Monday, July 29, 2013

NASA Ames K10 Telerobotics Test from the ISS


This has been so exciting! I finally joined Instagram! Just kidding. Well, I did join Instagram, but that was the exciting part. I decided to try it out, and use it to publish all my pictures while visiting NASA Ames Research Center for the Rover tests by the Intelligent Robotics Group.

K10 rover
K10 Rover at NASA Ames Roverscape
Click to see album of pictures!

I also dusted off my YouTube channel and took some videos of the most amazing rover test I've ever seen up close!

With coordinated help and checklists from NASA Ames Multi-Mission Operations Center (MMOC), and NASA Marshall's ISS Payload Operations, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano remotely tested the K10 Telerobotics Lunar Rover from the International Space Station (ISS)!

Every time you see this little guy move, it was being controlled from an astronaut in orbit around the Earth! So very awesome. Listen for the Mission Control chatter at the end, as well as the amusing Pac-Man sound effects.  It did a funny R2-D2 impression as well, though I didn't happen to catch it on-camera.

Note the giant Wind Tunnel in the background of the NASA Ames Roverscape, the research facility used to design and test new (commercial and military) aircraft, as well as NASA space vehicles, including the Space Shuttle. At 80x120, it's the largest wind tunnel in the world!

After Luca Parmitano completed his remote Telerobotics tests, and a survey of the terrain that will hopefully someday be used on the Moon, we went out into the roverscape to see the K10 up close.  Close enough to touch, even. And, when it started moving again, to hear it hum and beep. Can't wait for one of these to explore the Lunar surface!

After the robot fun in the morning, we also saw the IRIS and LADEE mission control centers, the new exhibits at the Ames Visitor Center, and the Lunar Science Institute. Not a bad way to pass the time in sunny California!

To see the robotics tests video clips in larger frames, visit my Pillownaut YouTube Channel, and to see the rest of our day in pictures, please visit my Pillownaut Picasa photo albums.

Friday, July 26, 2013

NASA Social Number Nine!


I'm truly blessed to be able to attend or work so many amazing NASA events, and today, it's back to NASA Ames! I grew up in the shadow of Hangar One, so the Ames Research Center (ARC) holds a special place in my heart.

NASA ARC at Moffett Field, California

Today's event will be all about NASA's newest moon project, the robotic Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. The acronym for the mission, LADEE, is generally pronounced "laa-dee" (as opposed to "lady") by the designers and scientists.

The hardware will launch on a Minotaur V to our beautiful Moon from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia this September (and there is another social for the launch, too!)

NASA LADEE Vibration Testing

This is actually one of the smaller socials held, with only 15 attendees given social media credentials to learn about current Ames projects.

Aside from LADEE launch preparations, tours will include spacecraft hardware and missions operations facilities, and also a trek to the Ames "Roverscape" field, where astronauts on the International Space Station will remote control telerobotics rovers!

Try moving this from... ORBIT!

Throughout the day, follow these accounts and hashtags on Twitter to see all the moony and roboty goodness: @NASASocial, @NASAAmes, and @NASALADEE.

Of course, I'll be live-tweeting all day long from Ames, so you can also follow Pillownaut twitter for commentary. My fellow tweeters for tomorrow's events are listed on the LADEE / Rovers Test Twitter list, follow any and all of them for NASA Social updates!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blast (Off) From the Past

Can't believe what I found in a box of books, under years of dust. I'm sure I haven't seen this souvenir since I was a teen. It's still in good shape, too!

Kennedy Space Center

This the John F. Kennedy Space Center booklet from 1976. Note the old "Worm" logo, and the cost in the lower right corner... 50 cents! The cover shows the Vehicle Assembly Building, tour buses, tourists, and the Saturn V rocket when it was still on display outdoors. What a treasure of history!

My father bought this for me when I was 7 years old, upon my first trip to KSC Visitor Center (which was much smaller, then). This was one of our Florida stops on a much larger cross-country trip to celebrate America's Bicentennial.

KSC Tour Book

Kennedy Center's Director at the time was Lee R. Scherer (served 1975-1979). The year he took over the position, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Projectsaw the first hand-shake in space between the super-powers of America and Russia.

