Friday, February 25, 2011

That Altair That Would Have Been


Okay... final post for SimLabs! I meant to upload this material yesterday, as a sequel to Bo Bobko's explanation of simulations... but got a bit side-tracked because some Shuttle or other was launching ;)

Here I am in the Flight Simulation Lab (the building that houses the VMS) with @SpaceKate, a lovely young writer and space enthusiast from London who came to America for the original STS-133 Tweetup -- but never went home! When the November launch was scrubbed, she stuck around hoping for a new launch window, and has been fortunate enough to visit Ames, SpaceX and the Jet Propulsion Lab in the meantime. Talk about a dream vacation!

With SpaceKate and the Lunar Lander Cab
@SpaceKate and @Pillownaut

In a rare happy ending, SpaceKate did see the Shuttle launch yesterday when Discovery STS-133 took off from the Cape, as KSC kindly held a "Repeat Tweetup".

Rewind a week back to when we chatted at Ames: together we took a "tour" of the Lunar Lander cab with another Tweep, and a SimLabs employee. To put it mildly, four people inside that simulator is a tight squeeze! We tried to take video footage inside the cockpit, but I'll warn in advance that if you are claustrophobic, you probably shouldn't watch this.

The Lander interior is designed so the screens are the only thing truly lit, but I was able to focus upon seat restraints, joystick controllers, and so on. Our cohort laughed briefly at the slender amount of padding, because this contraption sure wouldn't be a very comfortable ride!

The consoles and controls are enticing, and a "rerun" of a previous simulation was showing where someone had landed on the moon at precise coordinates. Toward the end, I noticed the software accounted for a visual Earth Rise, which I thought was a great touch!

SimLabs Mission Control Rooms

I tried to back out of the Lunar Lander while I was still filming -- not my best idea ever, since you can see in the top photo that the the cab is in a very brightly lit warehouse, and I was momentarily blinded.

Each of the different types of cabs can be loaded into the lateral carriage of the Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS), and then varied flight simulations can be run with different ranges of movement in "six degrees of freedom". Say it with me now... Pitch, Yaw, Roll!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Discovery OV-103


Discovery has gone into the black for her 39th voyage, more than any other shuttle in the fleet! Breathtaking as always, and massive amounts people showed up at the Cape to see our Orbiter Fleet Leader launch for the final time!

No major technical issues, small chance of rain (which never happened), and a pretty uneventful day. Hard to believe this launch was scrubbed four times over a period of five months before this one finally happened!

Space Shuttle Discovery
But happen it did, and launches never disappoint. After this last trip, NASA has offered Discovery to the National Air and Space Museum for preservation. Discovery will replace Space Shuttle Enterprise in the Smithsonian's display at the Udvar-Hazy Center. And she has definitely earned a relaxing retirement!

Shuttle Discovery's maiden flight was STS-41-D in August of 1984, which launched two communications satellites. Over her entire career, she would release 31 total.

Of her 39 flights, she has flown to the Mir Space Station twice, and to the ISS 13 times, delivering trusses, supplies, and two major modules: Kibo and Harmony.

Discovery launched the Hubble Space Telescope on mission STS-31, and returned twice on later servicing missions.

Space Shuttle Discovery
Many flew on Discovery two times (Covey, Blaha, Hammond, Collins, Bolden, Barry, Brown, Parazynski, Wakata) but Astronaut Michael Coats is the only one to have made 3 trips on this orbiter.

Overall, Discovery has now carried 246 crew members, including the very first Russian cosmonaut launched in an American spacecraft, Sergei Krikalev on STS-60 in 1994.

She has spent 351 days in orbit and made 5,628 orbits around planet Earth.

Shuttle Discovery flew the 100th Shuttle Mission in the year 2000... and I'm happy to say, I got to see this one launch personally! What a blast. Literally.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Vertical Motion Simulator


One great thing about video posts is that the film does the talking for you! Even for someone who loves to write on a daily basis, video footage is great fun, and is so much clearer than complex descriptions. If only Youtube wasn't so intermittently disagreeable with uploads!

