Under the Sea

Some day I hope I get to talk to an astronaut in space. I’vetalked to quite a few on Earth, but to talk to one while he or she is in spacewould be awesome, don’t you think? My most recent astronaut interview, though,actually took me farther way from my goal than closer. My last astronautinterview was with ChrisHadfield while he was 62 feet below the surface on a NASA undersea mission.

The crew of NEEMO 14 in the Aquarius habitat

I interviewed Hadfield during NEEMO 14,an underwater mission to the Aquarius habitat. NEEMO is the NASA ExtremeEnvironment Mission Operations project, which basically sends groups of NASAemployees and contractors to live in an underwater habitat for weeks at a time.Crews do this as an analog to space exploration, experiencing some of the sametasks and challenges underwater as they would in space.

On the call, I was most interested in asking CommanderHadfield about the team’s use of social media and how that was impacting themission. The team had an impressive social media lineup including @NASA_NEEMO and @ReefBase on Twitter, a NASANEEMO Facebook page, the NASAAnalogs Blog, the NASAAnalogs Flickr page, and NASAanalogTVon YouTube. Hadfield said he was skeptical going into it but all the tweetingand blogging ended up with quite the positive impact.

“When we were preparing for NEEMO14, our crew here, they asked us take advantage of the fact that there areother ways, through the Internet, to communicate, that you can report real timethrough tweets or Facebook or blogs your thoughts and your transient emotionsand your real-time experiences. Which of course if you’re on a trip with peoplethat’s the most interesting part, is how do you feel now, what’s going on now,how’s life flowing around you. Well, suddenly it’s not just a dryafter-the-fact report, but it can be a real-time voyage of what is happening.And as a person who’s grown up with more traditional media, to me that’s aforeign idea, and I’m suspicious of it because I don’t know how it’s going towork, I don’t have any experience with it, and I know it’s going to increase mycrew’s workload to do it.

So let me say, I’ve been delightedwith what it has done both for the ability for us to interact with people allaround the world but also what it did for the crew. It has allowed us as agroup to constantly, almost be forced to, express out loud what it is we’rethinking about and what it is we’re feeling and what’s special to us and whatis remarkable to us. And you really shouldn’t hoard something that is importantto you or something that is magnificent to you. And so by forcing people to(say) “Hey, I just saw something really cool,” well, shoot, tweet it, put itout there. And people have been twittering and tweeting and our lead hab techhere, he was dancing and celebrating when he sent his very first tweet, whichsounds silly but now he is sending them every time he has a thought aboutsomething that’s really important to him. And we have … gone from a few to afew dozen to a few hundred to in the thousands of people that are directlyfollowing what we’re doing down here, purely as a result of using a newtechnology to help spread the human experience.

And it also, I think, allows us tomore clearly articulate it to ourselves and to each other. So I really enjoyedit, and I’m a big proponent of it now as a crew to have that capability. So asAndrew (Abercromby, a NASA engineer on the mission) is there talking to the twocrew members outside, he’s regularly posting information that they’re comingacross.

We invited people all around theworld to help us name parts of the reef. As we’re out there exploring unknownparts of the reef, we come around a corner and we need to give something a nameso we can use it as a navigation point, and we have schools and organizationsand individuals from all around the world giving us names that we immediatelyuse and apply to these locations. When I play guitar … we have people offeringsuggestions of what to play. Of course, not everyone is interested ineverything, but for the people that are interested in exploration and in divingand in new understanding of some of the real hostile and extreme environmentsaround the world, this is a fascinating way to include them, and we’ve beenspeaking to a lot of schools that way too.

We know there are whole classroomsthat are following along just as a result of the new social media that we’reusing. So I’ve been really pleased with it, and I think if we just look at theway that we’re tracking it to see how many people are actually tied in, I thinkit’s a really worthwhile thing to do.”

The NEEMO crew sitting at a table working on laptop computers

A very awesome answer, I thought, to know that social mediatools like Twitter and Facebook and blogs are not only working as outreachtools but helping to build crew morale by connecting them with the outsideworld. That could be pretty important to know for six-month stays on theInternational Space Station or even longer voyages to other places in space.

NASA is really diving into the use of social media toolswith a variety of blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages for the agency’smany missions and projects. Here’s a listing of all thedifferent ways you can keep up with NASA’s blogs, tweets, flickrs and more, andif you’re not a member already, join the NASA Students group onFacebook for information about NASA student opportunities like internshipsand co-ops. Maybe you’ll land a NASA co-op position like astronaut Karen Nybergwho went on to become an astronaut and participated in 2006 in NEEMO 10. (Readmore about Nyberg’s pre-astronaut days and co-op experiences in thisfeature article I wrote about her as she was preparing for the STS-124space shuttle mission in 2008.)

Reinventing the Wheel

A while back, during thevisit to Glenn Research Center, one of the places I toured was the SpaceMechanisms SimulatedLunar Operations, or SLOPE, facility, also known as “the sand box.” That’sbasically what it is: a unique, indoor, climate-controlled, 60-by-20-footsandpit filled with simulated lunar soil for the purpose of testing wheels andtires being developed for future use on the moon and Mars.

Two rovers in a large sandbox

In the pit, on the day I was there, were several lunar roverprototypes with different tire and wheel designs being tested. One of thevehicles was a half-scale replica of the original lunar rover used byastronauts on the moon in the 1970s. On the rover were replicas of the tiresused on the moon. When the SLOPE team wasn’t able to use original Apollo-eratires, they decided to make their own. One of our guides, Phillip Abel, saidmaking Apollo-era wheels turned out to be a somewhat challenging task. The teamhad the original documents used to make the Apollo wheels, but some of the datawas missing. So some of the original engineers on the project were called in tohelp fill in the gaps. In order to recreate the wheels, they also had torecreate the jigs used to crimp and weave the unique Apollo tire pattern.

