Space Studies Program NASA Ames – Part III

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The focus at the start of the second month of the Space Studies Program at NASA Ames shifted to departmental work and team projects. We essentially had two weeks to finish the team project reports, even given the little time available in the previous month to commit to research for the projects. Many participants were just anxious to have dedicated team project time, hopeful to produce results that would meet the standards of ISU faculty, commercial sponsors, and experts in each given field. Yet with such a hectic schedule, a key theme that arose was the ability to maintain perspective. There is incredible value to the insight that perspective can bring, whether working on individual assignments or on the team project. After all is said and done, perspective fosters objectivity, which ultimately gives way to progress.

A break in our schedule following the core examination provided an opportunity to tour the NASA Ames Research Campus. Two separate tour tracks offered a range of activities to suit the interests of many participants. These tours provided access to the Vertical Motion Simulator, the Vertical Gun Range, LCROSS facilities, Fluid Mechanics lab, Small Spacecraft lab, and the largest wind tunnel in the world (it can accommodate planes with a wing span of 100ft, that are 1400ft long, and 180ft high). The range of motion and sensitivity capabilities of the Vertical Motion Simulator are an impressive engineering accomplishment while standing at the intake of the wind tunnel let our imaginations run wild. The opportunity to talk with NASA employees along the tour provided an interesting contrast between the legacy of projects and stories past to the future of exploration and NASA`s upcoming goals.

Another panel featured a series of lectures regarding emerging space nations; specifically focusing on Chile, Venezuela, and Columbia. A new point of view into the difficulties that developing nations face emerging onto the space scene in an effort to contribute to the global goal of space exploration was refreshing. Much foresight and dedication is required by each country in order to make a long-standing presence. However, developing the infrastructure and resources necessary for a sustainable space market in these countries will be a very slow process. This may in fact be an excellent opportunity for international cooperation, providing the exchange of knowledge and resources between many countries with unique capabilities.

The Physical Sciences Department spent the end of the 5th week building radio receivers to listen to background noise from space. After sorting out the complex details of the circuit diagram, we began soldering capacitors, inductors, resistors, switches, and a slew of other components into the bread board. The project lead developed an efficient `test as you go` philosophy to ensure all radios were in working order. As an aside, this task emphasized that the testing procedure is a critical phase of the design process and testing one component at a time increases efficiency by eliminating most of the painful trouble shooting and fault location processes. Especially in the space industry, focusing on developing robust testing procedures indicates due-diligence and can certainly improve customer relations. This will become increasingly important for emerging commercial space companies planning a transition into space tourism. After building each Inspire radio kit, the Physical Science students then tested them in numerous locations. The radios tuned into noise particularly well both in a large isolated field behind the dorms and on the mountain at Lick Observatory. We listened for ‘tweaks’, ‘pings’, and ‘whistlers’ amongst the background noise, and detected the interference produced by underground cables, street lamps, and other electronics.

About half of the Canadians attended the whirlwind bus tour down to L.A. to tour SpaceX, XCOR and Masten aerospace in the Mohave Desert. Most used the 7-hour bus ride on Saturday to catch up on either work or sleep, anxious for the tour the next morning. The SpaceX facilities are incredible, especially in recognizing that most of the work on the Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules are done in-house including engine machining and manufacture, composite lay-up (with ovens large enough to accommodate the entire primary structure of the Dragon Module), and integration. However, engines are tested at the McGregor Test Facility just outside of Waco, Texas. The company strives to keep employees motivated in an exchange for extra commitment and hours necessary to achieve their objectives. Even CEO/CTO Elon Musk works at a cubicle integrated with all other employees, which provides easy access to information and exchange of knowledge between all levels in the company.

