Space Studies Program NASA Ames – Part I

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It is hard to believe that the first three weeks at the International Space University Space Studies Program (SSP) passed by so quickly. However, I am certain our initial experiences exceeded all expectations. After three weeks, the high calibre of the SSP students continued to impress everyone. The opportunity to learn in such a dynamic and multidisciplinary environment was truly inspiring. Yet despite the vast differences present between many of the participating countries, a unifying factor was our desire and eagerness to learn. Of course, we all related to the lack of sleep that quickly built up, only verifying that perhaps we actually attended the Insufficient Sleep University!

The second week of lectures focused on various aspects of space exploration including orbital mechanics, satellite applications, an introduction to space life sciences, and the environmental issues associated with space exploration. We had the opportunity to explore the STK orbital mechanics software during a fundamental workshop session and were able to program various GEO and sun-synchronous satellites.  We also learned our individual department selections and team project selections. As expected, the Mars caves project had the largest enrolment at 56 team members. Even after only a handful of team project sessions, we all realized the difficulties in dealing with such large group dynamics and the true meaning of compromise during group projects. The Martian cave team members traveled to a subterranean cave system in Northern California to kick off research.

We also had the opportunity to participate in two panel sessions regarding Space and the Media and Entrepreneurial Space Business. The space media panel provided interesting perspectives from veteran news reporter Miles O`Brien, producer Harry Kloor, and filmmaker Michael Potter among others. Discussion topics included the changing face of space and NASA`s potential fear of risk taking in order to minimize criticism from media and the public. After the space media panel, the entire SSP class retired outside to watch the International Space Station fly overhead. We eagerly awaited it`s arrival and were reminded of the instantaneity of time; how we can never recreate the conditions of that evening again, standing together in a parking lot at NASA Ames, watching the station in all it`s complex elegance fly overhead. The second panel of the week on Space Business focused on avenues towards commercial space activities and included Peter Diamandis and founder of Space Adventures Ltd, Eric Anderson. The panel was organized as a Q & A session and we heard valuable advice regarding start-up businesses and common mistakes in the space industry.

Aside from the lectures and panels, one of the most charming aspects of the SSP is cultural night celebrations. Although the presentations are short and simple, they absolutely convey how much pride every student has for their own country. We observed the cultures of Brazil, Italy, Romania, Jordan, and the United States during the first evening. The delicious food following the presentations consisting of falafels, brushchetta, and apple pie topped off the festivities. The second cultural night this included the U.K., Scotland, Finland, Portugal, Turkey, South Africa, and Canada! Canada definitely stole the spotlight as the last country of the evening with a hockey themed introduction and a clarification of many national misconceptions. We also had the privilege of welcoming a fellow ISU student into team Canada, as he just received his permanent residency status last week!

Our first and only free weekend saw us exploring various parts of California. An early Saturday morning start brought some of team Canada to Yosemite National Park around noon to kick off a phenomenal weekend. It turns out that over 17 hours of hiking did not help the whole lack-of-sleep issue. Nothing compares to climbing nearly vertical cables to the top of Half Dome, sitting on the cusp of the Upper Yosemite Falls, or bathing in mountain water at glacier point while smelling the tantalizing mixture of fresh air and sweat! After visiting Yosemite, we recognize even more the value of stewardship and managing our resources here on earth. National parks like Yosemite are absolute treasures and on a universal scale could be singularities in our universe – the conservation of our own planet should be an immediate priority.

Continuing with the theme of sustainability and resource management, a few of the core lectures presented by Canadian guest lecturer Hugo Blomfield also touched on these concepts. He discussed the intelligence of man as presented by Carl Sagan. One of the unique human properties is our intelligence and decision-making skills. We have the choice to be either a self-preserving or a self-destructive society and it is our responsibility to choose the appropriate course of action. Lecturer Jacques Arnould presented another interesting session during a Space Ethics and Planetary Protection seminar. His recurring theme is to hire philosophers at space agencies and private companies in order to help establish a space policy with the intention of reuniting science and philosophy; areas that were historically split into separate domains.

We were also lucky enough to attend a presentation by space historian Andrew Chaiken on the AMES research center campus. Mr.Chaiken is an eloquent speaker who did not require the use of flashy multimedia to captivate the audience. Instead, he simply showed ghostly and stark pictures of the Apollo missions to weave an incredible story about the history of space exploration and where our future lies.  It was an honour to hear him speak.

Week 3 began with a series of life science and spacecraft design presentations. The multidisciplinary workshop involved either legal issues for start-up companies, 10 years of cooperation on the ISS, or analyzing data for the ISU IRIS experiment. Those participating in the IRIS workshop were able to analyze actual data from Dr.Thirsk`s experiments and were able to participate in a teleconference with mission control!

Other memorable moments included watching the launch of SpaceX`s Falcon 1 rocket with the RazakSAT satellite and the launch of STS-127! These events usually always bring goose bumps and for space cadets like us, seeing a launch never gets old.

The final chapter of the first three-week summary is an 18 000 foot skydive (the highest tandem jump in the world!) for some of the Canadian team. An early morning start brought us to Skydive Monterey where we experienced 1 ½ minutes of free fall. What a rush!

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