Persistence counts, and I was finally able to process this awesome clip of the huge six-degrees-of-freedom VMS, or Vertical Motion Simulator, with the Space Shuttle cab in the lateral carriage:


The VMS is the world's largest motion simulator, and used to mimic many types of flight situations at lower cost and better safety than actual flight hardware. Engineers can work out design-related or procedural issues via simulation rather than in the air, with much less risk to lives and valuable flying machines. Watching it skyrocket upward and plummet down, go side-to-side and spin the cab – wow, what a ride! I wish I could have a run at the cockpit and see what it's like to land a shuttle orbiter.

For a look inside the Shuttle cab, see this clip called "Buzzing The Tower".

Vertical Motion Simulator
Astronaut training in action at Ames:
Someone was in there, "flying" the Shuttle cab

We could only see the vertical platform (marked by the NASA logo) as it passed the window at various intervals. The catenary (that's Latin for "jaw-dropplingly gigantic chain") and support columns support movement as much as 60 feet up and down, and 40 feet across!

Flight & Guidance Simulator Laboratory

For hardcore engineers who enjoy examining the nuts and bolts, the VMS Familiarization Guide (PDF document) has helpful descriptions and diagrams; I particularly enjoyed page 30, which features a list of all vehicles that can be simulated in the cabs' visual systems: tiltrotors, helicopters, carriers, refueling tankers, Destroyers, Russian aircraft, American assault aircraft, VTOL jets, and surface-to-air missile systems. Pretty versatile!

Shuttle Simulator
Shuttle Cab in the SimLab

Cabs are interchangeable, and we have pictures of both Shuttle cabs and a Lunar Lander cab in the Picasa Gallery for the NASA Ames Tweetup. Tomorrow, I'll feature the Altair Lunar Lander simulator.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bo Bobko


Bo Bobko! Doesn't that sound like a great video game character? Bo Bobko! One of my very favorite astronauts, and very well-respected in the space industry -- Ames Research Center in particular, where he still works and also often hosts Shuttle Launches at the NASA Ames Exploration Center.

Colonel Karol J. Bobko became an astronaut in September of 1969, and for anyone keeping score, that's the month before I was born. His 6,000+ hours of flight time and degrees and awards and honors could fill up a whole blog, not to mention his three Shuttle missions. Oh yeah, those!

Bo Bobko
Karol "Bo" Bobko at NASA Ames SimLabs

One choice tidbit I find very admirable about him was his participation in SMEAT, or the Skylab Medical Experiments Altitude Test, which was a a 56-day ground simulation of the Skylab mission in the 1970s, which allowed crewmen to conduct medical experiments, evaluate equipment that would be used on America's first space station, perfect procedures, and collect biological data.

Extended extreme-condition simulations can be tough and thankless... and I would know! So I'm always grateful for the work on the ground, because it allows for more efficient work in orbit.

Later in his career, Bobko had the very interesting distinction to have been the pilot on the maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, and Commander of the maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Atlantis in late 1985. Imagine taking two Shuttle Orbiters for their first drives off the showroom floor! Awesome.

Astronaut Bobko on STS-51-D
Jake Garn & Bo Bobko on STS-51-D
(Fourth Flight of Shuttle Discovery, early 1985)

Today, Bo works for the Science Applications International Corporation, where his team develops software and hardware for various flight simulations, most notably the large-amp Vertical Motion Simulator -- but also things like control systems, air traffic management concepts, cockpit display evaluations and research into the "human factors" of space flight.

However, he never seems too busy for Face Time as the resident Ames astronaut! And Tweetup day was no different. In this video, he makes some wise-cracks about what it's like to pilot a Space Shuttle -- then describes differences in the Shuttle simulator at JSC to learn onboard systems, the training aircraft (a jet modified to fly like the shuttle in that it can reverse engines in flight), and the six-degrees-of-freedom Shuttle simulator, which is capable of practicing touchdown landings.

Next up for this week, I'll be showing all the great hardware in the Simlabs, including the Six DOF, and also a Lunar Lander simulator.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Polishing Cannonballs


We had some funny moments at the NASA Ames #nasatweetup, and one of the funniest was listening to the very spirited Senior Principal Software Engineer at the Kepler Science Operations Center at NASA Ames, Bill Wohler.

