Monday, August 31, 2009

Bracing for Space News


So I’m bracing myself for the next announcement by the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, which is supposed to be sometime today.

The group agreed to retire the shuttle in 2011, extend the ISS until 2020 and use commercial rockets. NASA's lunar program, Constellation, is running $50 billion over budget; not terribly inspiring news in a recession, but other alternatives are equally expensive, requiring $20 billion more than the current budget.

Thunder rumbles, and if the recent darkening of clouds in the coverage of the HSFPC meetings are any indication of final outcome, it seems impossible to embark upon manned missions to the Moon or Mars in our immediate future. The debates could fill an entire blog, but here’s a taste:

Buzz Aldrin: Why We Need To Go To Mars
Moon? Been there. The outspoken Apollo astronaut says skip it and keep on boldly going. He makes a compelling argument as to why Mars should be the focus of the nation… but will people agree with him that Mars should be a ONE-WAY TRIP?

Joseph Rom: Sorry, Buzz Aldrin, we’re not sending people to Mars
Is he a pragmatist or just a big downer?

Statement by Michael Griffin to the Committee
The previous NASA administrator defends his original “moon first” plan, saying full commitment to a Mars voyage without first gaining long-term experience in living off-planet is too risky. However, he continues to emphasize that “Our goal should be broader than any single option.”

Short but Bold Statement by Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford
My favorite summary. And, um... definitely the first time I’ve ever looked at someone in Congress and thought, “You go girl!

No More Small Steps, Let Alone Giant Leaps?
Sally Ride's presentation at the final HSFPC meeting

One line of reasoning that stood out was Griffin’s comment that wherever the focus turns, no goals will be achieved during any single presidential administration or any single generation. He analogized that even if we choose one jet design over another in the course of development, we don’t screech to a halt every four years and “debate the purpose” of the US Air Force. Pretty darned good point.

Of course, the future of our space-faring activity is complex and charged with emotions, dangers, costs and national pride... but while we’re arguing about it, China’s going to the moon. And I just keep thinking to myself, if all this is going on before the report is released, the aftermath will be explosive.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Pass The Awesome


My bloggy-buddy at Six Golden Coins, Elizabeth in St. Louis, sweetly bestowed up on me Official Seal of Awesomeness! So, major thanks to the Missouri gal who made my day! Well, actually it was her day... I’m sooo behind in my endless email, and you’ll note this was a-ways-back yonder, as we say in Tay-ux-as.

Awesome Award
Anywhooch, I now get to name five blogs that I think deserve the Official Seal of Awesomeness. Whether they like it or not.

Wired Science
An easy one, and not just because they interviewed me. I read their magazine and their blog long before that happened! Their writers are always finding fascinating things to serve as “News For Your Neurons.” They are also the major way people find their way to NASA research studies!

NASA Watch
Keith Cowing’s ever-popular site for all things NASA, including fresh news items, science articles, shuttle updates, commentary and a calendar of events. Constantly, tirelessly updated. Keith also works with:

I wish they updated this blog more often, though the posts are worth the wait when they do. Lately they’ve been more active on Facebook, so check out their page there for up-to-the-minute fun with their vodcasts and mascot, "Spooner."

Astronaut For Hire
I see folks of all ages who say they want to be astronauts or are studying toward that goal, but I think Brian Shiro by far has the best shot! Check in this week, he is writing an introspective about his overall participation in FMARS 2009.

The Space Advocate
Douglas Mallette’s tagline? “Space advocacy matters, especially to the success of the human species.” Enough said. Plus you just have to dig anyone who has three house-pets named Vader, Leia and Padme.

Revel in thy awesomeness!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009



Hard to believe it's been two years now since Pluto was demoted to "Dwarf Planet" status. Does anyone else find it weird to look at modern textbooks with a list of the Eight Planets of the Solar System??

RIP Pluto
Perhaps the most amusing development I've seen thus far has been the addition of the following paragraph in the Wikipedia, which cracks me up:

"The verb to pluto (preterite and past participle: plutoed) was a neologism coined in the aftermath of its transition to dwarf planet. In 2007, the American Dialect Society chose "plutoed" as its Word of the Year, defining "to pluto" as "to demote or devalue someone or something," as happened when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet."

