Going Back to STS-133

After a few months delay, NASA is ready to try launching theSTS-133 space shuttle mission, and I’m ready to try again to watch it. I wentdown to Kennedy Space Center last November for the first launch attempt,but the mission was pushed back a few months.
I wasn’t sure if I’d get to try again, and early last weekit was looking pretty grim. But an opportunity opened up for me to go down andhelp out with some of the educational activities that NASA has planned aroundthe STS-133 launch, so I’m going!
My feelings about trying to see it again are mixed.Certainly it will go since the folks at Kennedy Space Center have workedpainstakingly for months to get everything worked out, right? But there areother potential problems that could arise, and of course there’s always theweather. So I’m cautiously optimistic I’ll get to see Discovery rise.
In addition to trying to see the launch again, we’verescheduled ourplanned downlink with the STS-133 crew. If you’ll recall, we were to talkwith the crew about a week into their flight and ask them questionsthat were selected by readers via polls on our TakingUp Space Facebook page. Well, the downlink is on again too, for the weekafter the launch. We’ll post exact details once Discovery is off the ground andthe date and time of our downlink is confirmed.

A Different Kind of Reduced Gravity

When I flew on my reduced-gravity flight (the experience of which is chronicled here), my flight was a total of 32 parabolas — 30 microgravity parabolas, plus one lunar and one Martian parabola where we felt what gravity feels like on those worlds. That’s the “typical” experience in the NASA Reduced Gravity Flight Program where students design, build and fly an experiment for reduced gravity.

When writing recently about students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who participated in the program in 2009, I noticed right away a major difference between their experience than mine: their experiment tested the flow rates of several different kinds of soils under lunar gravity conditions. They needed to test their experiment in lunar gravity — one-sixth gravity instead of the microgravity on my flight. While my flight gave me a feel for what it’s like to be on the space shuttle or International Space Station, these students got a much longer feel for what’s like to be an astronaut on the moon.

“I sat up and hit the ceiling from the inertia of sitting up,” University of Nebraska student Nick Kleinschmit recalled. “I knew in advance that I would weigh one-sixth in lunar gravity, but actually experiencing the feeling that the first astronauts felt on the surface of the moon was unreal. I was doing push ups on two fingers in lunar gravity.

“We were given three parabolas of zero gravity, and I took full advantage of those to float around and have some fun. That was even crazier than lunar gravity. I have experienced the floating sensation in a pool, but it is unreal to have that feeling in air. I tried to ‘swim’ around, but there is nothing substantial to propel me. I experienced a fleeting instant of feeling helpless, but that was completely erased by an adrenaline rush unmatched by anything I’ve ever experienced. On one parabola we experienced a slightly negative g force, and I remember being upside down on the ceiling for a fleeting instant.  My body accepted this, but my mind was blown.  How did ‘down’ suddenly become ‘up’? It was amazing to be floating around without anything supporting my body.”

Now, technically I got to experience what it’s like to be on the moon too. But on my flight it was only one approximately 20-second lunar parabola, where for these students lunar gravity was the majority of their flight, like microgravity was the majority of mine.

The other reason the Nebraska students got a better feel for lunar g than I did is because during my lunar parabola I was concentrating so hard on trying to traverse the airplane to get in position to record a video I needed for the project that I didn’t really pay attention to how it felt different than the other parabolas. These students experienced some of that as well — not just the sensations of reduced gravity but what it’s like to try to accomplish tasks in that environment. Remember, they’re up there doing an experiment during all of this, learning not only about their specific research question, but also what it’s like for astronauts to do research in the environment of space.

I learned something about the difficulties of working in space on my flight too. On about the fourth parabola, one of the crewmembers from the Reduced Gravity Flight Office told me, “You’re going to have to hold on to something while you take pictures.” Duh, I thought. I should’ve known that, but on Earth I don’t have to hold on to something while taking pictures so it hadn’t clicked yet. Without holding on to the rope along the side of the plane I was bouncing up to the ceiling every time and just floating around in everyone’s way and not really able to get my bearings to take photos. You leave an experience like this understanding just a little bit of what it’s like for the astronauts to work in a reduced gravity environment.