Ever heard of the Kepler Cannonball Awards?

Sometimes, it takes only a simple moment of levity to tell you everything you need to know about the collective sense of humor at NASA.

Late-breaking update: About 30 minutes after I uploaded this video, it was linked and tweeted so many times, it showed up in the NASA Buzzroom! Wow, speed!

I dig this guy, he's the type you'd dedicate a yearbook to if you had him as a professor. While I was researching all the Kepler teams, his profile cracked me up, particularly his answer to Why I Joined The Kepler Team:
"I was tired of working for start-ups, so I began to paint my parachute and the color that emerged was that I should apply my software skills in a field that I was passionate about -- such as astronomy. I am now working on a project that is contributing to mankind's knowledge. What could be more rewarding than that?"

Wohler's personal web pages, linked through the NASA site, are also entertaining and informative. Read his resume if you want to feel like a complete slacker, and also don't miss his Notes for Nerds and Desperately Seeking Aliens efforts.

Kepler Cannonball Awards
I grew up in the 1970s, when "cannonballer" had a completely different slang meaning, so seeing a new regeneration of cannonballs that have nothing to do with pirates or lamborghinis... all good news.

The people previously accused of "polishing cannonballs" can chuckle, hold their heads high, and just keep repeating: "1,235 planet candidates and growing!"

Pretty good polishing job, dudes. ;)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011



When I heard of the Ames event, I was excited about the Kepler scientists, having read their NASA profiles, watched their press conferences, and seen various team members speak at SETI. YouTube is chock full of their endeavors, and deservedly so. Kepler's Search For Habitable Planets is truly one of the most amazing projects humanity has ever had the privilege to watch unfold.

It was a true honor to shake hands with some of the brilliant and hard-working people behind this pioneering effort!

Pictures of Natalie in Picasa Ames Gallery
With Kepler Deputy Science Team Lead Natalie Batalha

One of my favorites is Natalie Batalha, because she is such a great speaker and can explain concepts in a very accessible way for people of all ages; her passion for her work comes out in such a blossoming, infectious way! I first saw Ms. Batalha on KTEH Television, and was overjoyed to get some of my own video footage. One of the most entertaining stories of the morning was how Kepler 10-b came to be known as "Planet Vulcan".

The nutshell version, for any newcomers:
Named after Johannes Kepler, the 17th century German astronomer who devised empirical laws of planetary motion, this observatory was launched in March 2009 with the aim of discovering "Earth-like" planets orbiting other stars.

Kepler uses a photometer to examine the brightness of nearly 150,000 stars in a fixed field of view, whereby the observations are analyzed to detect "transiting" (or, periodic light fluctuations) that indicate the presence of planets passing in front of those stars. If it takes about the same time to orbit as Earth, we can deduce that many of those planets are also in the Galactic Habitable Zone.

Why doesn't the Hubble already do this? The Kepler mission has a larger field of view (10 degrees square), and is dedicated to detecting repeated planetary transits -- and thus has a higher probability of detecting Earth-like planets. By contrast, Hubble is often turned in many different directions to study various celestial activity, and does not focus continuously on just one starfield as Kepler does.

"Our imaginations are SOARING when we see these planet
candidates. We're all thinking it: what's out there? Kepler
is not a mission designed to find life, but it's a mission that
inspires that ponderance, and that's the beauty and poetry
of what we are doing here. This is a mission for humanity."
~ Natalie Batalha

Hardcore Science Geeks: The full lecture can be viewed at the NASA Ames UStream, and the first minute is me up front with Natalie, asking for a quick picture, LOL! Didn't know they were filming already! Caught! ;)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

All Fun & Ames


Tweetup time! The media and lecture events at NASA Ames were a blast... good turnout, great crowd, amazing scientists, and a truly wonderful time had by all. Kudos to the planners who made this first Ames tweetup happen; before the day was over, people were asking for another, because we didn't even scratch the surface when it comes to all the amazing projects at the Ames Research Center!

My Twitter feed has died down now, but definitely join me on my YouTube Channel or Facebook Page for the next couple weeks if you are interested in seeing behind-the-scenes action.

