Robots and Rockets

It’s been a busy month! I’ve written about going to the NASA Great Moonbuggy Race and to the Dropping In a Microgravity Environment project, but in between I made stops at two other NASA-sponsored student events: the FIRST Robotics Competition national championship in Atlanta, Ga., and the Student Launch Initiative (and University Student Launch Initiative) in northern Alabama.

At FIRST I shadowed a team from Coeur d’Alene High School in Idaho. I met up with the team in the pit area where in between matches teams worked on their robots. The pits were buzzing with the sounds of power tools as teams made last-minute tweaks or repairs. Occasionally, a voice would come over the loud speaker announcing that a team was in need of a certain item, like a USB adapter or a two-foot section of one-quarter-inch threaded rod, to see if any teams had any of those items to share.

One thing I learned quickly is that in pit row, robots have the right-of-way. Students escorting robots from the pits to the practice area or toward the arena for a match intermittently yell “robot” to signal to others to move out of the way, a robot is coming through. Once on the floor of the Georgia Dome, it was all about the bots. These student-built robots roll, spin, flip, traverse large mounds, knock soccer balls in a goal, and, for extra points at the end of the match, lift themselves up and off the field. It’s absolutely amazing what these creatures can do and that they are built and programmed by teenagers.

A crowd of people watching a rocket launch

Two days after FIRST, I found myself in the middle of a field on an Alabama farm gazing up at rockets launched a mile or so in the air. The rockets were built by students participating in NASA’s Student Launch Initiative, for high schoolers, and University Student Launch Initiative for college students.

While waiting for the launches to begin, I mingled around the crowd of onlookers and stumbled upon Jack Sprague, a teacher at Northwest High School in the Fort Worth, Texas, area. Jack brought a rookie team of seven students to this year’s event. Each rocket must launch some sort of data-gathering experiment, or payload, and the payload on the Northwest rocket was quite interesting and unique. The team launched 200 California ladybugs to observe the effects of high acceleration on the ladybugs’ life cycle. Brannon, a Northwest junior, noted that a lot of other teams’ payloads fall into the mechanical engineering category, but his team was more interested in doing a science experiment. I haven’t heard back yet from Jack as to how the ladybugs fared, but, if I do, look for an update in the comments.

A Drop in Science

Students and mentors preparing an experiment to be dropped

One. Two. Bam! Time’s up. That’s how quickly the time passes when an experiment is dropped in the 2.2 Second Drop Tower at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

I came to Glenn, near Cleveland, Ohio, this week for the Dropping In a Microgravity Environment, or DIME, event where teams of students are conducting science experiments in the drop tower. It works just like it sounds: Experiments are dropped down a giant hole, and during the drop they experience 2.2 seconds of freefall, or microgravity.

When I first heard about this event, I couldn’t imagine what kind of scientific data could be collected in a mere 2.2 seconds. But now that I’ve seen the frame-by-frame videos that are recorded during the drops, 2.2 seconds is longer than you think. DIME program manager and NASA researcher Nancy Hall, who is helping students with their drops this week, said a lot of the experiments done in the tower have to do with liquids and combustion.

An experiment falling down the drop tower

One of the experiments dropped Tuesday was looking at how digestion is different in microgravity than in Earth gravity, which is a pretty important topic since astronauts on the International Space Station are eating and digesting food all the time. To look at this, students created a slurry of cheese crackers, applesauce, and water and placed the mixture in a syringe. During the drop the syringe contents were injected into a container of liquid. DIME coordinator Dick DeLombard said, “It’s like you ate a bunch of crackers, some applesauce and drank some water,” to which Chris Hartenstine from Glenn’s education office added, “and then fell into a hole,” much to the laughter of the students and researchers.

On the slow-motion video of the experiment during the drop, you can see the pink-colored slurry go into the liquid and sort of plume outward. Kendrick, one of the students from the Plattsburg High School team, said preliminary data showed the food mixture dissipating a lot slower in microgravity than it did during their ground tests. When we left them Tuesday, they were tweaking a few variables, such as changing the fluid level, to see if they would get different results and were dropping their experiment several more times throughout the day.

The DIME project and its sister project What If No Gravity, or WING, for middle school students, will drop a total of 30 student-made experiments in the tower in this year’s project. Check out some of the WING experiments in the WING Image Gallery

Moon Driving

Four years ago the project managers behind the NASA Great Moonbuggy Race came to us with an idea for a feature article: for the first year in the race’s 14-year history, teams were coming from outside the United States, specifically from Germany and Canada.

Since that time, the race has become a truly international event with teams this year from 18 states and Puerto Rico, Canada, Germany, India and Romania! The international teams are making quite the showing too, giving the more seasoned moonbuggy teams quite a challenge. This year, the team sponsored by the International Space Education Institute of Leipzig, Germany, placed first in the high school division, and the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao took first spot in the college division. The University of Puerto Rico team has competed in every moonbuggy race since the event started in 1994, and finally, in 2010, made a first-place finish.

Having observed the race year after year, I can assure you the moonbuggy course is no easy feat. Students’ buggies must endure simulated lunar craters made out of tires covered with gravel, plus curves and steep hills. “Luna”-tic Curve is one of the more notable elements on the course and has been known to wreck a buggy or two. The 90-degree turn comes at the foot of a hill. Just before making the turn teams bounce over a rocky crater. This year team after team performed extremely well on what has a reputation for being one of the most difficult elements on the course.