The booklet features photographs of all the major heavy launch vehicles that blasted off from Cape Canaveral, as well as summaries the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

The one thing that stands out in my mind from visiting Kennedy was the Lunar Rover on display. Really? We went to the Moon... and took a car? I thought that was so very cool... but I thought they should have taken something more hip, like my Dad's '69 Camaro! ;)

Early Space Shuttle Drawing

My favorite part of the book now is the artist's rendering of the "future Space Shuttle".  In 1976, it had been planned, budgeted, designed, and the first orbital vehicle prototype had just been built!  It would be 7 months before Space Shuttle Enterprise performed her first test flight.

It's stunning to think that I have seen four launches of these beautiful shuttles now, and seen three in museums after retirement. At the time this book was purchased, I had never laid eyes on one.  The first STS mission was still 5 years in the future, and none of us could imagine the 30 years of Shuttles to come!

Kennedy Space Center Book

Another favorite page is the map of Cape Canaveral, listing all the launch pads, and which missions (up to that date, of course) launched from each spot.

According to the tallies in the book, by 1976, there had been 31 manned flights, with 43 participating astronauts -- adding up to 22,500+ cumulative man-hours in space (or on the Moon).  In contrast, as of today, there have now been 211 manned missions, with 310 participating astronauts... and number 312 will head to the ISS in September!

Click on any of the pictures above to see full-size originals of the entire (non-copyrighted) booklet!

Monday, July 22, 2013



Hashtag we've been having tons of fun with: #WaveAtSaturn! Hashtag I cannot wait for: #EuropaWavedBack!  Well, a gal can dream.

Craftlass Waving At Saturn

Did you wave at planet Saturn?? Okay fine, so it was 900 million miles away, but it's the cosmic thought that counts! There's @Craftlass waving due east to Saturn, as captured by @Woodtoast along the New York skyline. Definitely the best capture of the SpaceTweep frenzy!

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory held events onsite and online, encouraging everyone to wave, and people obliged, from all over the world!

Saturn Photography Mosaic

If you were asleep on Friday July 19, 2013... well, Spacecraft Cassini took your picture anyway! Even if you blinked, even if you didn't look up and smile, our entire planet was photographed by the distant probe orbiting planet Saturn, as part of a series that will create a mosaic (mapped above).

Our particular portrait has been released via the Raw Images Gallery of JPL's Cassini archives, though it may be some time before all the pictures are calibrated and pulled together into panoramas.

Still, the initial glimpse of our beautiful world as a mere DOT beneath Saturn's icy-rocky rings are powerful, beautiful, and humbling.

Saturn Rings with Earth in Background
"Man must rise above Earth to the atmosphere and beyond
for only thus will he understand the world in which he lives."

~ Socrates, 500 BC

The Americas happened to be facing Saturn at a time when a full solar eclipse made it possible for Cassini to take a central-solar-system-pointed portraits with no sun glare, so Earth was captured in the background. Europe and Africa were in line-of-sight of Saturn, though by the time the picture was taken, they were partially dark.

However, even with the most powerful cameras, we won't be seeing too many details at 1.5 billion kilometres away! In the highest resolution photograph, our planet will only be 1.9 pixels across.

Wave At Saturn Certificate

We had a good time, but it's not really about Earth. This series of photos is actually designed to provide data to scientists about the fainter rings encircling Saturn. With forward-scattered light, particles as fine as smoke or dust may be detectable -- and, of course, the last time Cassini took a back-lit image in 2006, 3 new moons were discovered!

So, stay tuned for more news and photographs.  And if you participated, be sure to go to the Wave At Saturn website on the Cassini Solstice Mission website and print out your certificate!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why Willingness To Be Wrong Makes You Right


"If a little kid ever asks you why the sky is blue,
you look him or her right in the eye, and say,
'It's because of quantum effects involving Rayleigh scattering
combined with a lack of violet photon receptors in our retinae.'"
~ Astronomer Phil Plait, who might not get invited
to speak at too many elementary schools

Are you strong enough to be wrong? My heroes in this intellectual sport include many eminent scientists who experienced ruggedly exhausting searches for knowledge, rigorous education, intense periods of frustration, depressing self doubt, insatiable curiosity, crises of faith, and if one is very lucky, enlightenment or validation.