Last tweetup, I had tons of pictures. This time, I made effort to take video footage as well. I have loads of fascinating stories and interviews of the Kepler Mission teams, SOFIA project, Shuttle and Lunar Lander Simulators, Supersonic Wind Tunnels, Hangar One, Future Flight Central, musical stars (really), and the new green building under construction at Ames, Sustainability Base.

Area 51
Flight Designer Humor

We were also treated to some "famous faces" in the space industry such as astronaut Bo Bobko (three-time Shuttle veteran), Center Director Pete Worden (previously of Space Command and an early satellite pioneer) and David Morrison, whom most people know as Carl Sagan's first doctoral student -- but who has gone on to have such an amazing career, I could spend a whole week on his credentials alone. I love meeting people who have asteroids named after them. ;)

What, you mean you don't have a Hypervelocity
Free-Flight Aerodynamic Facility in your backyard too?

To kick things off, I'll start with an upload to Picasa. I've just finished labeling my photos, and picked out a few humorous shots that show the culture and ambiance of Ames. Like most development environments, folks like to have their toys (the Starship Enterprise in the Kepler conference room really set the tone for me, LOL!)... and yes, one of NASA's mascots is a yellow rubber chicken. No joke! ;)

Robyn with Camilla_SDO
Robyn with Camilla SDO

Click any photo or Picasa links to the new Ames Tweetup gallery to see the fun, and I'll be adding more pictures each day as I organize the interviews and videos that go along with them!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Footsteps on Mars


The longest space simulation in history today reached the milestone of walking on the red planet! If you've been following my blog for awhile, you know that I love all kinds of simulation activities, and The Mars500 is a particularly in-depth and exciting exploration of how humans may react to the technical challenges and psychological isolation on a 520-day voyage to Mars and back.

This morning has been the most exciting day of the experiment, by far! I have watched the new videos and tweets and Facebook updates with enthusiasm -- but I cannot view them as fast as they are spreading across the web! So here I am, adding to the fray.

Mars500 With Flags of Russia and China
On February 1st, the crew achieved orbit around Mars and opened the hatch to their Martian Landing Module, EU-50. The crew separated into two groups this past Saturday: an orbital crew, and a surface crew who boarded the Martian Lander to perform computer simulations of “undocking” from the main ship.

The Mars 500 Blog has a great video of the virtual EDL, and the controllers are monitoring many of the medical aspects of acceleration effects (0-2gs), and weightlessness. Diego Urbina underwent and described the effects of a few nights of "head-down tilt". Having been through it multiple times myself (once for two months!), I love that they added this component to their simulations!

Mars 500 EVA
The European Space Agency is abuzz with the news of the first spacewalk at the mock Gusev Crater, and SPACE.COM published a wonderful article about the goals of the program, along with updated schematics of the spaceship modules.

Best of all, RT has just now published numerous videos of Diego Urbina and Aleksandr Smoleevsky on their EVA. In the coming week, Wang Yue will also join the Marswalks, so if you're interested in seeing any of the upcoming live streams, their schedule will be as follows:

Feb 18: Second visit to Martian surface - Smoleevsky and Yue.
Feb 22: Third visit to Martian surface - Smoleevsky and Urbina.
Feb 23: Launch from Mars surface back to main ship.
Feb 24: Docking with basic complex, Marswalkers enter quarantine unit.
Feb 27: Quarantine termination, hatch open to living module.

This Thursday is the halfway mark of the mission as a whole (Day #260). As of Day #270, or their "quarantine termination", the crews will rejoin, and begin the journey back to Earth...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Busy (Celestial) Bodies


A busy weekend for all! I had a fantastic time at the Ames Tweetup yesterday, but am taking a break from twittering so I can put new photo galleries together for next week's posts.

Meanwhile, it's also a very active time for Mars500, as celebrated by my buddy Steve Legere with another great work of art as the crew reached Day #250.

D-DAY for The Mars 500
Click to see Martian Surface Simulator module in larger photo

The crew are now orbiting the planet, and preparing to walk on Mars next week, so I hope everyone will be following their progress in this exciting research simulation. Today marks the day of the big much-anticipated landing on the Martian surface!

