Monday, June 29, 2009

New Astronauts!

Exciting news! NASA announced their selections for the 2009 astronaut class, THE CHUMPS, who will begin training at Houston's Johnson Space Center in August. These are the first new hires in 5 years!

NASA Astronauts
The new astronauts are:
Serena M. Auñón (33) of League City, Texas
Jeanette J. Epps (38) of Fairfax, Virginia
Jack D. Fischer (35) of Reston, Virginia
Michael S. Hopkins (40) of Alexandria, Virginia
Kjell N. Lindgren (36) of League City, Texas
Kate Rubins (30) of Cambridge, Massachusetts
Scott D. Tingle (43) of Hollywood, Maryland
Mark T. Vande Hei (42) of El Lago, Texas
(Gregory) "Reid" Wiseman (33) of Virginia Beach, Virginia

That's three new women and six new men who hold a combined 23 college degrees! Like, wow. Other interesting tidbits? Lindgren and Auñón are Flight Surgeons, Epps is a CIA intelligence officer; and Vande Hei (Army) and Wiseman (Navy) have both served in the Middle East.

A few days back, one of my blog posts featured Major Jack Fischer, excerpting an inspiring essay he penned about humanity's continued exploration in space.

For the full article, as well as profiles on each new astronaut, see the 2009 Astronauts Class section of the NASA website...

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Some funny comments from one of the many forums discussing the NASA bedrest studies at present...

Hmm. Job title. Y'think? ;)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Weightless Heather

Not me Heather. Another Heather.

Heather R. Smith of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center was on my blog last September, when she wrote a great article about the spaceflight simulation studies for the Education section of the website family, called "Lying Around."

This time, she got to be the test subject! Or at least a willing witness – in the Reduced Gravity Flight Program at NASA Hangar 990, Ellington Field, Houston. There she joined a group of students from the University of Colorado, as well as NASA engineers and scientists, for an experience in weightlessness.

Reduced Gravity
The UC students flew two Wilberforce pendulums, to observe behavior under compression and subsequent release into micro-gravity – an experiment inspired by a similar analysis flown on Skylab III in 1973. Heather kept a brief but exciting "Freefalling" blog of 12 posts, describing the teams’ experiences.

Wouldn’t it be incredible to go into the Hypobaric Altitude Chamber where astronauts train?? Their physiological training required that they do just that, to simulate flying at 25,000 feet and experiencing mild hypoxia (oxygen deficiency). She describes spinning exercises as well, trying to do math problems after these difficult tests, and she has comments from all the team members about what they experienced physically and mentally… (sure makes you appreciate what astronauts have to endure repeatedly).

After training, they flew 30 parabolas in a C-9 Airplane. Weightlessness occurs as the plane crests upward toward the top of a parabola curve and begins falling. Each episode of a 10,000 foot drop lasts for perhaps 30 seconds. The plane will then pull out of the fall and start flying back upward. (Ron Howard used this technique to film much of the Apollo 13 movie.)

Heather Smith
I love how Heather described the experience: "Now I understand what people mean when they struggle to find the words to describe microgravity. Words like “cool,” “amazing” and “awesome” come to mind, but even those are not good enough... I remember thinking, during those serene moments where I was just looking around, that this must be what it’s like on the International Space Station… with people moving around by “flying” through the air. It’s quite awesome to experience even just a fraction of what astronauts in space feel. After experiencing how difficult it can be to control your body and do simple tasks, I am able to appreciate more fully the superb work astronauts do up there in their unique environment of space."

To read the rest, go to her section of…!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Astronaut(s) For Hire

I follow a blog called Astronaut For Hire and it's author, Brian Shiro, is also one of my blog followers. Yesterday while I was NOT writing, and lazing around the house groaning about my achy muscles (got a little ahead of my capabilities with the free weights and probably need to dial it back a notch), one of his buddies from astronaut screening was writing a truly exhilarating guest post.

Major Jack Fischer, one of the finalists awaiting NASA's 2009 selection decision, penned an artful essay entitled "Passion For Space," which I highly recommend. These are the calibre of people striving to be your next Earth representatives, people! ;) My two favorite excerpts:

"People do not typically get involved with space because they want to be wealthy or because they yearn for fame – they do it because they love the constant challenge of a changing environment, because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves ... because they are inspired dreamers. "

Astronaut For Hire
Major Jack Fischer (right), 411th Flight Test Squadron F-22 Raptor pilot, explains controls in an F-16 Fighting Falcon cockpit to 14-year-old Avi Khanian during the "Pilot for a Day" tour at Edwards Airforce Base.

