track teams. He was home-schooled but ran for the local high school and showed a particular interest in math. 

Baggenstos came to Northwest Nazarene because he “wanted to attend a Christian school, run in Division II and was impressed with the physics program.” So he contacted coach Ben Gall and walked onto the team. Baggenstos has developed as a runner because “he puts no barriers on himself and he was always willing to put in the extra work,” Gall said.

Shortly before it was time to leave for NASA, Baggenstos broached the idea of skipping the trip because of the practice time he would miss. Gall didn’t want him to pass up the unique opportunity, so he came up with a program for Baggenstos to train away from campus. The experience left the coach impressed with Baggenstos’ competitive drive.

Baggenstos, now a junior, is a National Merit Scholar and has a 4.0 grade-point average. He hopes his NASA experience will help in his applications to physics graduate schools. “I have also applied for a summer internship at NASA, and hopefully my experience (with the SEED program) will help that,” he said. 

His professor believes it will make a difference.

“Being able to put a NASA project on your resume sets people apart,” Lawrence said. 

Baggenstos ultimately hopes to work at NASA or possibly in national defense.

“Dr. Lawrence worked with missile systems after grad school,” he said. “I might like that.”

Lawrence, Parke, their coaches and their professors expressed pride in both student-athletes, noting that their success was based on hard work, excellent time management and an ability to work together.

“The experience of athletics is similar to an engineering project,” Lawrence said.  “Both need to work as a team to be successful.”

Said Parke: “This is a great example how students can succeed in both academics and athletics.”