Some people have a harder time letting go than others. There is now an official Facebook group entitled, "When I Was Your Age, Pluto Was a Planet." I can't wait to go around saying that to little kids in my golden years.

Alas Pluto, we hardly knew ye.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Beer For Bones


Scientists in Spain reported this month that “Drinking beer regularly could stop bones from going brittle.”

Great news, right? Who needs exercise or calcium… all these time, all the International Space Station needed was some rowdy keggers!

Space Beer
Of course, the results may also be a pile of bubbling, fictitious WE-WISH, considering they don’t mention an educational institution, the sample was small and presumably composed of only one generation of Europeans drinking particular ales… and throw in a dash of the least-heeded advice in the history of language: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

But anyway. It’s rather amusing. Or it would be if I was a beer drinker. The Nutrition journal published a study saying women who regularly drink beer have stronger bones, making them less likely to suffer from osteoporosis, perhaps because beer is rich in phytoestrogens (plant versions of estrogen) which keep bones healthy.

Beer is touted as a major source of silicon in the western diet, and of course, silicon plays a role in bone formation. A pint a day to keep osteoporosis away? I’m guessing it’s not time to breakout the celebratory maypole ribbons just yet.

Even if there was suddenly a decree to imbibe in space, we’re nowhere near having, say, a brewery on the moon base.

Space Beer
In the past couple of years, I’ve read about Japanese beer brewed from barley grown in micro-gravity on the ISS, and University of Colorado experiments with fermentation in Low Earth Orbit. The latter resulted largely in flat, foamless chemicals. Bubbles are a tricky business in weightlessness, both inside liquids themselves and inside the bodies that ingest those liquids. Absorption and metabolism are very different in space, and thus, so might be the after-affects of any alcohol.

Bioserve Space Technologies and the Coca-Cola company have also partnered with NASA to conduct carbonation and fermentation experiments on Space Shuttles, though I don't recall any particular efforts to scan bones alone, before and after. So until NASA connects the dots on a repeat experiment, should we just take their words as Spaniards? ;)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hypovolemia Day


Carrots and tomatoes and lettuce, oh my. As I mentioned briefly yesterday, between furosemide day and hypvolemia day, the scientists designed a specific diet of particular foods: bananas, oranges, grapes, oatmeal, water, decaf tea and salads with vinegar (you wouldn’t believe how much sodium is in bottled salad dressings!).

Note the lack of protein and almost complete lack of salt; a significant change from taking salt tablets every day the first week!

Knowing this would be part of the protocol, I started to pay attention to the salt content in various foods. Actually watching and lowering salt intake has been something of a learning curve, since sodium is not something I generally track. I do read food labels, but often only for protein, vitamin, and overall calorie content.

Table Salt
While originally preparing for the second stage, I started noting the milligrams of sodium in all foods I keep in my pantry and refrigerator. Then, while grocery shopping this week, I examinied various foods in the store out of curiosity.

And may I just say... HOLY <Word Not Allowed On My Blog>. I’m in awe of anyone who has the challenge of "restricting sodium" due to heart conditions – because eating any kind of processed foodstuffs or going to a restaurant must be nearly impossible! Even things you wouldn’t think had much salt can in fact possess shocking amounts – canned veggies, juices, and particularly “low fat” or “low sugar” foods.

I’m seeing a “Law Of The Jungle” of sorts among food manufacturers. If they remove sugar, they compensate with artificial sweeteners, salt or fat. If they remove fat, they compensate with caffeine, salt or other spices. If they remove salt, they compensate with… you get the idea. They have to work some flavor in there somehow, or I guess people won’t buy [or get addicted to] the goods.

Even products such as soups or veggie bowls merely marked “low sodium” – well, the few I auditioned just seemed greasy and sour. However, I calculated the amounts I usually eat and was surprised to find that I am almost always in the “normal” range. (Though that also accounts for a high water intake… and the average Lean Cuisine entrĂ©e can still blow a whole day.)

