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

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 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.

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?