Those last two count for tiny portion of thinkers' lives. Even the powerhouses! Einstein expressed extreme doubt with the accuracy of his work, and Hawking has famously made bets where he acknowledges the limits of his predictions, and promises to pay up if he is proven incorrect.
Superman Pose!

I for one think these traits are part and parcel of great scientific minds.  No one is right all the time, but if you are highly, highly intelligent, being wrong can not only be painful -- but downright career-killing, depending on circumstances.

Still, I'm am steadfast in my judgment of this quality as separating the narcissistic egos with high I.Q.s from the kind of scientists who make the world a better place.

I got to have lunch with one of my intellectual heroes at SpaceFest V this past spring, astronomer Philip Plait. We've crossed paths on Twitter and blog comment forums in the past -- and if you aren't following his blog, Bad Astronomy, you're missing one the very best examples of someone who mythbusts for a living, while championing the joys of the Scientific Method.

"Bad Astronomy" refers to misconceptions about science, and Plait specializes in setting the record straight, battling pseudoscience, and describing in layman-friendly terms all the delightful things in our universe that might happily kill you. Hence, his two tomes, Bad Astronomy, and Death From The Skies.

In both books, and his blog, he often must battle those engaged actively in anti-science, an astonishingly large movement for our alleged "age of information".  If you're scientifically-minded, and have ever taken on a creationist, climate-change denier, moon landing hoaxer, anti-vaxxer, or other conspiracy theorists who use fringe arguments to defend easily debunked beliefs, you've already seen the difference between wishful thinking and empirical examination.

Impressing Phil With My First Edition,
which he simply called... "OLD". Thanks.

Often the desire to seem "unique" in terms of intelligence is the driving force behind conspiratorial issues or "group-think" -- but, true intelligence is based on ability to doubt, to question, to engage in skepticism, or to embrace possibly the best book-ending line in all of literature, by Richard S. Bach: "Everything in this book... could be wrong." (Illusions, 1977)

Everything you think, at any time, could be wrong. It's a difficult concept to live by, but necessary. Conspiracy theorists may essentially cling to irrational beliefs, are terrified of challenge, and upon hearing actual facts, often dig in their heels to double-down on their chosen fiction.

Science, in contrast, says: PROVE IT. Sell me. Give me a new model, and we will give up the old one. Publish it. Let everyone weigh in. Let someone else observe and repeat. Hey, and improved science!

Science, after all, is not merely a method. The Latin "scientia" does not mean deviation from a deity, as some might claim, to advance on their agenda; the root prefix indicates "a body of knowledge" or a collection of facts observed.

Is it always pretty? Oh dear me no, scientists fight like rabid bats. There's a great deal of biting and flapping... because, when you get right down to it, REALITY is on the line.


Knowing that I feel this way -- imagine me watching Phil Plait, upon autographing his "old" book, grumbling that he wished he could market a re-printing to correct where his research was out of date. He flipped until he found the offending section, crossed it out, and assured me more accurate information was now available. He wrote one word: WRONG.

I was stunned. Stunned, I tell you. A few years ago, I handed astronaut Buzz Aldrin a book to sign, where he crossed out "Edwin"(no longer his legal name), and wrote "Buzz" in it's place! Until now, that was the oddest signing experience I'd ever had. This was something wholly different, though no less about the identity of the signer.

This correction, to me, is even more valuable than the title page autograph!  This is absolutely what science is all about.  When Phil and I parted ways, I kept flipping through the book and looking at the page, enamored of the idea that he actually took the trouble to FIND and so openly acknowledge it -- because he didn't want me to be misinformed.

This is why I read his books. This is why I read his blog. I don't blindly believe everything he says. I don't always agree with him.  And I don't have to. Embracing science means always questioning, sometimes challenging, and always wanting to be as objective as possible.

That's a real scientist.  Why don't they have HIM on "The View" ??

