Friday, February 26, 2010

Triple Nerd Score!


Finally got the last of my pictures formatted and uploaded to the Picasa Galleries, featuring the STS-130 Twitterati. And what a diverse crowd! Both my Follow and Follower categories on Twitter have doubled, thanks to this event, and I learned a great deal about how the Twitter options and sub-cultures work. Just what the newbie was hoping for.

Triple Nerd Score
The final part of our day was spent in the third and final Mission Control Center at JSC, where once again, John McCullough hosted the tweet crowd, and explained the finer points of MCC operations -- this time for the space station.

Apollo, Shuttle and ISS Mission Controls ... all in one afternoon, and so much activity in each center! Of course, ISS operations, unlike Shuttle missions, are 24 x 7 x 365. No rest for the orbiting!

The ISS room has been used for certain Shuttle operations in the past, and also for Skylab monitoring. Recently, this center was updated with a high-definition screen that provides a continual view into the International Space Station.

As McCullough spoke, astronauts Jeff Williams, TJ Creamer and George Zamka floated about in the background. We had just come from Shuttle MCC where we had heard their wake-up call, so they were all busy with morning tasks... and preparing for a call from President Barack Obama.

Accompanied by local school-children, Obama hooked in. Both the President and the astronauts passed phones and microphones about for a lively Q&A session -- which is now all over the web, but my clips have fun moments you won't see in the media uploaded to or released to the press. Granted, my informal filming isn't as steady, but I got some great crowd reaction... namely our group commenting and laughing when no astronaut wanted to answer one little girl's question!

International Space Station Mission Control
Pinch me, we got to watch this live from Mission Control!

Upon being handed the phone by the President, young Ruth of North Carolina asked, "What are some of the benefits of exploring space, as opposed to some of the other places on Earth?"

Around the 00:17 mark, you can hear us all crack up at the collective ISS response. Flight engineer and resident ISS guitarist Stephen "Stevie Ray" Robinson stepped up, and spoke about the human body's adaptability, how much we learn about how the body works in micro-gravity.

Having experienced some of these "adaptation" issues first-hand in my studies, I absolutely loved his answer!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Callsign: HOUSTON


Seeing Mission Control Center Houston (MCC-H) abuzz with activity and visual updates is such an amazing experience! The JSC organizers timed all of our visits to various sites, and thought ahead to herd us Twits into the MCC just in time for the daily wake-up call! I had only seen and heard these on NASA TV before.

Our host was John McCullough, the new Chief of the Flight Director Office, part of the Mission Operations Directorate. He has been a flight controller, flight director, and is now, in essence, king of the all the FDs.

John oversees the mission operations teams, who are dedicated to safely planning, training for and executing missions for NASA human space flight. He offered details of the MCC seating configuration, and the meanings of all the fields, alerts and maps on the giant overhead screens.

Mission Control Houston
John McCullough, Chief Flight Director
Also: Scott Stover (sitting), Flight Director on duty

He also answered some of the basic operational questions, such as:

How many people work in Mission Control?
There are about 50 people per team, on three teams who each work 9-hour shifts. Alongside them are engineers who support specialized problems, if they arise. Each team has their own FD and CapCom (Capsule Communicator, still so-called, even though they are no longer communicating with "capsule" type crafts).

What do controllers do between missions?
About 10% of overall work time is spent on live missions. About 75% of any controller's time is spent planning and organizing missions down to the last precise detail. The remaining 15% is dedicated to training – running simulations of missions in attempts to predict any possible glitches, and developing procedures for handling any conceivable eventuality.

One of the women in our crowd asked specifically, "What is the wake-up song today?" and of course, John gave the standard reply that no one knows until it plays (at least, none of us riff-raff who aren't involved in cuing it up). We didn't have long to wonder – this happened next, and a funny follow-up to the woman's question:

So, the crew of Space Shuttle Endeavour awoke at 4:17 p.m. EST to the song "Oh Yeah" by Johnny A., played for Mission Specialist Steve Robinson. Also check out Astro_Soichi's Twit Pic of "Stevie Ray" in the new cupola.

Shuttle Mission Control pictures have been added to the JSC Tweetup Gallery, and be sure to scan the walls in the pics and video for the awesome STS-130 banner we all got to sign!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010



Death by acronyms!!