Sodium Intake
At any rate, and getting back to the point of the study, the previous weeks’ diets result in mild hypovolemia, or a physiological state in which the volume of blood plasma decreases – just like what happens in space during weightlessness. (It’s often confused with “dehydration,” which is loss of bodily water… though that happens too… or is the cause.)

Unsurprisingly, the first test “repeat” at this point is a measurement of blood plasma volume. Then another tilt test, then you change into workout clothes for another exercise-to-exhaustion episode on the cycle ergometer. In short, all procedures performed on Normovolemia Day are repeated on Hypovolemia Day, and the data is compared.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Furosemide Day


Cardiovascular Study description continued...

After a week of salt tablets and a test day, there is a "free week" where one simply returns to a normal diet, and whatever exercise level is customary for you. Restrictions apply again for the time leading up to the second testing day, such as no alcohol, caffeine, vigorous exercise, medications (and also includes anything herbal or "alternative").

As always, urinalysis and pregnancy tests are conducted, followed by a flexible catheter being inserted intravenously. They take an initial draw to determine the level of certain chemicals in the blood, and this time, if salt has been significantly reduced, testing continues.

Furosemide A diuretic called furosemide (a sulfa drug in about 40 different brand names!) is administered through the arm IV, and after about 10 minutes this of course causes increased urination. Everything is collected for analysis and the medical staff monitors blood pressure is monitored throughout the "peak effect" of the meds. After about an hour, the IV is removed. The effect can continue, sometimes up to 6 hours, but more commonly about 4.

The is to continue to lower sodium, and potassium can also drop. Common symptoms might be dry mouth and mild light-headedness, as with any stage of dehydration… but then you can drink as much water as you like.

Upon leaving, the team gives you a big box of food and water – your precise diet for the next 24 hours before the second round of tests. More on that fun menu later...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Rover Sighting


I honestly can't believe my own sheer-dumb-luck sometimes. After I left the testing labs, I caught sight of the in-development Lunar Electric Rover (LER)! I see trams and tourist shuttles from time to time, but I was surprised, having never seen the rover just randomly rolling around the streets. What a treat to get so close!

Lunar Electric Rover
I took some pictures of the front and back, but couldn’t make out who was actually driving it. When I was on Facebook the following day, I noticed a home page post from the NASA EDGE crew – turns out it was them!

Their crew was filming a promo for a special to be added to their vodcasts… using space suit designer/engineer Joe Kosmo as the driver and suit systems branch crewmember Barbara Romig riding shotgun. (She also manned the rover in Obama’s Inaugural parade.)

I’ve added all my new photographs to the end of the Houston-JSC photo gallery in my Picasa Albums.

NASA EDGE will likely have it on their main page very soon; they have already uploaded some great video clips and photos (way better than mine) on their NE Facebook page.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Normovolemia Day


In other words, baseline testing. So here I am, set loose in Space City. They rented a car for me on this trip... so either Chad and David are tired of chauffeuring me all around creation, or they figure I can find my own way now [and I sincerely hope it’s the latter]. Johnson Space Center isn’t all that hard to navigate, though the security badge station hands out the most obnoxious map you can imagine. Yeah, with a magnifying glass, a hawk might be able to make out the letters on the guide. But I know enough to find the Cardio-Vascular Laboratories.

Johnson Space Center
The full name of the study, according to the [many fun governmental] pieces of paper I signed, is: “Hypovolemia as a Model of Space Flight: Cardiovascular Effects and Countermeasures.” As usual, everything began with a last-minute pregnancy test, which must always clear the way. Next up was the needle-stick to insert a catheter in my arm, used throughout various procedures for easy blood draws. Then the fun begins!

First up was the Plasma Volume test, which I have done in both the Micro-and Lunar Gravity studies. After a standard quiet period, I breathed through a hose connected to a limestone re-breather. The test determines the amount of blood in the body… nothing invasive and no side effects, just breathing.

Tilt Test

Not me.

They shut off the lights to perform a standard Echocardiogram (ECG), which determines heartbeat rhythm – also had many of those during last year’s protocols. And wow, I sure don’t miss someone jamming a cold, goopy transducer into my ribs! But luckily, it’s pretty short… I just have to roll onto my side and they instructed me when to hold my breath as they took 3-D pictures of my heart and blood flow through the valves with ultra-sound (sound waves).

