To NASA and beyond

On Tuesday, April 11, the test of the SLED was livestreamed, allowing students at St. Thomas Academy the opportunity to see their device in action.

This rendering shows the launching arm designed by students.

The group behind the SLED was made up of more than 40, 10th-grade students.

St. Thomas Academy teachers travel to test student-made device


Hannah Burlingame

Review staff


A team of teachers from St. Thomas Academy traveled to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston in order to test a student-designed device on April 11 and 13.

For more than five months, students and teachers at the Mendota Heights school worked on a Satellite Launching Experimental Device, or SLED, and the April trip to Texas was the culmination of their work.

This group was one of 12 selected to participate in a simulated microgravity environment as part of NASA’s Microgravity University for Educators program.


Where it all began

Caroline Little, a French teacher, Mark Westlake, a physics teacher, and math teacher Kara Ehlert all teach at St. Thomas and were instrumental in the SLED project. Little is also the moderator for the school’s Experimental Vehicle Team.

There were also two other teachers involved: Ted Siefkes from Scott Highlands Middle School and Emily Dauk from Mankato East High School. 

The SLED project started moving when Little and the others started thinking of something fun for their students to do during the school’s new Flex period, which is like homeroom.

“We’ve got these guys, and we’ve got this free time we’ve never had before in our schedule,” Little said. “Outside of tutoring and some of the other stuff they had scheduled, [we wondered] is there a fun project we can do with our students during this time?”

After some time spent searching, the teachers found the Microgravity University for Educators program and submitted an application to it at the end of last year.

The group found out in January that they were one of 12 from around the country selected to participate.

The project was to build a SLED that would be tested on the Precision Air Bearing Floor at NASA. The floor simulates a microgravity environment — essentially what it’s like in space.

Little said NASA is having issues with payload delivery — it’s trying to find different ways to deliver supplies to orbiting space stations, including a way to launch a satellite without having to dock the actual rocket that is sending up the supplies.


Hands on learning

The St. Thomas group of 45 10th-grade students was given the challenge of coming up with a SLED that would hopefully solve NASA’s problem. In the space simulation, the SLED would be a device that launches an air hockey disc — a satellite with payload — towards a target — the space station.

Little said there were three design parameters for the SLED students had to keep in mind: the disc must always be shot straight, the disc must leave the launcher at the same speed, and the design must be simple.

Students Michael Barry and Lucas Montpetit both worked on the SLED.

Barry helped with the carbon fiber parts of the design, and Montpetit helped with drilling and cutting.

Little said the whole project was student designed and student inspired. 

In its final design, the SLED is a remote-control device that is trigged by a solenoid, which is a powerful magnet. This releases the mechanism that releases the air hockey disc towards the target. The goal is to get the disc to go through one of two holes on the target.

Barry said the students designed the arm that releases the hockey disc.

The flight center sent the students the materials to use. They had to use 90 percent of the material from NASA and the remaining 10 percent could be material they selected.

Montpetit said some of the materials sent were not what they were expecting, including steel and other parts that had to be modified. 

For their contribution, the students included a camera and laser.

“We had a rough idea we wanted our 10 percent to be something to aim it with because we had our idea for a sturdy base and our launching mechanism already set with their materials,” Montpetit said.

Barry said the remote trajectory on the arm was something the students added as well. There is a button that loaded the spring on the arm to shoot the disc without anyone having to do it.


The launch

When the group found out they were selected, Little said she couldn’t stop jumping up and down.

“The students were like ‘can we pack up your suitcase? I know they say we can’t come but what happens if we just show up?’” Little said, calling the NASA trip the opportunity of a lifetime.

While they were excited to find out they had been selected, Barry and Montpetit said there was a sense of urgency because they had been given a deadline.

When the trip this month to Houston finally happened, the students were able to see their teachers at NASA testing their device via live stream.

Barry said it was cool to see something he and his fellow students worked on in the classroom, just a couple weeks ago, being tested at NASA.

“Honestly, it felt good just to see it work,” Montpetit said following the first test, even though the SLED missed its mark.

“Just to see it release even though it didn’t quite make it” was good, Barry said.

Changes were made between the first launch on April 11 and second launch on April 13, like putting a new spring on to add more force.

Little said it was a bit surreal actually being able to test the device. The day before the first round of tests, the teachers were able to go onto the Precision Air Bearing Floor to make sure their SLED would fit.

“I put my booties on to get on, and I was so scared about walking on the floor and damaging it,” she said.

Little said she hopes the students learned about the engineering design process. She said she wants those students who participated to walk away with not only practical design knowledge but also the idea that it’s okay to make mistakes.

In that vein, Montpetit said he learned you have to respond to different mistakes quickly and efficiently.

“If you don’t do that, you’re going to end up not succeeding and it won’t work as intended,” he said. 

The adjustments worked. Around 8:45 a.m., on April 13, the last day of testing, the SLED did what it was supposed to do. It shot the disc through one of the holes on the target, doing so a couple more times before time ran out.


Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or

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