Read more about the University of Nebraska’s experiment and see a video from the flight in this feature article on NASA.gov.

On Air in MidAir

Also, NASA’s Office of Education recently announced an opportunity for students attending Minority Servicing Institutions and Community Colleges to participate in the agency’s Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program. Proposals are due Jan. 26, 2011. See the official agency announcement below for details.

NASA’s Office of Education Seeks Students to Defy Gravity for Science and Engineering


I drove down to Kennedy Space Center for the launch lastweek, and while I left without seeing the launch, I experienced what it’s likewhen the launch scrubs. Actually, I experienced a series of scrubs as Discoverywas set to launch Monday and then Tuesday and so on, until finally on Fridaythe launch was moved to no earlier than Nov. 30.

Space shuttle Discovery on the pad at night awaiting launch

It was a bit frustrating to wake up each morning ready to gosee the launch only to have it delayed day after day but that’s all part of it,part of spaceflight and part of making sure we fly safe. I hope to make it downthere again, if not for STS-133 then for the next mission, STS-134, currentlyscheduled for February of next year.

I did, however, get to ride the ShuttleLaunch Experience at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The riderumbles and shakes, simulating what it is like riding a space shuttle intoorbit.

As far as we know, the STS-133 downlink with the crew willshift with the launch. We’ll have more information about the new date and timeof the downlink later this month.

Follow mission updates on NASA’s STS-133mission page, and also via tweets from @Astro_Nicole, STS-133 MissionSpecialist Nicole Stott.

Name That Tune

Have you voted yet for your favorite wakeup song in NASA’s Top 40 song contest? The publicis picking their favorite wakeup songs to be played during the STS-133shuttle mission. I voted today, but it wasn’t an easy decision by far.There are so many good songs on the list — “Drops of Jupiter,” “Rocket Man,”and “Free Fallin” were a few I was drawn to immediately. I also liked“Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down; it just seemed like a great high-energy song towake up to and to put you in a feel-good mood to start your day.

The song I chose, though, was influenced by the audio clipon the contest website. When you go to vote, make sure you click and listen tothe audio clips with each choice. The sound bites are clips from when the songswere played on earlier missions and include the wakeup song and communicationsbetween the shuttle crew and Mission Control.

Astronaut Scott Parazynski on a spacewalk repairing a solar wing Source:
Mission Specialist ScottParazynski rides at the end of the boom
toward the rip in the solar wing. Imagecredit: NASA

My vote was for the theme song from the Star Wars trilogy,played for astronaut Scott Parazynski during the STS-120 mission. I chose itbecause it was the wakeup song played on the day Parazynski made one of themost exciting spacewalks in spacewalking history. After the song is played,Parazynski mentions the upcoming spacewalk and his son, Luke:

“That was a wonderful way to wake up, and I just have tosay, ‘Luke, I’m your father. Use the Force, Luke.’ That’s music from my sonLuke, and I’ll be thinking about him today and the rest of my family as I goout and do this wonderful spacewalk with my good buddy Wheels (Doug Wheelock)here and all the great support from the rest of my crew … This is going to be abig day for NASA.”

On this day, Parazynski repaired a torn solar array whilepositioned on the end of a boom normally used to inspect the space shuttle. Theboom was attached to the end of the space station’s robotic arm. According tothe post-mission overview, compared to spacewalks practiced on Earth, this wasuncharted territory. Riding at the end of the boom, it took Parazynski about anhour and a half to reach the worksite, located about 165 feet down thestation’s truss and 90 feet out on the damaged the solar wing. He used toolsinsulated with tape to protect him against electrical currents produced by thearray.