All guests of the recent Tweetup event were treated to a crash course in all the lovely abbreviations around Space City. SCH is "Space Center Houston," the public/tourist portion of JSC, or the working "Johnson Space Center."

On a well-timed and thorough VIT ("Very Important Twits") tour, we were taken in groups to the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF), the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), the Mission Control Centers (MCC) and the historic Missions Operations Control Room-2 (MOCR2).

Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory
AsCans in the pool!

I'd been to some of these locations before while on various trips to JSC for medical checkups or screenings, and multiple views of them exist in my general Pillownaut Picasa Galleries... but even after all those trips, I still saw some new things!

Configurations are always changing in the astronaut training facilities, different hardware is always being moved in and out of the giant pool and on this visit, there were actually some astronauts training in the water!, and of course different missions are always being "controlled" by the Shuttle and Space Station centers.

For all the newest photographs and all my wonderful new Twitter friends, check out my NASA Tweetup JSC album.

Mission Control Houston
Beautiful miss Ivy as our Apollo FD

For additional views, check out Eric Merrill's set of photos -- his quality camera has a more powerful flash, and many of his photos taken in darker settings are far superior to my snaps!

There was also a professional photographer darting around the crowd, and some of his captures are on NASA Johnson's Twitpic area.

Finally, the hosts of the event took a group photograph of all attendees, and we're waiting for that to be released. Can't wait to see how that turned out...(I'm assuming someone will raise an alert when it's online somewhere!)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Astronaut Robert Satcher


So! After we watched the ISS welcome video, the Tweetup attendees rowdily applauded the main event! Astronaut Bobby Satcher of the STS-129 mission described the activities on his Shuttle trip to the International Space Station.

Astronaut Robert Zatcher
Dr. Robert Satcher's Twitter feeds:
@Astro_Bones and @ZeroG_MD

Upon this 31st mission to the ISS, Atlantis "re-stocked" spare parts, intended to extend the years of the station’s life. Every subsequent flight in 2010 will do the same, continually replenishing gyroscopes, nitrogen and other tanks, robotics systems, latching and reel assemblies, as well as components designed to provide power or prevent the station from over-heating or tumbling through space.

Good idea, huh?

International Space Station Crew + STS-129
Clockwise from Bobby Satcher: Mission Specialist Randy
Bresnick, Pilot Barry Wilmore, MS Nicole Stott, Commander
Charles Hobaugh, MS Mike Foreman, & Leland Melvin.

When all is said and done, the last six crews will have delivered nearly 30,000 pounds (13 metric tons!) of spares to keep the station alive for many years after the shuttle fleet retires.

Three spacewalks completed by the STS-129 crew revolved around installing certain spares, and completing preparatory work for the installation of the last American module. Tranquility was originally going to be installed on the Earth-facing side of Harmony, but it was then decided the port side would work better, necessitating the re-routing of crucial connections (power, air, cooling, data, etc.) to new locales. And they did it all in 11 days!

Satcher discusses astronaut Twitter activity

Click here for a second short clip on my Pillownaut YouTube Channel about why everyone should get a chance to go into space, and for a real treat, check out Bobby Satcher's amazing self-portrait during his very first spacewalk! He crawled about the space station's truss for nearly 7 hours with fellow astronaut Mike Foreman, installing various antennae and cables... but still found a moment to snap this awesome picture with his digital camera.

I'd have reproduced this on the blog, but it's better to follow the link and see the larger, hi-res version for full impact. Also, for various photos of Satcher's presentation and Q&A session, check out my STS-130 Tweetup Picasa Gallery...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Blast Off!


Finally, sorting and labeling all my pictures and videos from the amazing Tweetup at Johnson Space Center... I still cannot believe I filled three memory cards, and tore through all three of my camera batteries. I always carry them "just in case"... but it was first time I'd ever actually used them all!

The day started out with a bang for all the SpaceTweeps. We were given bags 'o swag full of NASA goodies, and herded into the lobby of the Blast Off Theatre at Space Center Houston, where we got to play with spacesuit components.

I had never worn space gloves or helmets before. I am not claustrophobic by nature, but I couldn't help thinking, Yeah, there's no way I could wear this for hours on end during a spacewalk! Tight spot!