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Festival of Flight Surgeons


Longtime reader  Lisleman of A Few Clowns Short asks:
"I was wondering about health issues. Would you say that astronauts are the most monitored humans around? Do they monitor them constantly while in the ISS? Lastly, have the doctors ever prevented some illness because they noticed a warning in the monitored levels of an astronaut?"

I had a wild guess that individuals in prison might be the "most monitored", but this is an interesting avenue, both medically and operationally. I had some inklings, but called upon some friends in Mission Control to point me in the right direction.

NASA physiologist Liz Warren @Spasmunkey (also featured in my Workers At NASA section) says:
Prior to an ISS flight, I'd have to agree astronauts are some of the most medically monitored people on the planet. Millions of dollars are invested in each astronaut during training, and we ensure they don't become ill and jeopardize the mission.

During flight, astronauts have weekly meetings with their flight surgeons and psychiatrists. In terms of medical monitoring IN-FLIGHT, there actually isn't much. Exercise is monitored via a heart rate monitor. There is a portable blood analyzer on-orbit for routine analysis. Blood and urine samples gathered for research are frozen and analyzed on the ground after the crewmember goes home.

I am not aware (due to medical privacy) of any medical intervention that prevented someone from getting sick on-orbit. However, one Russian mission was aborted prematurely due to a crewmember developing a medical issue in-flight.

NASA Flight Surgeons
Dr. Jennifer Law, Flight-Surgeon, says:
 I can think of intensive care unit patients that are more closely monitored with invasive blood pressure monitors, heart rate monitors, temperature probes, and so on. Astronauts don't get this kind of medical scrutiny when they're on orbit. Prisoners may be monitored all the time in terms of their location and activity, but I don't think anyone keeps track of their vital signs and other physiological parameters.

Modern astronauts aren't monitored all the time like astronauts in the early space days were, and don't wear electrodes 24/7. They get routine physicals and are monitored during activities like exercise, EVA, and certain experiments, but the rest of the time they are not monitored per se, though like Liz said they do chat with their crew surgeon regularly so that any budding issues are addressed early.

As for medical interventions that prevent astronauts from getting sick on-orbit, we tend to focus on what we call primary prevention, e.g., astronaut selection, health maintenance, crew quarantine prior to flight, and regular exams. The irony is that when we do our jobs right, none of the astronauts get sick and we have nothing to show for it! Though I do know arrhythmias have been noted in space.

 Flight Controller Mike Allyn @FTCMike says:
Jen brings up a good point as to context of the word "monitored". I jumped to medical because of the question about preventing illness, but I can speak to monitoring the crew on a non-medical basis. Through various means of telemetry monitoring, MCC can often extrapolate what the crew is up to. Power draw always increases in the Service module when the crew starts turning on lights. We can also tell if there are crewmembers awake from the control torques on the vehicle. Rate measurements are so accurate coming from the US Rate Gyro Assemblies (RGA's) and the Russian Givus that the commands to control the torque of the Control Moment Gyro's (CMG's) react slightly to the crew bouncing off the walls.

We protect the crew's sleep and off duty time as much as we can. Being able to tell when they are awake is useful for when we need to speak to them at the earliest convenience, but perhaps not worth waking them. Another way to tell if a crew member is up and moving is by smoke detector scatter measurements. Anytime there is a tiny bit of dust detected by the many smoke detectors, they register increased scatter. One way this increases is by crewmembers working and moving in close proximity to them, which increases airflow and kicks up dust.

So there you have it, Lisleman! Hope that answers all your questions -- and very special thanks to our friendly neighborhood NASA MCC heroes for their time and expertise!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Future Fate of Earth's Moon


After my last round of #TriviaThursday about Moons, I got the following questions on Twitter and Facebook...

Our beautiful natural satellite orbits Earth ant-clockwise at 3,683 kilometres per hour (2,288 miles per hour).  It is not always the same distance from Earth, and  and to make a one giant oval-shaped trip, it travels 2,290,000 kilometres (1,423,000 miles).

This so-called "sidereal month" is the average period of revolution of the Moon around the Earth in reference to a fixed star, equal to 27 days, 7 hours, 43 minutes in units of mean solar time.