"We have an opportunity, with the Constellation program, that we have not had for decades. An endeavor that can ignite the most noble aspects of the human soul, so that we might elevate our vision beyond the everyday, and help the human race take its next evolutionary step. No longer confined to Low Earth Orbit, mankind can once again explore – the Moon, Mars, and beyond..."

Spend some time and look through Brian's previous posts, he has some great material on his own experience with NASA, the astronaut selection processes across Europe and Canada, and hey, we'll all be able to see him on the Discovery Science Channel soon!

He is going to be on the 12th team to simulate a "mission to Mars" in the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS), a habitat on Devon Island.

In order to prepare for Mars exploration, the Mars Society equips and trains volunteers to serve in rotations in the Canadian arctic. Talk about the ultimate in analog research! This and many other habitats around the world are crucial "live laboratories" where scientists can simulate how to live and work on Mars. NASA has even tested prototype lunar rovers there.

Good luck Brian, stay warm!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Moon Poll

It's not news, it's CNN. Yesterday, the "most trusted name in news" ran an interesting moon poll. Alas, it's already gone from their website -- which is weird, because polls sometimes sit there for days -- but I snapped a screenshot of the final score before it was replaced.

Some text responses to the poll on FARK and Wonkette:

Nabb1: Would I have to join a HOA?

trapped-in-CH: I'm a little too old now, but in my 20s I'd have given a limb or a spare organ to live on the moon.

blick: bang! zoom! to da moon alice!

dabishop: I wouldn't mind opening up a driving range there. "Nice shot, Mr. Gates; that one went 2,400 yards."

Kar98: I live in rural Texas. Might as well live on the moon. Anybody in Austin looking for a computer guy? Or a painter?

Lando: I'll start up our own WWW up there (I'll call it the MWW). Since we'll be in low gravity it will be even FASTER than Earth's! It's science.

dijetlo: Any chance that the 23% who said yes is the Republican base? If so, let’s get started, we just need a really big sling shot.

FP: Trick question, it doesn't specify which moon.

Mild Midwesterner: Sure, I would love to live on a sound stage in Arizona.

WhatTheHeck: All youse guys who want to go, we’ll call Moonies. And please live on the dark side of the moon so we don’t have to see you lunartics.

NBunny: Next poll: Would you...
(a) Like to swing on a star.
(b) Carry moonbeams home in a jar.
(c) Be better off than you are.
(d) Undecided.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

LRO / LCROSS Launch!

Lunar Reconaissance OrbiterAt 2:00pm, I browsed to NASA-TV to see launch preparations for the Lunar Recon Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation & Sensing Satellite.

The hosts showed the animated trajectory videos from the LRO website, and in between discussions, cameras switched to launch pad views, testers, controllers, etc. The launch itself was delayed due to a nearby thunderstorm, but they took the last window anyway.

I watched the first few burns and maneuvers, and am now awaiting separation… pretty exciting! Well, except that one of the buzzkill announcers emphasized that takeoff was "one tenth of a second late." Geez.

The LRO will spend about a year in polar orbit around the Moon, mapping terrain, seeking safe landing sites and potential resources, and also testing radiation levels. That’s just the short, short, short version of its objectives... which will eventually result in planning and designing a full lunar outpost.

I visit the LRO Blog occasionally, and even if you just glance at their post headers, you’ll get a feel for the amazing amount of technology onboard, all the built-in bells and whistles, plus the sheer amount of testing required for such an animal.

In four months, after making a wide loop around both the Moon and Earth, the LCROSS will watch as the upper stage of a Centaur rocket (yes, the same ones that sent the Surveyor probes to the moon in the 1960s!) slams into a permanently shadowed region near the south pole at about 5,600mph.

Lunar Crater Observation & Sensing Satellite The US, Russia, Europe, India, China and Japan have all crashed orbiters into the moon, the majority of those being deliberate. ;)

Some were to examine crater formation, soil composition, etc. What’s exciting about the upcoming collision is that scientists hope to absolutely confirm the presence or absence of water -- which is widely argued, based on existing findings.

LCROSS is programmed to follow Centaur downward, and will have about four minutes to fly through the debris plume, using many different cameras to capture all the flying regolith... and possibly ice chips? It will then crash itself into a different part of the same crater. That's darned tight window, so keep your fingers crossed that all the systems operate properly.

