A Lesson in Mission Control

By Mark Dickerson
Dryden Research Pilot
A group of volunteers from Dryden recently teamed with teachers and staff from Ed Harris Middle School in Elk Grove, Calif., to try something that none of us had ever done before. We hooked up a real-time audio and video link connecting more than 60 students to give them a chance to find out what it is like to be in a NASA control room managing a research flight.

We set up a laptop and webcam in a Cessna 172 for a flight over the Antelope Valley. We installed an Internet “hotspot” in the plane and established an Internet connection with the class before takeoff by using free Skype video-conferencing software. Before the flight, via a NASA Digital Learning Network link-up, Dryden operations engineer Callie Holland explained the purpose and techniques used in a real-world control room so the students would understand what they were about to do. Then she gave them our pilot test cards, which had blank spaces in which students could copy the climb, cruise and turn performance data in real time during the flight.

Image above: Dickerson prepares the Cessna 172 for flight.

After takeoff, we performed the test maneuvers while the students got a chance to observe the entire flight from a webcam mounted in the co-pilot’s seat. (Keep in mind that Skype and hotspot software and equipment were all created for ground-based use.) For this first-time, in-flight application, the picture was kind of grainy and the audio carried more background noise than we expected, but we got the mission done, and the students came away excited about flight research.

It was a lot of fun, and the teachers want to do it again next year!

Image left: Dryden Distance Learning Network coordinator David Alexander, right, and Shaun Smith from the Dryden education office provide support (from the back seat) for the digital link-up that made the project possible.