At it's closest, our Moon is about 363,300 kilometres (225,740 miles) away, and at it's farthest, 405,500 kilometres (251,970 miles).  The average distance is 384,467 kilometers (238,897 miles).

The oval, or elliptical, orbit is slowly becoming wider.  The Moon is actually moving away from earth at a rate of 3.8 centimeters (1.5 inches) per year, and slowing down. Because of this, Earth is also slowing down -- about 2 milliseconds per century. In other words, in 100  years, our day will be 2 milliseconds longer.

How is this happening? The Earth and Moon share angular momentum (of course, always conserved), and in this system, the Moon acquires the energy that Earth loses. This continually boosts our satellite to a higher orbit; neither can thus maintain their standard orbits in the eons to come.

Over a looooong period of time, rotations of the Earth and revolutions of the Moon will eventually match! Both will be about 40 days long.  If there is still a human population on Earth, they will constantly observe the moon overhead -- but the other side of the planet will never see it.  It's hard to say to what land masses it will hover over, because by this time, plate tectonics on Earth will ensure completely new configurations of continents.

Stability isn't the strong point of cosmic forces, so as the Moon pulls away, it will come under the Sun's angular momentum, losing energy and finally falling back toward Earth.  In about 3 billion years, Earth's Moon will break apart, perhaps 16,000 kilometres (10,000 miles) above the biosphere, creating a ring very much like Saturn's!  One imagines, meteorite hits to Earth will substantially increase.

At this point, the only tidal forces on Earth will be those caused by the Sun. There will be very different oceanic and sky-gazing worlds, indeed!  Won't they be amazing to see! Provided we haven't completely destroyed this planet and there are any eyeballs left to see it...

Friday, July 5, 2013

Amazing Objects That Have Sailed To Space


Each crew member of Space Shuttle mission is allowed to take one kilogram of memento items along with them, provided they fit into a tiny compartment set aside for such use.

This is how things like Buzz Lightyear action figures and lunar rocks which an astronaut had carried to the summit of Mount Everest make it on board, despite strict weight restrictions. On each flight, many flags, patches, and medallions are also flown, along with nationally-sponsored specialty items, such as the New York Mets' Home Plate, or the piece of Isaac Newton's apple tree!

Shuttle Atlantis STS-132 carried a portrait of Sir Isaac, and a small piece of his famous tree, which inspired his theory of gravity.  The Royal Society Archives in London presented the materials to ESA astronaut Piers Sellers, who cared for them during the 12-day mission, and later returned them for permanent public exhibit.

I just love the idea that the little piece of apple tree got to experience .... a lack of gravity!

Star Wars Light Saber
Shuttle Discovery STS-120 flew the light-saber used by Luke Skywalker (actor Mark Hamill) in "Return of the Jedi." In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Star Wars film franchise, Chewbacca (actor Peter Mayhew) presented the famed movie prop to NASA, whereupon it was flown to Texas and displayed for a time at Space Center Houston.

The prop weapon continued it's journey to Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it was packed into a Shuttle locker and spent two weeks in orbit. George Lucas attended Discovery's launch, and the light saber was later returned to Lucasfilm Ltd. for display in a traveling exhibit.

Jamestown Colony
Shuttle Atlantis STS-117 carried a lead cargo tag from "Yames Town", a 400-year-old artifact excavated by archaeologists in 2006. This particular item had made a trip across the Atlantic Ocean around 1611, along with European passengers destined for Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.

In honor of the 400th anniversary of the founding of this first colony of the New World, the metal plate was packed aboard Atlantis in 2007, and took 219 orbits around the Earth – this time crossing many oceans in a fraction of the time! The tag is now in the Archaearium, the historic Jamestown museum in Virginia.

Shuttle Atlantis STS-101 flew the Olympic Torch!  Well, a ceremonial replica, anyway. It wasn't lit, but NASA astronaut James Voss paid tribute to the Year 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia with the torch and a logo banner.

I'm just wondering how and where they packed that thing.  Later this year, Roskosmos plans to send up another torch on a Soyuz mission carrying Expedition 38 crewmen, with the intention of carrying it outside the space station on EVA as part of the official torch relay!  However, they are currently arguing about whether or not they will allow a flame.