Next up, the dreaded Tilt Test – the only test I did not complete last year due to light-headedness. It tends to make some people nauseous as well, though I’d only ended up with a headache. The test is supposed to be for 30 minutes, but I don’t think I even lasted 15 the first time; my chest grew tight and I told the tech I felt as if I was having trouble breathing, at which point they stopped immediately.

The tilt table itself has a weird effect on the brain. As someone raised on equal parts Spielberg and Roddenberry, plus a healthy dose of “benevolent apocalypse” television (wherein all sci-fi stories use a scary possible future to make a point about the we-can-still-change-it present), the auto-tilting table looks like one of those slabs used for strapping down captured aliens. X-Files, Starman, Close Encounters, pick your poison.

NASA Research
Still not me. NASA Stock photo.

What stops it from feeling like an ET autopsy is that I’m acquainted with everyone here now, and there are fewer unknowns. It’s actually a lot of fun to see all the vascular laboratory personnel in their “native habitat” as opposed to their day trips down to UTMB. They seem more at ease, friendlier and more inclined toward casual SFW humor… plus, I get a better view of their whole reality, their offices, their environment, their daily life and hectic schedules – not just minor episodes where I am helplessly looking up at everyone from a slanted bed.

For a full description of how the tilt works, it’s been added to the list of medical tests, and has its own page with some links to other facilities that use swivel tables.

Later that afternoon was the last test, the Cycle Ergometer. Another test, another blood cath. Another fun pattern of electrodes. This is another test that is also used before and after bedrest, and I did this last summer. Finally created a page and full description, also in the medical tests lists on the sidebar.

NASA Testing
So round one is finished! Unfortunately, there won't be a round two. All the tests took place on thursday, and as of friday, results showed that my body wouldn't be a "perfect" candidate for the next segment. No major danger of keeling over or anything; I just didn't fit the initial physiological profile for the protocols.

But stay tuned, and I'll describe what "should" have ideally happened... just in case anyone who's thinking of applying wants to see the details!

Thursday, August 13, 2009



NASA's Expedition 21, due to begin in October, will be special for many reasons. To start with, they definitely have the most interesting mission insignia I've seen in years! Their handover from Expedition #20 will require the docking of three Soyuz vehicles to the ISS simultaneously, and Frank de Winne of Belgium will be the first astronaut from the European Space Agency (ESA) to be designated as Commander of a mission.

The remaining crew consists of two Russians, two Americans and one Canadian. Tres Trekian!

NASA Expedition 21
If you read yesterday's post, I mentioned that the new Integrated Cardiovascular Study will include 12 astronauts on the space station, and 12 analogs on the ground. The two Americans on Expedition 21, Nicole Stott and Jeffrey Williams (on right), will be the first to test the protocols on the ISS. And of course their participation will be much more in-depth.

I got my own poster from one of the scientists here... one of the many cool things about hopping around Johnson Space Center... folks have stuff like this just lying around their desks!! :)

Anyone can download a high-resolution version at Collect Space.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beating Heart, Minus Gravity


The public Feature section of the NASA Science News has some great descriptions and interviews related to my new study.

When astronauts travel through space, the human heart loses something it seems to need: the Earthly pull of gravity. Is this a problem? See the Integrated Cardiovascular Article site for details.

"In space, even more than on Earth, it's use it or lose it. Muscles need to push or pull against resistance to stay in shape; without work they waste away. Is this also true of our most critical muscle – the human heart? NASA is launching a new study called Integrated Cardiovascular to find out."

NASA Cardio Study This project is all about heart mass and exercise capacity in micro-gravity, will span two years and twelve ISS astronauts. In addition, twelve analogs on the ground will be studied in a simulation – perhaps to see if new sim techniques are feasible in terms of comparison. At any rate, I’ll be one of the dozen on the ground.