Obviously, any identification of water would be incredibly important to any future human activities on the Moon! NASA has an LCROSS Countdown Clock, and I’ll post about it again in October... hopefully with breaking [ice] news!

New Pillownaut Articles

The NASA studies are on the top of the WIRED.COM website this morning, featuring an interview with Ronita Cromwell, the project's lead scientist. I also gave a few subjective comments about what it's like to barter your body out to science, and they borrowed some pictures of both myself and Devin (plus his artwork!) from our galleries.

NASA StudyThe author, Alexis Madrigal, was following up to bedrest pieces he had written last year. His article about how "NASA wants you to get in bed" was the first time I read about the studies, and decided to apply. So I got a chance to let him know he was the reason I found the project -- and we had a good laugh.

The Science blog at Wired is truly one of the best on the web -- they always have fascinating material, and I'm tickled they actually used my silly, made-up word, "Pillownaut." And that's the second one! While I was in California visiting family, Popular Science also published an awesome article from interviews done back in May.

NASA StudiesRebecca Boyle is a very precise writer, spent more time with me than most interviewers have, so she really nailed the accuracy in a way that others haven't. For example, FOX has covered it for two years and even after all the details their reporters give them, their editors keep calling it a "sleep study!" on television. Which it isn't. Obviously. But I guess that "sounds" more dramatic. Those of us immersed in the project know all the tiny details, and it can be frustrating to see it "watered down" in the press -- but these two most recent articles are definitely among the best.

Thank you so much Alexis and Rebecca! I am sure this will help the program coordinators get some new qualified applicants!

Monday, June 15, 2009

No Place Like Home

Back in Texas! Having just spent time in northern California, where I grew up, I'm always reminded of just how much I miss it. However, it is also a relief to finally be back at my [newer] home in Georgetown for the first time in over a month.

I got plenty of exercise on the trip, mostly climbing around San Francisco, but seeing groups of family also meant many massive meals (unintended alliteration). So between bedrest, jet-lag and high-calorie menus, I'm feeling a bit sluggish. The first order of business was to get back to the gym! Yesterday and this morning, I exercised both outdoors and indoors on a climber, still working my way back up to 5-mile stretches, and also doing some interval training. I lifted weights for the first time since before the study, lighter and with fewer reps than normal, but I still expect some soreness over the next few days. Eeeeaaaaasing back in.

One thing I have not resumed, however, is caffeine consumption. Despite never going anywhere near coffee, I've been addicted to caffeine for many years. I've weaned myself off it prior to each trip to NASA. Last time, I couldn't wait to have a coca-cola. Devin and I headed for a soda machine within an hour of rising from bed (i.e. as soon as we could hobble to it with coins). This time, however, I wanted to see if I could cut tea and colas -- both from my body and my budget -- for as long as possible. So far, so good.

I drink plenty of water daily, but have increased that in lieu of soda... and I switched from my normal Green Tea to a decaffeinated brand. I know I still get a little bit in chocolate, but nothing like what I used to chug. I'll be interested to see if I genuinely feel any difference in energy. I am definitely already sleeping more deeply. Here's hoping I can last for the summer, at least.

Catching up on email? Not quite as relaxing. What an avalanche! It will be a few days before I wade through each account, but of course I want to thank everyone who has sent me great links and articles. There's no chance I could possibly miss anything going on in the NASA or Star Trek multiverses anymore! Exciting preparations are being made for launches, a new "Moon" movie is due to be released soon, and current missions appear to be getting more press than in past years, which is great to see.

Space Shuttle Atlantis
Special thanks to Mr. & Mrs. L, who forwarded a great link from ABC News: Atlantis Astronauts Share the Earthly Delights They Can't Live Without in Space. I loved this article for its accuracy, detail and astronaut pranks -- though probably the funniest bit was Mike Massimino casting his vote for the next Nobel Prize winner: whomever invents the technology to make pizza in space!

I guess we flight analogs are lucky, we get pizza on the ground -- but I don't know what they're complaining about; they get pudding and M&Ms! Definitely contraband at UTMB. However, despite the tiny differences and description of restrictions, I think this article clears up a few misconceptions about "food in space" ... namely that astronauts have no choice about their in-flight diets, that the food is barely palatable... or even that Tang and paste tubes are still staples. Those and other freeze-dried forms of torture from the early days are long, long gone.

More to come as I catch up! Thank you everyone for all your wonderful emails and support! :)