And... rumor has it, the Russian controllers are planning a medical emergency for the crew, to see their reactions and problem-solving skills as a team. It will be interesting to see how that unfolds, and which crew members will have to feign an injury or illness for the simulation.

For a recap, check out this excellent 2-minute BBC video, which is truly the best description I've seen of all their aims and milestones to date:

Special thanks to Marissa Venturella of Mizzou & Newsy for this great find!

Friday, February 11, 2011

#NASATweetup 2


Last February, I attended my first NASA Tweetup at Johnson Space Center in Texas, and today, I am headed to a similar event at Ames Research Center in California!

Last night, I had the (somewhat noisy) pleasure of staying in their on-site employee hotel, which is also often used by visiting military officers,the NASA Exchange Lodge in Building #19 at the historic Shenandoah Plaza.

NEL at Ames
I called one of my friends to tell him where I was, and he asked, "Hey, can you see the famous Hangar One from where you are?!" Um yeah, you can see Hangar One from just about anywhere in the entire zip code. Or at least parts of it:

Although, I'm hardly a Moffett Field newbie, having been Team Captain of a charity rollerblade race for the Multiple Sclerosis Society at Hangar One many moons ago when I lived in Silicon Valley. It's so weird to be here again! I used to work about 4 freeway exits away at Oracle Corporation... (back when I was fresh out of college and didn't mind being a corporate crash dummy).

NASA Twitter
Later today, I'll be joining people from all around the country to tweet about the many interesting projects at NASA Ames, including SOFIA and the Kepler Mission -- which reaches its halfway point today!

Fair warning to my Twitter followers... I average perhaps 3 to 7 tweets per day, and a re-tweet or two from some other astronomy geeks. For the next couple of days, I'll be firing them off like crazy from @Pillownaut, along with the rest of the resident space-twits!

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

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

When Chemists Die, We Barium


It's rare that I see something so offbeat that I actually Laugh Out Loud, despite how often I use "LOL" as a means of communicating light-heartedness. This is almost as good as that old "How many aerospace engineers does it take to change a light bulb?" routine.

Special thanks to my buddy Rick Vaughn of Phoenix, AZ for posting this to my Facebook wall -- so yes, if you join us on Facebook or Twitter (buttons to the right), you can expect a lot of these Dweebian shenanigans:

When Chemists Die, We Barium

I wish I could say I was one of the witty contributors above, but I guess we'll never know who our true comedians are. Enjoy anyway!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Planet Trivia


I realized just as I typed "Planet Trivia" in the TITLE: field that it sounded like a name, like, let's go visit Planet Trivia. Wouldn't that be great? In movies, we have seen pleasure planets and prison planets and mining planets -- but never a whole planet just for libraries filled with random facts.

That would be my idea of a vacation! Anyway, in conducting research, I tend to come across a lot of interesting facts. While editing, sometimes they hit the cutting room floor as tangential pieces of information, or I just collect them in notebooks for personal pleasure. I have a few fun ones I thought I would share...

Astronaut Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon with his left foot.

A neutron star has such density that a mere teaspoonful of its matter would weigh more than all the people on Earth.

Saturn and Titan
Saturn's moon Titan has hundreds of times more oil and natural gas than all the known reserves on Earth.

If a pinhead-size piece of the Sun were placed on Earth, one would have to stand 90 miles away from it (or 145km) to remain safely un-burned and un-blinded.

The number of neuron cells in the average human brain is more than the total number of stars in our galaxy.

However, the cosmos contains approximately 50,000,000,000 galaxies.

Crab Nebula
In 1045 A.D. Earth time, the Crab Nebula was produced by a supernova explosion. Chinese and Arab astronomers of the age noted that the explosion was so bright, it lit up the night sky for months and was also often visible during the day.

The first woman in space was Russian Valentina Tereshkova in 1963. The first American woman was Sally Ride in 1983. (Yes, a 20 year gap!)

Driving at 75 miles (121 km) per hour, it would take 258 days to drive around one of Saturn's rings. The rings are made of chunks of water ice ranging in size from dust to large houses.

The Sun travels at a speed of 155 miles per second (or 250km) per second, but it still takes 230 million years for it to complete a single revolution of the galaxy.