Says ISS program scientist Julie Robinson: “Results will help us fine-tune exercise protocols for the space station crew. We'll also learn what to look at in astronauts' hearts before we send them to, say, Mars. We'll identify a set of risk factors that can help flight surgeons determine the best candidates for long space missions.”

Toward the bottom of the article, they also mention the Earthly applications, as results will be relevant for people on long term bedrest (imagine that), as well as patients with heart ailments. They detail the tests that will be used on the ISS, and I’ll undergo the same ones on the ground.

Theirs will entail stints of testing “before and after flight.” Of course, since I won’t be going on any weightless flights, so I’ll undergo a series of injections and procedures to mimic pulmonary changes and blood pressure fluctuations.

I guess that’s where the salt avalanche comes in. The comes bicycling to exhaustion, echocardiogram, and everyone’s favorite… more tilt tests!

Mars Society


Mail call! Had a wonderful surprise last night -- a fantastic Mars Society postcard from Brian Shiro, one of the talented astronauts-in-training!

Clickit to Embiggen

Brian was part of Team 12 of FMARS, the simulation program at the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station... and he got all his fellow Arctic-Nauts to sign the card. Extremely cool, thanks Brian!

If you support Mars research and want to see what it entails... or you just want a postcard too, see Brian's blog: Astronaut For Hire.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

New Cardio Study


Headed to Houston tomorrow for a new "spaceflight simulation" study, the purpose of which is to examine how the major systems in the body control blood pressure, heart rate, fluid changes, and chemicals in people that are dehydrated to the same degree as astronauts when they return from weightlessness.

Technically, I am already on Day 6 of this one, though I haven't mentioned much about it because the preparatory phase is rather anti-climactic in comparison to the last two.

There is no required stay at the UTMB ward on Galveston island, because there is no need for medical quarantine or a special nutrition regimen. My big assignment for the week? Tablets. Stage One is simply taking Sodium Chloride pills each day, along with a healthy, "everyday" diet.

Sodium Chloride Tablets
Derived from halite crystal, sodium chloride is... common salt. It's been demonized in recent years for it's ability to raise blood pressure. However, chloride and sodium ions are necessary for the survival of all known living creatures... making it a basic dietary mineral.

Salt is involved in regulating fluid balance, as it is one of the primary electrolytes: sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. There’s tons of literature about OVER-consumption, but either too much or too little salt in the diet leads to health issues: electrolyte imbalance, heartburn, kidney problems, and the ones that get the most attention -- hypertension (high BP) and heart enlargement.

Sodium Chloride
Truthfully, I’ve never been terribly cautious about my salt intake, because I’ve always had low blood pressure, and eaten foods with plenty of the other electrolytes. Since my 50-day bedrest, I also started taking extra calcium supplements. Since sodium can also cause excess calcium excretion through sweat and urine, you'd think I would increase it now.

But no... for the purposes of testing, I dropped them for a short time. As I draw closer to the first round of physical testing, the restrictions mean no vitamins, OTC meds or herbals, no alcohol or caffeine, no strenuous exercise and no heavy meals or complex carbs. Some of these are no trick at all, others are a serious change to my usual schedule.

And all week long: high sodium. It seems increasing it deliberately promotes many phenomena seen in spaceflight, along with dehydration symptoms. I already have the mild headache to prove this!

More to come...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Moon vs. Mars


Hadn't intended for this to turn into MARS week, but as long as we're on the subject... how do you weigh in: should we go to the moon again first? Or reach for Mars? The debates appear to have heated up, or at least merited more journalistic attention since the Apollo anniversary.

A few days ago, I mentioned the Mars series written by Ben Bova (part of his larger "Grand Tour" of novels). One of the reasons I found them intriguing was their attempt at realism: no fanciful aliens, no technologies that defy our current understanding of physics, chemistry or cosmology -- and to this day, we cannot genuinely disprove anything he postulates in his novels as being "possible."

Bova tackles all the human elements of how missions are planned, funded and conducted -- from the fierce competition in getting a spot on the team and the rough work of astronauts and scientists, to the possible injuries, catastrophes, discoveries and...

Mars Series by Ben Bova
...interestingly, he casually takes for granted that a moon base is already in place before we leap to Mars, because we need lunar resources.

