Joseph Huseman, a Rice University senior this fall, has gazed into a possible future, one that includes a promising career as a mechanical engineer, perhaps leading ground-breaking aerospace projects.

“I've always been interested in spaceflight,” said Huseman, who grew up in a small farming community in the Texas panhandle. “As a kid, I looked for spots where I could be a leader.”

To improve his employment prospects, he is navigating a succession of learning experiences beyond the classroom. This summer, Huseman interned with General Electric Oil and Gas in Houston as part of a new products introduction team. As a 2012 summer intern with UTC Aerospace Systems, he learned of the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program (RGEFP), headquartered nearby at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

A division of the 18-year-old RGEFP known as Microgravity University (MU) allows undergraduate engineering teams to compete for time aboard a Boeing 727-200 0g aircraft, sometimes called a Weightless Wonder or Vomit Comet, to expose their student projects to brief periods of microgravity. Gravity is eased briefly as the jet transport rises then descends over a series of high-altitude parabolas.

Since MU's inception in 1995, more than 800 university students have taken flight along with their experiments. On July 21, Huseman and a half-dozen other members of his Rice Pending Gravitation team joined that special cadre by completing a 0g flight to push the development of an electromagnetic sensor package envisioned as a prospective power-efficient guidance device aboard deep-space probes. Their mission report, outlining their findings, is due to NASA in September. “We're crunching the numbers,” says Huseman.

Over the years, other undergraduate teams have studied dust coagulation in microgravity for insight into planet formation; the cellular mechanisms behind the bone loss experienced by astronauts; porosity of Martian soil simulants; and effective techniques for the air-tight storage of space suits outside human planetary rovers.

“The best scenario would be a place aboard the International Space Station,” says Huseman, of the Rice investigation. “But the volume our package takes up is too big, and you get a ton of space on the Vomit Comet.”

But NASA's educational budget is facing decline and with it opportunities for others like Huseman to enhance their professional skills as they complete their academic careers.

“We are following the budget within Congress very closely because it certainly will have some impact on us,” says Frank Prochaska, Johnson Space Center RGEFP program manager for student campaigns.

Funded at $136 million in NASA's 2012 budget, the 2013 budget sequester and plans to consolidate space agency educational endeavors with those of other federal agencies would drive the education line to just over $94 million under the proposed White House budget for 2014 and the out-years. So far, House and Senate appropriations panels have balked at the cut, approving educational lines for 2014 of $122 million and $116.6 million, respectively.

In recent years, the RGEFP has sought to diversify its funding sources beyond NASA's education line, which finances a range of programs intended to encourage youthful interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. The RGEFP embraces eight flight education activities, including several for teachers of K-12 students, students at minority universities and community colleges, space grant fellows as well as undergraduates focused on systems engineering who collaborate with NASA engineers on 0g flight experiments.

The diversification has permitted RGEFP to receive financing for its student/teacher flights from other budget activities, including the International Space Station, explains Prochaska. The diversity is funding 0g flights for 17 undergraduate teams this year.

But many of the funding sources face spending restraints as well. “I'm anticipating we will have undergraduate flight weeks next year,” says Prochaska. “When I look across the model we have for this program, we are in pretty good standing right now because we have diversified our funding sources, If Congress comes back and follows the president's budget, then certainly there is going to be a lot less funding for those programs. Some may get cut. So that would definitely have an impact.”

The six-month run-up to the flight experience is as demanding as it is instructional for MU undergraduate teams like Huseman's.

Most of the Rice students, for example, were enrolled in 18-20 hr. of course work during the 2013 spring semester. It was not unusual for team members to assemble in the university's student engineering lab well past midnight for test sessions and troubleshooting as they prepared for flight.

“Problems can set you back a whole week; real things you never think about,” says Huseman. “This has taught me to think ahead. Leading an experiment is like thinking 30 minutes ahead. I'm starting to learn that leadership is seeing the holes before they are there, getting ready to fill them or having a way to keep the project moving, regardless.”

Huseman assembled his team as though the Rice cadre was rolling out a new product. “We wanted a diverse team. Mechanical engineering would not cover everything,” he says. “The project has an electrical component. With a lot of data recording, we have a big need for statistics. We've included ground-control members, one a materials science student and the other a business major.”

The team asked for equipment donations from suppliers; members paid their own travel expenses. “It is a fantastic experience, and it's one that university teams are willing to go to great lengths to participate in,” says Prochaska. The team also developed an hour-long classroom presentation illustrating the value of science and math to middle and high school classrooms. They focused 12 classroom visits on some of Houston's underprivileged neighborhoods but also ventured to classrooms and college campuses in California, Tennessee and West Texas.

“The younger kids, those from middle school, asked a ton of questions about space. They just let loose,” says Huseman. He is now sizing up a 0g flight proposal for next year.