I had the privilege of interviewing Parazynski back in 2006,before the STS-120 mission, and writing the feature “LivingHis Dream” about his childhood dream to become an astronaut, his trainingfor STS-120, and his 1998 flight with the first American to orbit Earth, JohnGlenn. So my vote was swayed by the awesomeness of the Star Wars theme song,but also by the personal connection to an astronaut I’ve interviewed before andthe amazing STS-120 spacewalk. (I also thought the movie quote to his son Lukewas rather fun.)

More than 2 million people have voted, but there is stillplenty of time left to have your say. Cast your vote now through the missionlaunch date, currently scheduled for Nov. 1, 2010. The two songs with the mostvotes will be announced during the mission, along with the dates and times thatthe winning songs will be played.

I Knew 'Em When …

Taking Up Spacewelcomes guest blogger David Hitt, who, like me, writes feature articles forthe For Studentssection on NASA.gov.

One of the cool things about working and writing for NASA isthat you get the chance to meet and talk to astronauts. It adds something to watching a shuttle launch when I’ve hadthe opportunity to meet some of the people on board. It makes it a little morepersonal, a little more real.

And it’s always very cool to me when a shuttle mission fliescarrying an astronaut that I met “back when.”

The STS-133 crew

The crew of STS-133,for example, includes three astronauts that I’ve had the chance to meet. First,there’s Alvin Drew.When I met Drew, he had just returned from the fairly high-profile STS-118mission that flew the first education mission specialist astronaut, and hadbeen named by People magazine as one of the nation’s hottest bachelors.

Eric Boe and Tim Kopra, onthe other hand, I met fairly early in their careers. Both of them had not yetflown in space the first time I saw them. I met each when they piloted planesto bring other astronauts to Marshall Space Flight Center to talk about recentmissions.

Since then, Kopra has gone on to spend two months in spaceas a crew member on the International Space Station, and Boe was part of aspace shuttle mission that added a bathroom, kitchenette, two bedrooms and gymequipment to the space station.

And the “fourth” member of the crew I met “back when” — Robonaut 2.

Robonaut 2 using a hand-held electronic device

Except he wasn’t Robonaut 2 when I met him; he was stilljust Robonaut. I saw an early version, still in development in a lab in theback of Johnson Space Center’s Building 9, best known as the home of spacecraftmock-ups used in astronaut training. But the coolest thing — I got to lookthrough his eyes. Robonaut’s head features two cameras, that let a remoteoperator see what’s in front of Robonaut via a 3-D headset. And I got to put onthe headset, and see what Robonaut saw. Very cool. And now he’s about to flyinto space for the first time. Even cooler.

Cooler still, thanks to Robonaut 2’s Twitter account, @AstroRobonaut, you’ll be able todo the social networking equivalent of what I did — see spaceflight throughRobonaut’s eyes. Look how far he’s come.

I’m excited about seeing what Boe, Drew and Kopra (and theircrewmates) will do on the STS-133 mission. But I have to admit that,personally, I’m even more excited about following Robonaut 2’s adventures inspace. I’m enough of a science-fiction geek that I find the idea of real-liferobots working on a real-life space station somewhat futuristic and more than alittle cool. Granted, Robonaut 2 won’t be the first robot on the space station.There are the robot arms and Dextre,the “robot hand,” mounted on the outside of the station. And there are thefree-floating bowling-ball-sized SPHERES(Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) thatcan fly through the space station — and which can run programs written bycollege and highschool students on Earth!

But Robonaut 2 is a little different. R2 is a little closerto the science-fiction ideal of the “android” member of a spacecraft’s crew, alittle slice of “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” brought to life. I had theopportunity to write a feature for students about Robonaut 2 recently, and thepotential R2 presents down the road is pretty incredible — humanoid robotsperforming spacewalks to repair the space station, or even exploring thesurface of other worlds. As the old saying goes, tomorrow’s science fiction istomorrow’s science fact!

I Have a Question

The deadline to have our questions selected for the ISSdownlink is coming up on Tuesday, Oct. 12. Here are the questions we’ve polledyou about so far. Go to the NASATaking Up Space Facebook page and click on the Poll tab to vote for yourfavorites.