Guitar on the ISS
Humans have played the guitar, piano, flute, saxophone and digideroo in space.

Fact or Legend?
One of the things that the Apollo 15 mission accomplished was to deposit a cockroach on the moon. During their outward flight, the astronauts noticed a cockroach in their spaceship, but when they returned, the craft was thoroughly inspected by NASA technicians and no trace of it was found. The only conclusion is that it crept out and was left behind.

I have found this tale on a few websites, but no dependable corroboration (of course, it's not something NASA would publish on their website, is it!), so take that last one with some sodium granularity.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Astro-NOTS Emblem
No astronauts available for Shuttle simulator testing? Hey, just catch a flight controller by the toe! They can use anyone who fits the suit and knows the drill (although, those two requirements aren't as simple as they sound)...

You may remember Liz Warren from my past post about folks who work in the Mission Control Center (MCC) in Houston, and she was also recently featured on the NASA Education site by my old friend The Other Heather. Sometimes we all just link in circles!

Scientist Liz WarrenThe team that straps the astronauts into the Space Shuttle prior to launch are called "The Closeout Crew", and they undergo training sessions at Johnson Space Center in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility, just like the astronauts.

Liz recently joined them in the SVMF for Closeout Crew Training, where she suited up to be strapped into one of the Shuttle Orbiter mock-ups -- most specifically, the CCT or Crew Compartment Trainer... that would be the one pointed skyward for these exercises.

NASA Spacesuits
Have you ever laid your clothes out on the bed the night before you wear them? It must be great to be an astronaut and have a suit specialist do it for you -- because truly, just getting into a space suit and wearing it all day is enough hard work for one body.

That's CDR Spasmunkey to you!
Wouldn't we all love to sit in this chair for a drill! I'd sure try it, any day. Ingress, pretty easy... and as for Egress? "You basically pretend like you are incapacitated and they drag you out of the orbiter." Sounds fun. And check out who else showed up for Astro-NOT duty one day:

Stephen ColbertSpecial thanks to Flight Controllers Sarah Saroy, Liz Warren and astronaut trainer Michael Grabois (in that order through the post!) for these great images. Is it possible to have too much fun?!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why Women Want To Move To Planet Mercury


Hilary-Ann B. (9) and her father, Russell of Tacoma, Washington, have emailed me the following question: "Why would I weigh a certain amount on Earth, but on another planet I would weigh a different amount?"

Hilary-Ann, let me say that while the answer is fascinating, I am sorry to hear you're concerned about your weight on... well, any planet. However, after talking to your Mom and Dad over email too, we know this is curiosity about gravity, not calories!

In simple terms, gravity is the force of attraction between objects. Gravitational pull is what makes the Earth orbit the sun, or the moon orbit the Earth. Suns, moons and planets are all surrounded by fields of gravity. These fields will be different, depending on things like planet size, mass, speed, its location in any solar system, and any other objects around it in space.

If Earth's force of gravity is measured at 1.00, force on other planets would be:

List of Planets and their Gravitational Forces
We'll include Pluto for the purists. And so I don't have to listen to any arguments.

At any rate, multiply your weight by any of these numbers, and you will see what you weigh on that planet. For instance, someone who weighs 100 pounds on Earth will weigh about 106 pounds on Saturn, but only 37 pounds on Mercury. I imagine the average 9-year-old weighs about 50 pounds, so you could just cut all those in half. Oh goody, math homework!

More complex components of gravity come into play, but in general: the larger the object, the greater the gravity. However, the further away you travel from an object, the less you are affected by its gravitational field. Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, so it has the strongest field (except for our Sun, which is over 27+!). You cannot stand on Jupiter, because it's mostly gas. However, if it had a surface, the force holding your body on the planet would be much greater. This increases your weight, even though your mass remains the same.

Your Weight On Other Worlds
There is a great contraption at the San Francisco Exploratorium, where you can step on a large scale and see what you weigh on all the planets. I've been on it, and it's quite a fun experience. They also have their calculator on a web page, so you can see Your Weight On Other Worlds.

Needless to say there will never be a book fad known as "The Jupiter Diet."

And watch your mailbox, Hilary... a special NASA treat is on the way to you! :)