Space Helmet
Trying on a space helmet with help from Rosana...

in mah spiffy new Space Shuttle shirt

Once we were all seated in the Blast Off Theatre, which had been decorated with Mission Control console mockups, we were treated to a nerdtastic introduction speech by Expedition 22 now currently on the International Space Station!

These three accomplished gentleman are quite famous in the Twitterverse, being among the first batch of astronauts to have internet access and to tweet regularly. Given such ease, they also answer a fair amount of their Twitter followers.

Soichi Noguchi (JAXA), Commander Jeff Williams,
and Timothy "TJ" Creamer (NASA)

What a treat! They reminded us to mark everything with #nasatweetup, so anyone can search on that hash-tag if you wish to see all our banter throughout the course of the event. They are @Astro_Soichi, @Astro_Jeff and @Astro_TJ for anyone who wishes to follow their feeds.

Soichi in particular is very dedicated, continually releases amazing aerial photographs. My favorite was the Golden Gate Bridge, but he has also sent breath-taking shots of the Arabian desert dunes, New Zealand's richly blue Lake Pukaki, Bejing's Forbidden City, the Grand Canyon and many varied views of Japan.

Check out his full Earth's landscape collection on TwitPic!

Thursday, February 18, 2010



Ah... I love being me. I love my life. I love living so close to a major space flight center. I love my passion for space, and even more, I love, love, LOVE being surrounded by hundreds of people with the same desire to support exploration and collaboration in the name of human spaceflight.

NASA Twitter
My first NASA Tweetup was truly amazing! Our Twitter group got a personal message from the crew of Expedition 22 on the International Space Station, met an astronaut and the king of the flight controllers, witnessed live communications from Shuttle Mission Control and cruised the major astronaut training facilities, even seeing some new AsCans hard at work!

I know I am not alone in profusely thanking all of the event organizers and "NASA Ambassadors" who badged, orientated, and guided all of us roaming twitterers -- whether you only drove a few hours (yeah, I was the slacker of the group) or flew 5,000 miles from Brazil (seriously!), they made everyone feel special and welcome! Kudos to all of you for your hard work, you should be very proud!

Reporter’s mission briefing pad, badge & event program - CLICK to EMBIGGEN
Reporter’s mission briefing pad, badge & event program

Over the next week, I’ll be sharing videos on my YouTube Channel and also loads of fun photos of all my new buddies... BUT FIRST...

It was my very great honor and pleasure to meet Tim Reynolds at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, where he serves as the Operations Control Center Supervisor – and has seen many an astronaut come and go for simulation training! (For those who aren't familiar with the SVMF, I have picture galleries of both the aerial views and floor level views from my previous visit there... and not much changed, so I won’t bore anyone with repeats.)

Tim Reynolds Astronaut Memorial
Tim Reynolds, SVMF Operations Control

We rather interfered with their workday, but everyone was very generous with their time. Tim in particular was great sport for posing with his favorite creation (done aside from his usual job and in his spare time) –- a beautiful and moving astronaut memorial. Created with help from NASA graphic design artist Vicki Cantrell, this collage commemorates the lives lost in Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia.

I remembered Tim Reynolds from the Johnson Space Center magazine I read last year while in the Lunar Gravity Study at UTMB, where he was the focus of an employee spotlight article. Interestingly, he mentioned that if he weren't working for JSC, he might be in Colorado or New Mexico... and now that's precisely where he is retiring in about 2 weeks!

After nearly 15 years of service at NASA for our nation's space program, he will be free to cavort amongst the Rocky Mountains to his heart's content. It will be a loss to the SMVF, but well-deserved rest for him and certainly Colorado's gain... thanks for the tour and good luck, Tim!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On The Road Again

STS-130 Tweetup
Headed back to Houston! Over the next couple of days, I’ll be at Johnson Space Center for the much-anticipated STS-130 Tweetup!

Join my Pillownaut Twitter feed or follow along at the Space Tweep Society (where I am a newly listed author)!

We’ll be talking to astronauts, flight controllers and other various personnel as we discuss Shuttle Endeavour’s current mission to the International Space Station. And our visit will be on such an exciting time for the ISS crew! As of today, the new Tranquility Node is up and running. Tomorrow, the third and final EVA will take place, and the following day, the entire crew will hold a joint conference to discuss their activities and show off the new viewing Cupola...

Astronauts on the ISS
Stay tuned for updates as we are let loose all over the JSC campus for glittering, twittering merriment!

