UBC Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) student Alex Balbino is part of a team whose science experiment involving the impact of microgravity on polyurethane foam earned a spot on a flight to space. Balbino and his teammates are the first Canadian students to participate in the research program, made possible by Shad Canada and Blue Origin, the space travel company owned by former Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos.
Balbino is a second-year BCom student specializing in marketing. Since starting university, his life has been a balancing act between his academics, extracurricular activities and his scientific pursuits.
Back in the summer of 2020, Balbino enrolled in an online program offered by Shad Canada, a non-profit organization that delivers educational programming to high school students in partnership with 19 universities across the country, including UBC. About 600 students were placed in teams of 10 and presented with the challenge: How might we leverage space as a creative research platform to advance humankind? They worked on their designs and business plans for four weeks, then pitched them to the class and a jury of scientific experts.
“My team won the challenge and we spent the next two years working on our experiment and getting it ready for this moment and finally, here we are,” says Balbino.
The UBC Sauder community was a source of talent and expertise right from the beginning. Fellow BCom student Tina Zou was also a contributor in the earliest days of the project.
Space as a science lab
Balbino and his teammates are testing their hypothesis that polyurethane foam becomes denser and stronger in a microgravity environment. They built a miniature machine that mixes two liquid components together and aerates the substance, resulting in a solid foam. Following the space flight, the team will analyze the foam’s characteristics, including stability and thermal resistance.
“Foam has so many applications in society from implants and prosthetics to construction materials, auto parts and even shoes,” says Balbino. “We’re hoping the data we collect offers insights that will benefit society in the future. I’m really excited about its potential in healthcare, such as making prosthetic limbs more mobile and more comfortable.”
Blazing a trail as student scientists
For the second stage of the project, Balbino met with his teammates weekly over Zoom to test and fine-tune their experiment. He also put his business skills to use.
“I got to work on a lot of the marketing aspects of the project. We also attended conferences virtually where we got to present our project to world-class scientists. That taught me how to be more comfortable with public speaking and thinking on my feet.”
Dr. Shawna Pandya, Director for the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences Space Medicine Group, provided mentorship and support.
"Over the past two years, I’ve watched the team develop their skills with payload development and testing,” says Dr. Pandya, who volunteers with Shad Canada as a Principal Investigator and Mentor. “It has been gratifying to see these students come into their own as leaders, scientists, and future professionals. They're simply wonderful."
Shad Canada has been delivering STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and entrepreneurship programs since 1981, but this is the first time one of their student teams is participating in a Blue Origin flight.
“The 2020 year was extra special because we collaborated with Blue Origin and Luna Design and Innovation to challenge youth to design a spaceflight experiment that helps humanity in some way,” explains Jennifer Ross, Shad Canada’s Director of Marketing, Communications and Recruitment. “We couldn’t be more proud of the work Alex and his team did to bring their project from conception to spaceflight.”
Discovering the unpredictability of space travel
Earlier this year, Balbino and his teammates sent their experiment – referred to as a payload – to Blue Origin’s launch site in West Texas where it was loaded into the New Shepard, a reusable, uncrewed rocket system. It was accompanied by 35 other payloads; some developed by American students and others by NASA and other prestigious institutions. After two delays due to poor weather, the launch was set for September 12.
As this CBC news report shows, the New Shepard launched successfully and then a booster misfired. The capsule’s emergency escape system activated, parachutes were deployed and the capsule and payloads landed safely in the Texas desert, where they were retrieved. For now, the New Shepard is grounded pending an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Designing a future that fuses business, technology and social purpose
While he waits for the next launch window, Balbino is embracing all that university life has to offer. On top of his classes, he is a Student Delegate for UBC Sauder’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee, as well as a second-year representative for the Commerce Undergraduate Society. He’s also exploring different ways of applying business for social good.
“I’m passionate about how we can use business to positively connect and collaborate with others in a way that combines our shared knowledge to come up with innovative solutions to the challenges that our world faces,” explains Balbino. “When I think of business, I think of it as one of the most powerful and unstoppable tools for change, and I can only hope that going forward others start to see it this way too."
To that end, Balbino is leveraging his two networks – at UBC Sauder and Shad Canada – to connect with others who share his passion for blending science, business and social impact. Whether his future career involves space travel, for the moment, Balbino is just looking forward to his team’s experiment making the trip.
“I think the future of business is about how we can positively connect with others while finding solutions to the problems we face.”