However, whether we return to the moon or shoot for Mars in “real life,” the costs will always be far more than some people think is wise, and many of the human challenges will be the same. No matter where we go, we take all our traits with us... ambition, nobility, love, jealousy, envy, and perhaps even the odd urge to commit sabotage if we break from sanity under harsh conditions.

The potential travelers will have to work hard, cope with fear and isolation, tend greenhouses, perform experiments and stay healthy – which would be a trick even for a field team on Earth, nevermind bickering on a foreign sphere about who gets the keys to the rover today. Could you go for a year or more living in a box, where the only way to go outside is to spend 40 minutes stuffing yourself into a clunky, cumbersome life support suit? Shouldn't we practice this on the moon first to ensure it can be done before taking the risk on faraway Mars?

Moon vs. Mars
In a larger scheme, those interested in science want to keep exploration focused ON SCIENCE, but they will always clash with the greedy fat-cats who see dollar signs, and religious fanatics who may hope to cling to ancient spiritual texts instead of newly discovered facts. Imagine making a monumental discovery on a distant planet -- only to be potential target for those who want space to be a tourist attraction... or those who want exploration to stop entirely because it threatens their pre-conceptions about creation.

Ironically, some of the arguments "envisioned" by Bova in the 1990s aren't all that different than the actual arguments now taking place:

Houston Chronicle: Mars Society Founder Faces Uphill Sell

Air & Space: Mars Direct: Is The Moon A Stepping Stone Or Distraction?

NPR: Moon Step First, Mars Leap Later?

News Daily: Bush Schedule vs. Obama Schedule

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mars Questions


On the Mars Vacation post, Brian Shiro of HI commented: Lessons learned from simulated Mars field science activities like FMARS is that astronauts need to arrive on Mars in good physical condition to carry out work. This precludes the idea of traveling 6 months in micro-gravity. The Mars ship carrying people needs to be spinning to produce artificial gravity.

The laws of physics don’t rule this out, but the size involved is cost-prohibitive; I also hear about the engineering and communication challenges that a "spinning" ship presents. Somewhere between science and science-fiction, I keep hoping there will be a practical compromise.

Anyone ever read Ben Bova’s Mars series? He envisioned a realistic craft that would slowly acclimate the passengers’ bodies to Martian gravity (38% of Earth’s force) over the mission duration. A good idea for the trip, but what about when they return home? Unanswered questions, all.

At any rate, this point highlights how different simulations address the various challenges in reaching Mars. The Mars500 tackles psychological effects and self-sufficiency, NASA bed-rest studies seek counter-measures to bodily problems brought on by low gravity, and field expeditions like Brian’s remind us of what is necessary upon reaching Mars: we need our explorers to be healthy, sane and able to withstand rigorous physical activity!

Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) Recently on Devon Island, the arctic "Mars analog" environment, Brian logged nearly 29 hours in a space suit, and covered a distance of 80.5 km in 9 EVAs – the most of any crew member. He also installed a seismometer and conducted an electromagnetic ground water survey. Other members of the sim team tested aerial surveying technologies, resource recycling, medical treatments, communications and image geo-tagging.

And he’s right, fatigued people with brittle bones won’t be useful if we cannot keep them healthy on the way. For those interested in truly in-depth simulations performed by astronauts-in-training, see Brian's blog, Astronaut For Hire. He has awesome videos of the whole FMARS team!

Gilda F. of Ohio emailed: (Edited for length!) My 8-year-old and I read your blog. I try to encourage his interest in science, and it’s keeping us occupied over summer break! He asked how they could have a martian rock on display? We haven't been there yet, and I thought, that's a good point.

Good question – one I also asked when I heard a NASA coordinator mention that one of their brethren spent a season in Antarctica, looking for meteorites that might prove to be from Mars. How do you spot a "Martian" meteorite? And how the heck would it get here? No samples have been returned from any landers, and anything reaching Earth’s atmosphere would have drifted for millions of years. Would a long trek through the vacuum of space affect its composition? Once here, wouldn’t it immediately be contaminated by terrestrial bacteria?