And while we're on the subject of Twitter...

Web Analytics Demystified, Inc. brought us Twitalyzer. Yes, they were serious. Their seriousness eventually resulted in (like, wow) 400,000 users... and you will notice who is at the very top of their metrics:

In the above analytic, Clout, as defined by Twitalyzer, is the relative likelihood that particular feed name will appear when searched for in Twitter.

In the columns, Influence is the likelihood that a Twitter user will reference the user, or retweet something the user has written. Impact takes into account the number of followers, unique citations, plus frequency of both tweets and re-tweets. Generosity is the percentage of updates in which a user retweets other people. Lists are pretty self-explanatory in the Twitterverse, and more in-depth explanations of all criteria are available at

Monday, February 15, 2010

Labs and Apollo and Quarantine, o my


Wrapping up the tour of NASA Marshall, I'm adding the rest of my pictures to my Picasa Albums today... here are just a few of the highlights! I could go on for weeks about all the amazing Apollo, Saturn, Skylab and Shuttle program artifacts in their wonderful museum adjacent to Space Camp... however, I don't want to ruin everything for folks who make the trip to northern Alabama, truly the birthplace of our space program. Click on any of the pictures to see the full gallery.

They have artifacts from each mission, the original Gemini and Apollo flight simulators, and of course, the "Casper" Apollo 16 capsule.

Mobile Quarantine Facility
Apollo Airstream Mobile Quarantine Facility

They also have an MQF! I saw Apollo 11's in the Smithsonian, and thought that was the lone display, so I was surprised to see this... (I suspect it is Apollo 12's, because I've since researched MQFs and found Apollo 14's in California on the USS Hornet.)

The Mobile Quarantine Facility was used by astronauts and medical staff almost immediately after splashdown of Apollo 11, 12, and 14 to prevent any possible spread of returning lunar contagion. After these three, it was decided our lifeless satellite posed no bacterial threat.

People often express surprise that I spent 50 days in "micro-gravity" for the space program, but I have to say, I don't think I could spend 21 days in this tin can! But after their moon missions, that's precisely what three astronaut crews and their doctors had to do. Pretty cramped accommodations! Small sleeping stalls, even smaller living quarters, a tiny kitchen and bathroom...that was it!

I also have a few pictures from our tour through the Marshall Center's Technology Development labs...

NASA Marshall
Well, I finally found a simulation I would
definitely NOT go anywhere NEAR...

The facility and the signs on the walls are fascinating in and of themselves, and speak to the monumental amount of research being conducted by some of the finest minds in the world. I was particularly interested in the Ares projects, and the workings of the Electric Propulsion/Plasma Experiments.

Over the past few years I've read numerous articles on plasmadynamics, and of course was fascinated by the ion thrusters of NASA's Deep Space 1 and Dawn Space probes, the latter of which dubbed the "Prius of Probes."

The European Space Agency's work on SMART1 and JAXA's asteroid explorer Hayabusa are great starting points for study, and more in-depth information can be found in the Journal of Propulsion and Power or Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.

Electric Propulsion Research and Development Laboratory
Electric Propulsion Research and Development Laboratory

At a more accessible level for the basics, this month's issue of Scientific American has a wonderful article about the growth in these fields, proclaiming that the more fuel-efficient electric plasma engines will propel the next generation of spacecrafts.

The way to Mars or the way to bankruptcy? Science or science fiction? Wishful thinking versus eventual financial reality? Time will tell.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

ISS Payload Operations


If you're a NASA TV addict like me, you see plenty of footage of ISS Mission Control, and when an STS mission is in the air, we get plenty more of Shuttle Control -- both located in Houston, Texas.

Pity we don't get more footage from the ISS Payload Operations Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center, because they run some very crucial activities! Also, unknown to most, they serve as Houston's BACKUP in the event of an emergency. During Hurricane Ike, when Johnson Space Center was evacuated and suffered both storm and ensuing flood damages, operations were turned over to Marshall until Johnson was able to resume.

ISS Payload Operations at NASA Marshall
As it is known locally, the "POC" plans all scientific activities aboard the space station. It’s a 24x7 affair, manned by three rotating shifts who have the unenviably challenging job of planning and coordinating schedules of tasks both in space and on the ground.