A favorite astronaut pastime isviewing Earth. What do you most like to look for?

What TV shows or sports are youkeeping up with while away on the mission?

Are there any basic tasks that aremuch harder or much easier to do in space?

As space crews become more diverse,are there any language barrier issues on missions?

What kind of medical procedures canyou do in space?

How has the station changed sinceyou were first there?

What’s the most challenging part ofthe STS-133 mission?

What’s been the most exciting partof the STS-133 mission?

What do you think is the coolestthing about Robonaut 2?

What types of tasks will robotsperform on the International Space Station?

What do you think is some of themost valuable science to come out of the space station so far?

If a student today were interestedin doing space research, what field(s) should they study?

What do you think is the greatestlegacy of the space shuttle program?

If you could pick any flight in thehistory of the shuttle program to have flown on, which would it be?

Vote in the Facebook poll

We posted a few days ago on the TakingUp Space Facebook page the first round of topics we’re looking to askastronauts about during our space station downlink. So far, Science on the ISSis in the lead, but there are still a few days left to cast your vote. We’llpick the top three or four areas and come back in a few days with a new pollwith specific questions for you to weigh in on.

Go vote for the topic you’re most interested in, and spreadthe word on Facebook and Twitter about the downlink and the opportunity forstudents to help us pick the questions.

TakingUp Space on Facebook

Taking Up Space onTwitter

What Do You Want Us to Ask?

I mentioned the other day we’re going to be talking toastronauts on the space station but have I mentioned how excited I am about this incredible opportunity?!? I’m thrilled atwhat we’re getting to do, and I’m especially glad that we’re using social mediato get as many students involved as possible.

I’ve written several times for NASA’s For Students pagesabout educational downlinks, where astronauts on the space shuttle or on theInternational Space Station call down to answer questions from students onEarth. There were astronautsMichael Lopez-Alegria and Suni Williams talking to students at the AdlerPlanetarium in Chicago, a downlinkwith students from Punahou School in Hawaii, and earlier this year TennesseeTech alum Barry Wilmore talked to students in his home state. It wasthrilling to see students have that opportunity, and I’m excited we’re able tobring that experience to this blog and the many high school and collegestudents out there who are interested in and involved with NASA.

Three students wearing gold and purple Tennessee Tech football jerseys
Students wait to ask aquestion of astronauts on the space station during a live
downlink at Tennessee Tech. Image Credit: Dean Carothers/TTU Photo Services

So here’s how this is going to work: During the STS-133space shuttle mission I’ll be talking to some of the crew and asking themquestions that Taking Up Space readers want to know. We’re polling you on whatquestions you want to see asked on our new TakingUp Space Facebook page. Follow along as wesuggest questions we may ask and let you vote on which ones you’d like to seeasked.

Then tune in to NASA TV during the STS-133mission and watch the downlink live! We’ll have the date and time a littlecloser to time for the mission. In the mean time, go to our Facebook fan pageand let us know which questions you like. Share the poll with your friends onFacebook, and use the Taking Up SpaceTwitter feed to help spread the word.

Big News

Something exciting is going on with the Taking Up Spaceblog. For one, we’re branching out. We’ve added a TakingUp Space Facebook page and @NASAblogTUSTwitter feed to let you know when new posts are up and to update you whenarticles and profiles about students involved in NASA are posted on the ForStudents9-12 and HigherEducation pages on NASA.gov. So go check those out, “like” us and follow usso you can stay on top of what’s going on here on the blog.

The second thing, though, is even bigger! We’re talking tothe space station — as in, we’re going to have a live downlink with astronautson the International Space Station during the next space shuttle mission. We’regoing to be posting some of the subject areas and questions we’re thinkingabout asking on the TakingUp Space Facebook page, and we want you all to help us decide what weshould ask. We’re getting everything together to start posting things soon (like in the next few days), sobecome a fan of the new Facebook page and help us choose the questions. Follow us on Twitter and re-tweet thisunique opportunity to all your friends.