Amelia Earhart and Eileen Collins
Less famous and quirky, but among my personal favorites, is how a rookie astronaut named Eileen Collins took Amelia Earhart's scarf on her first spaceflight aboard Shuttle Discovery STS-63. Colonel Collins would, of course, go on to become the very first female Shuttle pilot and the first female Shuttle Commander, on STS-84 Atlantis and STS-93 Columbia, respectively. She would also be Commander of STS-114 Discovery prior to her retirement.

Want to OWN something FLOWN? Many organizations, such as SpaceFlori, Farthest Reaches and The Space Store, sell metal craft fragments, pieces of shields and tiles, washers, nozzles, on board checklists, suit and seat materials from all eras of NASA missions.

If you were an astronaut or a cosmonaut, and could take something personal, professional or national into space, what would it be?

Monday, July 1, 2013

NASA Beauty Pageants 1952-1973


Perhaps you thought the NASA bedrest studies were the goofiest thing you ever saw at the space agency, but did you know NASA once held beauty pageants?!

NASA Beauty Pageants
Click to see the original 2-page spread in the archives

This is one of those anomalous things I thought "everyone knew about," and I don't get the urge to research or write about in terms of historical accuracy -- until someone argues with me. You know who you are. And I won't rub it in or anything, but these definitely are not myth or legend. While the events are not exactly well-documented in the NASA archives, proof absolutely does exist.

Beginning at their Spring Dance in 1952, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California held annual "Miss Guided Missile" pageants. There's definitely a "misguided" joke sitting right smack in the middle of all this -- but heck, it was the 1950s, what can you do?!

Miss Guided Missile Alane Hine
Miss Guided Missile 1955, Alane Hine, employee of JPL Solid Rockets section

When I first heard of this, I thought perhaps it was an unofficial lark for fun at some kind of spring picnic... but no. Incredibly, managers of various departments sponsored coronation candidates, and developed actual campaigns to draw employee votes -- which included luncheons, and parades around the campus streets in decorated convertibles.

None other than rocket scientist and longest-serving director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Walter Pickering, crowned the ladies through the years, at events sponsored by the Employees Recreation Club (ERC).

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was transferred to NASA in 1958, the same year the Zsa Zsa Gabor film "Queen of Outer Space" was released.  The following year, JPL's pageant was similarly (and one imagines humorously) re-named, also reflecting JPL's transition from missiles to spacecrafts.

JPL Queen of Outer Space
JPL "Queen of Outer Space" in May, 1962

These perfectly-acceptable-then-but-seeming-travesties-now continued through the 1960s, only halting in 1970.  Apparently, that was around the time it was enough for the women to perform their math magic alongside men without wondering how anyone looked in an evening gown!

While I know some fellow feminists are probably gnashing their teeth reading this, it's worthwhile to note that pageants originated at JPL because they were among the first major governmental and aeronautic facilities to employ women!  JPL hired them throughout the 1940s and 1950s to compute satellite trajectories; the first female engineer was hired in 1961 to work on the Ranger and Mariner mission tracking teams.  So, in a weird way, the road to equality was paved with marginalizing... but then, when it is ever not?

Miss NASA 1971
Miss NASA 1971 with Apollo 8 at Lewis Research Center

While NASA never had an agency-wide pageant comprising women from all centers, and certainly never sponsored these events as a rule across any centers, the Lewis Center in Ohio crowned a "Miss NASA" each year between 1968 and 1973.

NASA Lewis Research Center was founded in 1958, and renamed NASA John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in 1999.  Today, we generally refer to it as "NASA Glenn". Same set of buildings.

Miss NASA 1973
Miss NASA 1973 Merri Fahnenbruck with Apollo Moon rock

The pictures, with precious few details, are easily found by keyword in the NASA Archives, just don't tell anyone you're searching for a tomato in a tiara, standing next to an RL-10 engine. You might get a bad reputation.

Click on any of the pictures above to see the entire collection of NASA beauty pageant photographs, or click this Pillownaut domain link.