The Payload Communications Manager ("PAYCOM") goes by call-sign "Huntsville" and is the prime communicator with the ISS crew and researchers all over the Earth on payload matters.

Want to send some butterflies to the ISS and see how they behave? The POC would plan time for your experiment, manage all tasks necessary for the payload to be flown to the station, find a place for it among the many (packed!) science racks, decide how and when it is monitored, and troubleshoot any problems or changes to its schedule while in flight.

After tracking all progress or upon conclusion, they also control data storage back to the researchers who initiated it... all this under extreme time constraints, available-space constraints, power limits, established safety requirements and strict payload regulations.

International Space Station Payload Operations
For all the people who think NASA wastes time or money, I encourage you to have an in-depth look at the list of scientific experiments conducted on the ISS over the years. Take a deep breath (or maybe go mix a martini) before you click on the link, because it will absolutely boggle your mind.

Covering everything from behavioral studies to biotechnology to environmental effects, there is no such thing as a lackadaisical moment for POC personnel – not with what it costs to put these payloads and crews into orbit.

It’s not an easy place to find! Had Craig and Heather not been guiding me about, I’m sure I never would have found anything in that hamster maze... and even after being there, I’m not sure I could find it again! So I must thank them again for making sure I didn’t miss any of the cool facilities at Marshall!

Skylab Payload Operations Control
As an added bonus, the Skylab control from the 1970s is nearby, and has been kept largely intact over the years. I remember peering inside and exclaiming, "Wow... I'm old. I remember using some of those types of computers!"

Friday, February 12, 2010



Where was I? Oh right, the space budget. Russian agency representatives finally weighed in -- but at this point, if you're even mildly conscious, it's pretty impossible not to trip over the press coverage on our favorite space news sites.

So, I'll try to take things a bit more lightly today. I have some best wishes for a birthday boy, as well as a question I received over email -- and really, this kid was just so sweet and polite, I wanted him to be able to see his name in cyber-print.

Richard Stakowiak of Enterprise, Alabama asks: What does the T mean when we are watching the Space Shuttle get ready to launch and they always say "T minus" in counting? I know they are counting backwards, but what do those words mean?

First of all, you are from the awesomest city ever. How lucky! And not at all surprising that you became a space enthusiast! "T" simply stands for Time. Before the launch is considered negative time... and after launch, mission time moves forward. (However, it's interesting that we don't say T-plus, only T-minus.) So when you hear the Shuttle Control guys say that last hold is "T-minus 9 and counting" -- what they really mean is: "Time until launch is minus 9 minutes and continually counting backwards."

Shuttle Launch Countdown
Ricky, your Dad also passed along your address, so look for a box in the mail with the new NASA baseball cap you requested! Let me know if it fits your head! Happy 9th birthday, definitely don't give up on your dream of being an astronaut.

You may not ever fly in a craft like the Shuttle, but if we grown-ups can get our act together with our goals and our wallets, I have faith that by astronaut-age, you'll have something far more amazing in which to sail toward Mars.

In the meantime, I also hope you're able to travel to Marshall sometime soon, and I thank you for all your kind words about the "tour" I've been describing on my blog. The great news is, I've shown only a taste of what is there to explore! I had a few more posts about Marshall lined up and had planned to save their shuttle for last, but I'm moving it up in the rotation just for you, today. And this alone is worth the drive to Huntsville...

Shuttle Park at Marshall Space Flight Center
Tiny, tiny me, beneath Pathfinder's External Tank
(the first tank ever built for the Shuttle program in 1977)

Shuttle Pathfinder is a 75-ton Orbiter Simulator which was used to practice lifting and handing the real Orbiters. It was originally built at Marshall in 1977 as a stand-in for Shuttle Enterprise to fit-check the facilities to be used during the Mated Vertical Ground Vibration tests. In 1978, Pathfinder was shipped to Kennedy Space Center, where it was used to fit-check the mating device and Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) platforms. It was also used for ground crew training, and later, post-landing procedures before being returned to Marshall for show-and-tell.

Click here, or on the picture above to see the full gallery of Pathfinder photos. Now what they really need to do is build one that we can all climb on... :)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ahead of the Curve


This has been the most scatter-brained week I've had since that kid with the surname "Archuleta" was on American Idol. (So many people asked me if I was related to him, I was tempted to just start saying "Yes. When I go to the family gathering at Christmas, I'll tell him you said hello.")