The tires were all handmade, Abel said. A total of 12 wereproduced.

A rover in the sand

On the day we were there, one set of the tires was on thehalf-scale lunar rover, one set was on loan, one tire was on display locally,and the others were stored on a rack, chained together and secured with apadlock. Abel said students at Virginia Tech and Carnegie Mellon have used someof the replicas and the SLOPE facility in some of their research. It’s amazingto me to think what a unique experience it is for these students to have accessto work with these old tire designs. Original Apollo tires are in very limitedsupply, and 12 of them are really hard to get to as they are still on thesurface of the moon. Also, having just attended NASA’s Great Moonbuggy Race the weekbefore, I couldn’t help but think about the students who participate in thatand wonder if there’s some potential there for those students to look at doingsomething different with the tires and wheels on their moonbuggies.

A tire

This tire is the “spring tire” developed by NASA andGoodyear through
NASA’sInnovative Partnerships Program. Thisvideo on the IPP website talks about the tire design and shows some of thetesting done in the SLOPE lab. The video also shows some of the original Apollotire engineers who were called in to help with the replications.

Here are snapshots of two other tires I saw in the lab.

A tire

Robot Masters

This week, several of the high school robotics teams sponsored by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center brought their robots to the center to show their creations to NASA workers.

Having seen quite a few different robot designs in action at the FIRST nationals last month, I was familiar with the game they played at the competition and some of the robots’ capabilities. I knew, for example, that this year’s game, called “Breakaway,” was basically robot soccer and that many of the robots had a mechanism for kicking a ball toward the goal. Several of the teams Monday were demonstrating their robots’ kicking abilities by kicking a ball back and forth with the robot. I saw this and the thought hit me: his robot is like a little brother! This teenage boy and this robot are playing soccer together much like two children play soccer together, just passing the ball back and forth with their “feet.”

So I asked some of the students about that, about the personalities of their robots. Do they think of them as if they are a “person?” Do they have personalities? Clark, with the team from Arab High School, said, “Yes!” The current year’s robot, he said, was very stubborn. “Sometimes I wanted to jump over the wall and go, ’Don’t do that!’” he said. Last year’s robot, on the other hand, with its elaborate foam-ball cannon, was a bit cocky.

I was also curious about the approach students took when trying to make a robot that can multitask. This year’s game offered so many different capabilities for teams to focus on, from wheel design, to agility, to mechanisms that kick or corral balls, to being able to cross over a large hump to get to the other teams’ playing field, and so on. I wondered if the students ever felt overwhelmed trying to make the robot do too many things. Kendall, on the Limestone County Career Technical Center team, said they chose to focus on two main capabilities — the kicker and pusher for scoring and being able to cross the hump that separated the playing areas. They also used Mecanum wheels, which allow the robot to move in any direction, to make their robot very agile, he said.

At the event, Kendall said the scouting team watches the other robots competing to see what capabilities they have. This year’s FIRST game required teams to play in alliances of three teams. During some rounds the alliances were picked for them. In the final rounds students chose their alliances. Kendall said the scouting teams looked for robots that complemented their abilities and also ones with weaknesses that they may want to oppose.

Check what a few other NASA-sponsored teams are doing, like the Space Cookies out at Ames Research Center and these teams down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

If you’re on a FIRST team, what capabilities did your robot have? Even if you’re not on a robotics team, what tasks would you like your robot to be able to do?

I've seen it. Have you?

The moon and the space station in the night sky
The moon and the space station in the night sky

The first time I saw the International Space Station fly overhead was on a fall day, two years ago. It was a long, five- or six-minute pass early one morning before work. I wrote about it then:

I started by looking at stationary “stars” and watching closely to see if they appeared to be moving. I stared at one pretty bright object for like a minute and nothing. So I looked to the right and there was another pretty bright “star,” so I focused on it and after about 30 seconds was like “Yeah, that thing is now higher in the sky than it was when I first looked.” So I just stood there and watched it slowly float over my head and then over my house and then out of sight.

When it got almost straight above me it was so bright and twinkly that my jaw dropped just in amazement of what I was seeing. I wasn’t amazed that there is this man-made spacecraft carrying men and women around in space, even though that is amazing. I was amazed that I could see it. That something that seems so, so far away I could see, and I could see it moving.

Since then I’ve seen it quite a few times — the station by itself, the station with the space shuttle docked to it, and the station with the shuttle trailing behind it. It never ceases to amaze me every time.

This past week I was with some friends on a night the station was going to pass over and asked my friends: “Would it be too geeky of me to want to go outside and watch the station pass over?” My friends were good enough to go outside with me. A few had seen it before. For some, it was the first time ever. Watching their reactions, I remembered the awe I felt the first time I saw it, and I was thrilled to share that opportunity now with several friends. One friend called another on the phone and told them to go outside right then and see it. That was exciting to see them excited to call and tell someone else.

What about you? Have you seen the station? The shuttle? Both? Any cool stories about seeing NASA spacecraft fly overhead? If you haven’t seen it, go to NASA’s Sighting Opportunities website to find out when the station, space shuttle and other spacecraft will be flying over where you live. You can also use the NASA Skywatch website.

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 NASA.gov 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

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