My co-worker David and I pedaled one of the demo buggies around the parking lot, and even that proved difficult. Changing gears, pedaling and steering a four-wheeled, bicycle-like vehicle, all at the same time, on a flat surface was harder than I thought. I think I would fail miserably if I had to do all of those things over a mound of sand or gravel or tires, like are on the course. In our short circle around the parking lot we nearly crashed into a tent, David had to use his feet to stop us from hitting someone (that, by the way, would’ve been a one-minute ground touch penalty if we were on the course), and afterward we were a little out of breath. What incredible skill and stamina these students have to do that and do it well.

Check out the NASA Great Moonbuggy Race page on for photo galleries and more from this year’s race.

Watching Dottie Fly

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger floating on the reduced-gravity airplane

In three years since coming to NASA, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a few of the current astronaut corps. All space shuttle launches are cool, but it’s a higher degree of cool when you’ve met one of the people on board. Well, early Monday morning, one of the few I know, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, launched on her first spaceflight as a member of the STS-131 space shuttle crew.

The first time I met astronaut Dottie, I had been working with NASA all of two weeks! My co-worker and I were sent to Johnson Space Center to interview folks about their NASA careers for a special Web site for the STS-118 shuttle mission. That flight carried Barbara Morgan, mission specialist and NASA’s first Educator Astronaut, into space. Dottie is also an educator who was selected to be a mission specialist, so our interview focused on her path to NASA and the unique role of astronauts who are also teachers.

I saw Dottie again a year or so later at the Space Exploration Educators Conference at Space Center Houston. This time she was singing on stage with the astronaut band “Max Q.” Times like that remind you that astronauts are real people with hobbies and things they enjoy doing.

This past summer I saw Dottie again, back at Johnson Space Center, for another interview. But this time I wasn’t talking to one of the newest astronauts in the corps about her hopes for a future spaceflight — I was talking to an STS-131 mission specialist about her job as a robotic arm operator on an upcoming mission to the International Space Station.

This interview was different also because I wasn’t at Johnson exclusively for the purpose of doing interviews for a shuttle mission. I was at nearby Ellington Field training to fly on a reduced-gravity flight. My schedule was very tight, but I really wanted to work in an interview with Dottie while I was there. Our team was getting ready to work on a new robotics site related to her spaceflight, and we wanted to add a feature about all of the training involved to use the robotic arms on the shuttle and station.

It was a little funny and surreal to me – here I was trying to work an interview into an astronaut’s busy shuttle training schedule while having to consider my own packed training schedule. While Dottie was training to work in the weightlessness of space, I was training to work in the simulated weightlessness of a reduced-gravity flight. It was neat, during part of our interview, to hear about her experience flying in NASA’s “Weightless Wonder” aircraft and knowing that I was about to do something that only astronauts and a few others get to do. “I just want to see what it’s going to be like to float around for a really long time,” Dottie told me. “I’m looking forward to not doing parabolas to get zero-g.” While she was looking forward to the real thing, I was looking forward to experiencing just a fraction of what it’s like to be in space.

Be sure to check out my first interview with Dottie where she talks about how the question “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” changed her life. In my second interview, read how astronauts learn to use the robotic arm in space while firmly on Earth.

This Blog Is Taking Up Space

On any given day as a NASA Education writer I have the awesome opportunity to interview people doing cool things with NASA. Sometimes I talk to astronauts about to go into space or ones who just got back. Sometimes I talk to some of the scientists or engineers who are behind NASA missions that are exploring the universe or learning more about Earth. Most days though, I talk to you — a student who has participated in some awesome NASA internship. Or maybe I interview a student who just got back from feeling weightless on a NASA reduced-gravity flight. (I did that myself last year, so I really enjoy talking about that! My first NASA blog Free Falling tells about that experience.) Sometimes I talk to a whole team of students who built a rocket or an airplane or a satellite with NASA.

I love hearing all the stories these students tell. I sometimes live vicariously through them. I get a boost of excitement from hearing how excited students are to be involved with NASA research, with engineering and with the exploration of space! There really are some neat projects, like students helping NASA develop new rocket technologies, discovering baby stars or aeronautics research that may make it faster and safer for all of us.

We write these stories and post them on NASA’s Web site in a special section just for students. But a lot of times there are stories that go untold, either because of limited space or because even though the story is cool, I can’t include everything from the interview in the article. As a writer who loves a good story, I hate to throw these stories away, so the good folks at NASA are going to let me post them here on Taking Up Space. We chose the name “Taking Up Space” because the students we’re writing about have taken an interest in NASA, and because we think it’s kinda catchy.

This blog will be stories about people just like you – and sometimes stories about people who used to be just like you: the engineers, scientists, astronauts and many others who now work at NASA. Sometimes the stories here will just be about cool things going on at NASA. Occasionally I may tell you about something going on at NASA that you may want to get involved in. And I hope as you read about some of the great things other students are doing at NASA that you’ll share some of your cool NASA experiences with me too!

This Friday and Saturday I’ll be at the 17th annual NASA Great Moonbuggy Race where 100 teams — 1,000 students!! — from around the world will race homemade lunar rovers through a simulated lunar terrain. I’ll blog all about it next week, but if you want to get in on the moonbuggy action sooner, check out the official NASA Great Moonbuggy Race site and the NASA Great Moonbuggy Race blog. Moonbuggy also has a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and live racing on Ustream.

NASA Higher Ed Student Section

NASA 9-12 Student Section