My sleep schedule is wonky now from staying up all hours waiting on the Shuttle launch, and so much space news is coming at us, I suspect most NASA employees are praying for a snow day. For the first time, I wish I hadn't given up caffeine.

At this very moment, I am watching numerous tweeters give live quotes, updates and audience reactions to Charlie Bolden's speech at the Marshall Space Flight Center – a repeat of meetings already held at Kennedy and Johnson.

Seems he's on tour now... trying to dispel the notion that Human Space-Flight (HSF) has become summarily extinct. However, I never thought that. I don’t think anybody did; we simply weren't thrilled about slowed timelines, losing technological edge and current projects being dismissed in a rather insulting manner. (I keep picturing dazed rocket scientists wandering around a hangar, saying, "What did I just spend the last decade of my life on??")

Charles Bolden - Houston Chronicle
Today, the Houston Chronicle reported the "personal vision" Charles Bolden is orating in these all-hands meetings, noting that he will soon visit Congress to explain his plans. I’m glad to see this, because Obama has about a thousand migraines to deal with in his budget; Bolden should only have one.

Granted, he also faces inherent aspirin-popping potential on every NASA side issue, but he's defending his hard-working masses, and not backing down on Mars as the main goal. I personally think the moon would have been a safer "learning curve" stopover, but it appears I am in a shrinking minority...

"I don't see us colonizing the moon as some people do," Bolden said. "That's not NASA's job. Our job is to explore."

Fair enough. My only real groan came with the statement, "...the 2030s were viable if given a reasonable and sustained budget." Define reasonable and sustained. Sustained for how long? Through a presidential term and then re-evaluated? We're getting a bit weary of that.

However, in my own little circles, I hear talk that ground-based research may be given much higher priority in the coming years as a result. That might be very good news for some people and projects I care greatly about, very close to home.

SIMULATIONS, it seems, are the cheaper answer to leap-frogging over a working lunar base, and while I’d still be heartbroken to see Constellation so wastefully incinerated, I suspect the powers-that-be will be forced to follow the money – if they hope to pocket any of it.

Planetary Society
Click for Space Flight Simulation Study interview

Interestingly, The Planetary Society, a pro-space organization who interviewed me last year, supports this vision, and all the requisite research that comes with it -- even if it means skipping the moon.

Bolden has a hard-sell ahead, and may have to do some fast-talking to unconvinced members of Congress. I'm not envying anyone on the Ares teams right now, given the sudden flux their lives have been thrown into, but I shouldn't overlook the bright spot in my own backyard.

The projects closest to my heart will be shown to be relevant and ahead of the curve, being awarded both new monies and increased focus. We’ll take all the silver linings we can get right about now.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tweetup On Tap!


I hear the STS-129 Tweetup at Cape Canaveral was an entertaining affair, so I'm overjoyed to be attending the STS-130 Tweetup in Houston on February 17th!

I'm rather a mediocre member of the Twitterati, at best. I admit, I entirely forget my twitter account for days at a time – partly because I’m more attracted to detailed, verbose venues like blogs or facebook... and partly because I view hand-held electronic devices as if they were coated with ebola.

Perhaps this will serve as motivation to be a more dedicated twit.

NASA STS-130 Tweetup
We'll be gathering on the 10th day of the mission, whereby Shuttle Endeavour will have been docked for about a week. At this juncture, astronauts Nicholas Patrick and Robert Behnken will have already conducted two spacewalks to install the new Tranquility node.

If all goes according to the mission plan, we'll be tweeting live from Johnson Space Center around the time they are outfitting the seven-windowed panoramic Cupola.

To review the entire Mission Timeline, see the STS-130 Press Kit at

The schedule is pretty packed, and I’m especially excited to see Astronaut Robert Satcher on the speaking docket! Bobby S. was the first orthopedic surgeon in space, just this past November on STS-129... so he's fresh off a mission and probably quite keen to give presentations about his first trip into space.

NASA Astronauts on the International Space Station
STS-129 Mission Specialists Bobby Satcher,
Nicole Stott and Leland Melvin on the ISS

On Earth, the "Zero-G M.D." (catchy, huh?) has a background in Musculo-skeletal specialties; he is also now becoming involved in micro-gravity studies, and one of his own latest tweets shows the vertical treadmill used in one of the many NASA research studies.