The physical sciences group also traveled to the Lick Observatory in the Santa Cruz Mountains for the August 3 departmental activity day. Participants were treated to seeing the 120” and 36” refracting telescopes, in which they observed Earth’s moon and Jupiter with three orbiting moons. The contrast between how large these interstellar objects actually are versus how tiny and delicate they look against the stark backdrop of space in the small lens of the telescope was almost eerie. Another spectacular view was the sunset over Mountain View. The haze and fog rolling in from the Bay induced a brilliant ruby red backdrop, caressing the sky like velvet and hanging delicately over the iridescent shimmering lights of the city below. This mountain scene showed an intricate balance between human progress with one of Earth’s natural ecosystems, and an entire universe above open to discovery, all able to be captured in one 5-megapixel camera. Remaining Physical Science activities included the much-anticipated drop tower experiments that included playing with balances, fire, sedimentation, and pendulums. Another tour of more NASA Ames facilities included the Vertical Motion Simulator (we were all excited to be able to go inside this time!), lunar dust laboratories, EVA and spacesuit design laboratories, urine recycling facilities, and the rapid prototyping department. Each area of expertise works towards a common space goal but had generated many technological spin-offs with commercial applications.

The Life Sciences department participated in many hands-on activities that certainly lived up to all expectations. Participants traveled to Stanford to learn about telemedicine and robotic medical equipment such as the DaVinci robot. The group also participated in an astrobiology field trip, a lecture on EVA`s and life support systems, and got up-close and personal with a pig foot and heart, performing dissections and learning suturing techniques. There were also workshops covering space medicine, trauma, and blood pressure monitoring. A truly amazing experience was the annual EVA simulation of a Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, held in the NASA Ames swimming pool. The activity was an excellent exercise in teamwork and task management. Interesting group dynamics played a role in using quick decision-making skills to achieve a common goal in a foreign environment. Finally, group members attended more tours of NASA, visiting the lunar dust labs, urine recycling labs, and CO2 scrubbing facilities. Life Sciences also needed guinea pigs for their many final project experiments including effects of orientation on drawing, the IRIS experiment, and effects of gender on group dynamics.

The Satellite Applications department had been busy playing with Radar, Lidar, GPS, and Remote Sensing equipment over the past few weeks. To kick off activities, the group had to create and develop a business plan for a new satellite service provider, giving participants a brief overview into the satellite industry. SatApps students played with GPS units outside on the Ames base and visited the satellite dishes installed on base, inside the main gates. The group also had the opportunity to play with remote sensing and radar data and imagery for the Bay area. The range of the ArcGIS software became evident while looking at earthquakes, volcanoes, and other data to identify relationships between disaster scenarios around the globe. Unfortunately, a trip to the mountains was cancelled due to the rattlesnake season in California. Instead, the group designed various sub-systems of satellites including the power bus and antennae. A visit to Google, Loral Space Systems, and the unmanned aircraft lab at Ames followed. A unique activity was use of the Lidar equipment and corresponding data. Students scanned themselves using Lidar to produce a 3-D body image. Lastly, the SatApps department organized a field trip on an Airship, which departs from Moffett airfield. The airship offered a very smooth flight, free of vibrations with only minor sways. While the sound from the engines was audible, the flight was exceptionally quiet. There are few who can say that they have seen an aerial view of the Stanford Linear Accelerator from an airship. Gazing out of huge windows on all sides of the cockpit with fresh air flowing past is an experience that will not be forgotten.

We had the last set of MDA’s fundamental workshops covering a range of topics including Space Education and Outreach, the International Year of Astronomy, International Cooperation, Mars Surface Analysis, Chinese Culture, Human Robotic Interaction, and Creating Art. We also had the opportunity to enjoy some sunshine and good food on Wednesday afternoon in celebration of 70 years of innovation at NASA Ames. This was the largest mass of people we have seen on base to date and it was refreshing as the center often feels like a ghost town save the SSP participants. The Gerald Soffen Memorial panel concerning the exploration of Mars hosted on Wednesday evening covered topics from planetary protection to the concept of a frontier and robotic exploration, and possibly prioritizing exploration goals before science goals.

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