We were supposed to fly today. At Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, undergraduates from around the country are currently preparing to perform myriad science and engineering experiments in zero gravity aboard a Boeing 727 affectionately nicknamed “G-Force One.” And we, as members of the Yale Drop Team, had planned to be among them.
Since January, we have worked for countless hours to design, build and test our own experiment through NASA’s Systems Engineering and Educational Design program, and we were excited to reap the benefits: visiting mission control, talking with astronauts and, of course, experiencing zero gravity.
But last week, as we were packing, we heard the horrible news that our friend and fellow team member Zachary Brunt ’15 had died. The world stopped. Our plans were put on hold as our eager anticipation was replaced with boundless despair.
Zach’s death completely blindsided us. We knew him only in the context of our project, but in the countless hours we spent working side by side, we saw only his passion, optimism and kindness. Since his death, we have scoured our memories for any sign of Zach’s troubles — how could we not? — but sadness and anxiety are incongruous with the Zach we knew.
Zach met the Yale Drop Team last fall at a presentation we gave to the Society of Physics Students about our 2011 fluid mechanics project, an experiment that returned unexpectedly incredible results. In December, when the SEED program accepted our proposal, we realized that we had space for another member in our flight crew. Zach responded to an email blast and eventually became part of the team.
Undergraduate projects are usually piecemeal efforts, typically part of something larger and rarely pursued to a final conclusion. However, NASA gives a few undergraduate teams the opportunity to have ownership of a complicated project from its inception to the final data analysis. Signing up for these programs is no small decision; this has been a defining extracurricular of our undergraduate careers. Still, progress on our project was steady and sure. We spent our weekends working together on Science Hill but avoided frantic all-nighters and near-deadline panics.
Our experiment was simple but significant. We aimed to test the performance of surface tension screens, which separate liquid propellant from gas in spacecraft fuel tanks to prevent explosions or other disasters. For technical reasons, realistic tests of these screens cannot be performed in Earth’s gravity; without precise knowledge, engineers are forced to add large margins to hardware designs, causing cost increases and delays.
When we first met Zach, we were inwardly intrigued — this guy, with his unapologetically wild hair and blindingly orange jacket, wants to design and build our electronics system? — but we trusted that his technical skills would match his obvious energy and excitement.
Ultimately, Zach’s prowess with electronics and programming was unparalleled and essential, but his most valuable contribution to our project was what we first noticed: his personality, uplifting and bright.
Zach epitomized reliability. He attended meetings that others would shirk, and he always met his deadlines, even when they were self-imposed. When unexpected setbacks sowed discouragement and doubt, Zach shrugged off the difficulty with a helping hand and a cheerful word. Seeing Zach’s orange coat draped over a chair when we entered the lab never failed to brighten our moods. His presence reassured us that progress was possible.
At last Thursday’s vigil, we learned that Zach similarly inspired and uplifted all those in his life. We did not know Zach as well as many, but his unwavering dedication and cheerfulness were infectious. They were what we — and all his friends — relied on in moments of doubt.
We regret not fully expressing to him how much we appreciated every ounce of his effort. We regret not talking with him more about the other facets of his busy life here. But most of all, we regret not being able to be for Zach what he was for us: a reminder of the inherent joy of scientific research, a steadfast partner always eager to help, an inspiration to pursue your passions no matter the obstacles.
Only in the harsh light of Zach’s absence do we fully appreciate the crucial role that he served on our team and the profound impression he left on us. Our memories of Zach encourage us to brighten others’ lives as he brightened ours.
Joseph O’Rourke is a senior in Silliman College and a staff columnist for the News. Katherine Lawrence is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.