Does anyone have any questions they would like me to ask? Other astronauts and officials are slated to appear. Send some ideas and join my Pillownaut twitter feed to see the results! I'll also, of course, report on events and share photographs after I return home on the 18th...

Monday, February 8, 2010

Smart Planet


If you aren’t reading yet, you should be. It’s one of the few sites about science and technology that is exactly what it claims to be – intellectual and topical, also incredibly diverse. If you enjoy Bad Astronomy and Wired, things like that, definitely add SP to you bookmarks -- because it's better.

Plus, I’m a bit biased toward any site that features NASA on its front page so often… and who listed me in their "Smart People" section! (Not that I didn’t find it equally humorous when FOX put me in their Weird News listings.)

Christina Hernandez, one of the writers for their "Pure Genius" blog, called me for a Q&A style interview, which was a nice twist! Of course, this format can make me sound like a clunky talker, since speech patterns don’t always come across eloquently in print – but it also cuts down on the possibility of being mis-quoted and allows for greater sharing of detail.

NASA Study on Smart Planet
Above many other articles, I like how this one turned out... because I loved talking to Christina! And not just because she looks almost exactly like my real-life younger sister, LOL… although I did find that amusing. She was well-prepared and truly fascinated by the NASA projects, and moreover had an impressive array of intelligent pieces under her award-winning belt.

This interview also marks the first time anyone ever asked me any sort of political or financial question. I find it a bit gloomy that such ideas have recently come to the forefront of everyone’s attention, as opposed to the fascinating science inherent in the study projects, but I suppose it was inevitable.

I do truly believe that no matter what happens in the current budget climate, steps forward won’t stop – nor will the knowledge gained be any less significant based upon the timing in which it is utilized or implemented. My personal opinion means precious little in the big picture, but I was grateful for a chance to express it. So let’s keep spreading the word!

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Way of the Pyramids


This week, I've shared what I think are fascinating historical artifacts... hope I haven't bored anyone with the museum mindset. To me, origins are always of nearly-equal interest as our modern projects. But... will I have anything comparable to share in 20 years time?

When I was a child, President Richard Nixon announced plans to develop a Space Shuttle. Not a one-use craft or capsule, but an actual "shuttle" –- and the name implied routine access to space for scientific work. Apparently, it became a little TOO routine.

Sometimes I want to throttle the general public and shout, "What, our space program isn't exciting enough for you anymore?" Even our greatest successes are seen as commonplace. After years of dumbing ourselves down with the Hollywood diet, people who stand in front of movie cameras and play pretend for a living are inexplicably worshipped, while Neil Armstrong walks down many a public street without ever being recognized.

Saturn V Standing Mockup
Will we ever top this?

I was not old enough to formulate my own opinion when the Shuttle era began, and as such, imported judgments from my parents and teachers. Everyone thought it was exciting to watch the Astronaut Corps grow, and see numerous crafts reach and return from space as if we merely had a new commute.

However, others perceived Shuttle strategy as a deceleration of "true" exploration... translation: Von Braun had already designed hardware intended to reach planet Mars, though he and most of his team have now died with that dream still un-realized.

We have the desire, the knowledge, the technology and the resources to live and work in space. Why don’t we?

I could go on for days about all the complex arguments. I like writing, but I’m astute enough to know when someone has expressed it better than I could, so I’m featuring a "guest post" of sorts today. My Facebook-friend Mike O’Hara wrote this essay in his FB-Notes section, and I truly hope you will read every word.

The Way of the Pyramids
Reprinted with Permission (slightly edited for length)

Standing on the Giza Plateau outside of Cairo stands a modern marvel for its time, the Great Pyramid. For 3800 years, it stood alone as the tallest man-made structure on the planet. The Egyptians don’t build pyramids anymore and haven’t for over 4500 years. At night, they shine lights on the monuments as a testament to the great civilization they once were. We have our own monuments to achievements of how great our civilization can be, our rockets to the moon. After reaching the unreachable, we canceled the program and let our monuments rot.

I was shocked on a visit to Huntsville to find a Saturn V laying on the grass. It was faded, the metal eaten in parts, overtaken by rodents, birds and other animals. Now, the Saturn V is restored and sits in a museum where, like the pyramids, future generations can come and say "what great people these must have been".