The shergottite on display in Houston has undergone chemical examination; using varying dating techniques, oxygen isotopes, and powerful electron microscopes, it was determined that the minerals inside this solidified lava matched the 200-million-year old volcanic basalt known to be prevalent on (and unique to) Mars.

It is believed that 34 meteorites found on Earth came from Mars… a miniscule number considering how many are catalogued annually! Scientists don’t agree on all of them, so a “Martian” label is not given lightly. Many are still under analysis, and any new find tends to create a fresh firestorm about origin, authenticity, and what constitutes proof of “life.”

Martian Shergottite
There are other clues that help geologists determine meteorite origins: Minerals inside some rocks show signs of shock, which could be from the impact that blew the materials off the surface of Mars. Specimen interiors can contain gases consistent with the composition of the Martian atmosphere and lastly, all show signs of having formed in a weaker gravitational field than that of planet Earth.

For further reading, you can see the Jet Propulsion Lab's SNC page, which has a list of all commonly accepted Martian rocks (shergottite, nakhlite, chassignite). The collection of articles describe some of the details, many of the mysteries and all of the controversy!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mars Museum


This video shows Devin trying out the downward tilt in the museum, simulating what happens to the body in weightlessness. If you're anywhere near Houston and could take the kids to visit Hermann Park, the Health Museum is definitely worth a looksee, and the Mars pavilion is just one of many interactive exhibits.

There is no "sci-fi" here... this is a realistic analysis of what would be necessary for a Mars Mission to be a reality in our lifetimes!

Here I am, spinning...! Another by-product of weightlessness is how the inner-ear and systemic equilibrium must adjust to new conditions.

This exercise asks visitors to time themselves at spatial and mathematical tasks while in motion. I chose difficulty level 6, and it took me 44 seconds to complete a series of numeric patterns that later only took me about 27 seconds sitting still... and of course you feel like you are going to vomit or faint if you take TOO long! Click here to see a close-up of the console.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mars Vacation


The Health Museum in Hermann Park, Houston, has amazing interactive exhibits about planet Mars, which will be on display through September.

Upon entering, a planetoid asks, "Would you go to Mars?" and you enter through the "Yes" gate or the "No" gate. The votes are then tallied on digital readouts.

Click to see the Mars Museum album

Later, after you've seen all practical concerns about a visit to Mars -- rocketry, long-term space flight and its ensuing symptoms, landing scenarios, radiation, food and water, communications, geology field trips, dependence upon robot rovers, etc. -- they ask once again at the Exit. Here were the scores on the day we visited:

ENTRANCE: Would You Go To Mars? Yes 13409 No 5695

EXIT: Would You STILL Go To Mars? Yes 12308 No 7695

So, the nays increase after people learn about the complexities and dangers of a trip to the red planet. However, the totals didn't quite match up, so I imagine kids go in and out both doors...

There was a Martian rock on display, tools to build a solar array, remote control rovers, a "flight course" to zoom over the Martian surface in a glider, seeking water sources, and so on.

One fascinating activity was the opportunity to attempt delicate surgery in a weightless environment; you basically play a game of "Operation" while balancing on a wobbly platform! Obviously, this is one of the biggest dangers of a lengthy trip through space: if anything goes wrong en route, astronauts will be entirely on their own in terms of medical needs.

Click to see the Mars Museum album

The biggest draw for us was their "tilted bed" -- much like the ones in which Devin and I spent 78 and 50 days, respectively. We were pleased to see they used this device to "simulate microgravity" just as we had done in our study programs.

Even if you didn't want to do a similar study, when this comes to your local museum you can give it a try for a few minutes. You'll feel the immediate fluid shift, and they also treat visitors to Before and After pictures of what your face would look like after it puffs up in space!

Another interesting, but sobering, demonstration described the crucial matter of bone loss in prolonged weightlessness -- precisely what our time at NASA was all about. Such studies have been conducted under various conditions since 1959, but it's humbling to remember that we still don't know everything. One particular plaque emphasized that "scientists currently don't know if broken bones can truly heal in reduced gravity." No one has broken a bone in space yet.

And if they need volunteers for that study, count me out! ;)