Three University of Central Florida undergraduate students are getting the opportunity of a lifetime — building an experiment that is scheduled to launch into space in late 2011 or 2012.

“It was a bit intimidating at first,” said Josh Steele, a computer engineering major from Jensen Beach, who’s building an experiment that will help test theories about how planets form.

“In the classroom, there’s always an existing solution for your problems,” he said. “In our lab, we’re the first people working on this, so we’re developing the ‘solutions,’ and it’s pretty exciting.”

Steele and two other undergraduates are working with graduate student Laura Seward and recent graduate Nico Brown to build the experiment. UCF Associate Professor Joshua Colwell is leading the project, which was one of three selected nationally to fly aboard Blue Origin’s space vehicle New Shepard. Blue Origin is among the growing number of companies jumping into the commercial suborbital business.

Colwell also is the local organizer of the second-annual Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference being held at UCF this week. It is expected to draw 400 scientist and engineers from around the world to learn about these space flight opportunities.

“People are talking about space tourism and that’s great, but commercial vehicles offer scientists, engineers and educators an opportunity to conduct regular research in space that could help us unlock a lot of secrets we just can’t crack from earth,” said Colwell, who has worked on his share of NASA missions including the Cassini project.

The UCF experiment looks at the response of a loose, powdery surface to a gentle impact in the absence of gravity to better understand the conditions in the early planetary system. This will help us understand the first stages of planet formation.

And the learning opportunity for his students is priceless, he added. The students are getting hands-on experience in all stages of actual flight experiments, from design, through construction, testing and flight – a unique experience for undergraduate and graduate students, alike.

Seward, the only physics graduate student on the project says part of her role is to analyze the video and data from the flight.

“One day, students flying experiments on private rockets will be common-place,” Seward said. “But we’re among the first to be given this opportunity.”

Ashley Desiongco, a junior from Cocoa, is working with Steele designing and building the experiment’s electrical system.

“I cannot believe I play a role in sending the first payload ever up on this particular vehicle,” Desiongco said. “I came to UCF because of the engineering program’s reputation. Now I get this opportunity. How many other people get to say they were part of a maiden launch of a commercial spacecraft?”

And she’s learning valuable lessons from the technical to the human aspects.

“I’ve learned so many things from the tedious soldering of circuit boards to providing a commercial spacecraft supplier feedback on their equipment,” she said. “It’s awesome.”

Jessica McWaters, a junior from Davie also working on the project, said that despite the shift in NASA’s manned exploration, she believes the future of space exploration is bright.

“I think the program will flourish with time,” McWaters said. “Space exploration is of great importance because learning more about what is outside our planet can assist us in gaining insight into our past, observing what is happening now and being able to predict what happens in the future.”

Brown, who graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering stayed on to see the project completed.

“This opportunity is a great first step in attaining my dream job,” Brown said. “I’d love to work for NASA. With the way the space industry is shifting, I would love to work at a private company doing much the same thing that I am doing now. I would eventually like to be a project manager of an exploratory mission.”