PHS Gets a Grip

Trojans Manufacture Handles for NASA HUNCH Program

by Nina Mitchell (she/her)

Petaluma High’s advanced manufacturing class, also known as advanced metal shop, has partnered up with NASA to build handles for the International Space Station during the 2022-2023 school year as part of the HUNCH (High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware) Program.

Automotive and manufacturing instructor Keith Benson applied for the HUNCH program during the 2021-2022 school year and found out in August that PHS had been accepted. The class was clueless until they walked into fifth period on the first day, when Benson played the Star Wars theme song as he announced the news. The classroom reportedly filled with excited confusion as students processed the information.

According to NASA, the purpose of the HUNCH Program is to “empower and inspire students through a Project Based Learning program where high school students learn 21st century skills and have the opportunity to launch their careers through the participation in the design and fabrication of real world valued products for NASA.”

The program partners up with 277 high schools across the country; Petaluma High School is one of the seven schools in California that are a part of this program. “We have the machine shop here at Petaluma High School, which allows us to build actual hardware that’s going to be part of the space station,” said Benson.

Regarding how these handles will be used, Benson said, NASA astronauts “can put them on a tracking system, and they’re modular, so the crew can put a handle wherever they need it to get around. They can also use it to tether projects and equipment to them.”

Benson’s goal is to have each student from the class make one handle, resulting in 22 by the end of the year. He said building the handles is relatively easy; the difficult part is programming the Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine and designing the soft jaws, which adjust to grip the handles as they are created.

Durham, who programmed the CNC machine, thinks it is “absolutely incredible” that a project she and her peers have been working on will eventually end up on the International Space Station.

Building equipment for NASA, for astronauts to use, seems like a highly daunting task. Durham believes the amount of pressure on them and their class is “kind of crazy” but justifiable, considering they cannot mess this project up in the slightest bit. “If you accidentally leave a little mark on it, then the part can’t be used… You cannot mess this part up even a little bit because they literally won’t take it. You can’t cut the astronauts,” she said.

PHS is the first school in history to be manufacturing this particular oval handle for NASA, which adds even more pressure on the students.

While this project is stressful and challenging, it also has opened quite a few doors for the participating students. “Collectively, the metal 2, 3, and 4 [advanced] students have all taken a test for NASA regarding measurements and being able to properly inspect things,” Durham said. “We’re all technically employees for NASA… we’re certified NASA inspectors.” On top of the certification that students can put on resumes and applications in the future, they will also receive NASA mission patches for their uniforms and will be sending their signatures to space alongside the handles.

“We get to sign [cargo] lockers that other students make that are also going to space… I think it’s amazing, and I’m so excited for the opportunity, honestly,” Durham said.

The HUNCH Program does not only offer students the opportunity to manufacture hardware for space missions. NASA also works with students on prototyping and design, software applications, sewn flight articles (fabric and soft goods), video and media, health and biomedical science, flight configurations and a culinary challenge.

Durham said they and their peers are all working very hard on this project and encourage other students to take the manufacturing class as it is an excellent hands-on learning experience.

“You’ll have fun because you get to make stuff and light things on fire and it opens up opportunities you didn’t think about,” said Durham.