Restored Saturn V Rocket
Click to see the restored Saturn V in Huntsville

Manned spaceflight has been misunderstood since its beginning. We put a lot of national treasure into reaching the moon, but we never saw it as an investment. Like Steinbrenner and his Yankees, we just thought, how much will it cost to win, and just do it. Having never established it as an investment in our future and in our technology – we saw it as an expense. An investment is something you put money into and get a greater value back. If space exploration were sold as a good investment with a guaranteed return, funding it would have never been a problem. Instead, we viewed space exploration as a necessary evil – if we have to do it, then spend as little as possible.

So many people have failed the space program. Strategy mistake after mistake. Political wrangling, waning public support, a lack of creativity and vision for the future. Everyone has some accountability for the state of where the U.S. Manned Space Program is today. As I read the reports on Obama’s latest proposal, one Congressman remarked "if we not going to do it right, then why do it at all". So it has come to this. The people and not just the few fervent supporters must step up and say they want America to be leaders in space. For without that we will fail.

Every four years, NASA comes under the gun; every change in Administration threatens a new direction. In the 60s, the space program WAS the technology. We used typewriters, and most TV shows were in black and white. No CDs, DVDs, Cable, Cell Phones, Computers, iPods, or Internet. The space program made us marvel like nothing else could. Today, technology is so pervasive that not being able to reach the moon seems nonsensical. [But] It’s harder to dazzle the public's fancy with space when movies can take them there without leaving their living rooms.

I’d bet on a global alliance to develop a Mars mission before I see the USA going it alone. I hope we will adequately fund the space program, but I’m skeptical. Who will stand up and speak for NASA? For now, we seem content to live off our past laurels. I don’t want future children to go to the space center, and like the pyramids, marvel at our monuments and wonder -- who were these people that did such bold and great things?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

History vs. Future


Onward, through the rocket testing stands! Truly, some of the most exciting sites at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (if you can find your way around the winding maze) are in a cheerless state of erosion, but still absolutely worth the pilgrimage.

Here is one of my favorites, built even earlier than the Redstone test stand. This Static Test Tower or "T-Tower" was constructed in 1951 and initially used for Jupiter Missiles. In 1961, the stand was modified to permit static firing of the Saturn I and Saturn IB stages.

Historic Propulsion & Structural Test Facility
(Registered National Landmark)

Saturn I was primarily a research and development vehicle. Saturn IB was used for orbital Apollo missions; it also launched Skylab, and later the Apollo spacecraft into the historic linkup with Russian-Soyuz craft in 1975. These were the first rockets to have multiple engines mounted on a single stage.

MSFC thus developed three launch vehicles in the Saturn program, and built 32 in all. They also designed the Space Shuttle's main engines, solid rocket boosters and external tanks… all of which were tested in this area. In 1984, the PSTF stand was modified to permit structural tests on the Space Shuttle SRB. Since its initial activation, a total of 649 tests have been conducted at this facility!

Another marvelous spectacle is the Dynamic Test Stand, built in 1964 to test the complete Saturn V launch vehicle. In the early 1970s, the tower was also used to qualify the structural soundness of the Skylab workshop.

The facility was modified in 1977 to perform vibration tests on the mated Space Shuttle using the orbiter Enterprise... and if you look closely at the photo on the left, you can see where the older structure ends and the "newer" panels begin, from where it had to be widened to accommodate Shuttles.

Saturn V Dynamic Test Stand
360 feet tall – 15 levels

Department of the Interior officials referred to the Saturn V as "a unique engineering masterpiece that formed the key link in the chain that enabled Americans to travel to the Moon. This made possible the success of the American space program."

The tower was modified again in the 1980s to contain a Drop Tube to provide a low-gravity environment for approximately three seconds. Something about the words "drop tube" made me want to NOT ask any more questions about this one, LOL... but it’s an incredible sight to behold up close.

Note that the picture on the right is a NASA stock photo, showing scale of an orbiter above the the 144-foot high, 71-ton doors. Below, picture what the other rockets look like inside this behemoth! It is scheduled to be used for ground vibration tests (GVTs) of the Ares rockets... at least, that was what I intended to write about when I first visited Marshall. Will such tests come to pass? Time will tell.

NASA Launch Vehicles
Click any photo or the link here to visit my Picasa Galleries to see details of these and other interesting test site hardware...