Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Flight of My Life

When I first stepped on to the plane this morning I was struck with a sense of awe. All of the hard work it took to get this far has finally paid off.
The first parabola was very memorable. First there was a 2g pull-up and it felt like I was lifting dumbells with no dumbells and I could feel my face being pulled down towards the floor of the plane. After about 20 seconds of that the plane gently nosed over and I just barley nudged my foot and suddenly I was floating upwards towards the ceiling! I wasn't expecting the lunar parabola to feel so light, I seriously thought we were in Zero-G already. The feeling was surreal and I don't have many words to describe it. It was as if I were falling upwards and everything was in slow-motion.
The rest of the parabolas were fun and I didn't feel sick at all. I remembered what they said about keeping your head straight during the 2g portions, that helped a ton.
When we got to the Zero-G parabolas I was already used to the previous 28 lunar Gs and the experience was just incredible, as soon as the plane nosed over I saw the G meter in the back drop to near 0 and suddenly everything was floating. One thing I remember clearly was a pair of orange ear plugs floating by me about 2 feet of the ground, that was crazy!
The last parabola was the most fun, I was honored to have Barbara Morgan spin me around after I curled up into a ball. It was so strange flipping without having any blood rush to my head and I was quickly disorientated. Then just as soon as it came it was gone and there was applause and laughter.
One thing that I realized from this whole experience is that you can do anything you set your mind to. Making goals is one thing, finishing them is another. I've never felt anything like this in my life and the memories will last for a very long time. I hope that more people get to partake in such an awesome experience.

Weightless Wonderment

As their bodies left the floor of the plane during the first lunar gravity parabola, the Microgravity University students looked like they had just seen snow for the first time. And in a way, that look never left. While the teams were focused on their research, they couldn't help but test an environment that only a handful of human beings ever have experienced. 

Dan, Barbara and Alex did some serious acrobatics during the three zero-G passes. The crew told us to make sure we were hanging onto something before we nosed over, and then it was a sudden, involuntary trip toward the ceiling. Where the lunar and Martian gravity situations required a little manpower to manipulate, the zero-G played with us. Legs, arms and cameras floated and spun, and you could definitely see the difference between the veteran flyers and those who were weightless for the first time.

The experience was once in a lifetime (unless some of these students follow in Barbara Morgan's footsteps and become astronauts). We can't thank the NASA staff enough for allowing us to be involved in such an incredible project, from the Johnson Space Center to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab to Ellington Field. We are back on the ground, but we may never be the same. The second crew flies tomorrow, and we can't wait to hear their stories. 

The Ride Before The Ride

So it is Tuesday morning, and only a little over hours from our scheduled flight time. The feeling is excitement and anticipation, but overall pretty good. Feeling calm and ready to get to work.

Seems like forever since we landed in Houston 6 days ago, and the experience has almost been overwhelming. We've been working alongside the Weightless Wonder VI in its hangar at Ellington Field and touring NASA facilities in our spare time. Completed flight physiological training, and cleared our experiment through the Test Readiness Review.

The box is on the plane, and we are suited up, and about to eat breakfast, which hopefully will stay breakfast for the remainder of the day. Wish us luck!

Monday, March 30, 2009

'A Piece of History'

Sunday afternoon we had the privilege of attending an official NASA crew return ceremony for the STS 119 Discovery astronauts and STS 118 crew member Sandra Magnus. STS 119 had been on a 13-day mission to the international space station to install solar wings and extra electrical power. The mission was a success, and the crew brought home Magnus, who had been on the station for 134 days. 

"How do you say thank you to the tens of thousands of people across the world who contributed to this mission?" she asked, adding that when you're floating high above the earth, you feel the sense of team, the combined efforts and hopes of so many people "expanding human frontiers."

Led by commander Lee Archambault, the crew expressed their gratitude to all of the people and organizations that helped them complete their mission safely. Several members of Congress spoke, resolving to defend the value of the space program as the new administration moves forward. Judging by enthusiasm of the crowd, there are plenty of Americans who share their sentiment.

After the ceremony, the crew spent a lot of time signing autographs and talking to spectators. Most of the Boise State team got to shake their hands and ask questions about the experience of being in space, and for Barbara, it was like a homecoming, not to mention a reminder of the significance of NASA's continuing efforts to push the boundaries of possibility.

"You just got a piece of history," she said as we left the hangar.

Discovery crew member Tony Antonelli was all smiles at the ceremony.

It was a surreal feeling sitting so close to such an elite group of Americans. We all were inspired.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

At a nearby Bayou, the team got to check out some of Houston's most dangerous. Gators, snapping turtles and fire ants were in abundance, and even though Matt challenged Mallory to a swimming race, everyone got out with all appendages intact.

Matt was hoping we could work turtles into the microgravity experiment, while Bob lured an alligator to shore. (It let him live.)

Day 3 Redux, and Rollercoasters

Friday began with a walkthrough of the Rocket Park at Johnson Space Center. After squeezing through an unassuming door, we were in the presence of the Saturn V rocket, massive and silent inside its tomb. Used during the Apollo program and designed under the direction of famed rocket physicist and astronautics engineer Wernher von Braun, it is the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever brought to operational status from a height, weight and payload standpoint. And it definitely looks the part. The students were like specks next to its grand bulk, beautifully scarred with so much history.

Then it was into the hands of Mike Fox, manager of the Human Test Support Group at Johnson Space Center. He introduced us to the physiological training schedule for the day and to Juan "Chico" Moran, a crackup who has logged 30 years with JSC. He started us off with lectures about atmosphere, respiration and circulation and the symptoms and treatments of hypoxia and hyperventilation. Three more lecturers led us through trapped gas and decompression sickness, spatial disorientation and motion sickness before we went to the NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory) for an oxygen equipment lesson and briefing for our simulated flight in the dreaded "chamber."

Dan, Ryan, Alex, Jim and I sat in our respective seats and got comfortable breathing in oxygen masks. Before the chamber pressure changed, we breathed almost 100% pure oxygen for 30 minutes to expel some of the nitrogen in our blood to help protect against decompression sickness. Then we were climbing, virtually, to 25,000 feet, where the density of oxygen molecules is dramatically thinner than it is on the ground. We were instructed to remove our masks and breath the altered air, paying close attention to the onset of any symptoms of hypoxia. One side of the chamber watched as the other gradually began to react. Affects ranged from sensations of heat and tingling to confusion, muscle spasms and immobility. The chamber crew made sure everyone was safe, but we learned a lot about how to take corrective action in case of emergency. During the debriefing, we got to see videos of ourselves during the training, and Dan won the prize for obsessively trying to check his peripheral vision by following his own finger. Before we left the facility, we were able to see a prototype of a lunar habitation module and the enormous pool where astronauts train for their missions. Much like the Saturn V, the pool was breathtakingly huge and filled with machinery, like a sunken city.

Saturday was our first break from the action, and the team headed to Kemah for some roller coasters (aka Zero G training apparatus), aviator glasses and classic seafood gumbo.
Later today we'll participate in the homecoming celebration for the crew of Discovery, and then it's back to the grindstone on Monday. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Tip of the Nose Cone

Dan and Alex thinking "inside the box."

After a full day of being crammed on various transport vehicles, the team got to meet NASA's Pedro H. Curiel for Thai food. Thanks to Barbara for the insider restaurant tip.

Despite all the warnings carefully scrawled on every surface of the packaging, the box got dumped on its fragile side. Luckily it passed the impromptu stress test with flying colors.

Next time, we'll rent a separate van for the bags. Hopefully they're old enough to drive...

The pudding in the Denver airport is first rate and personally endorsed by Alex. He and his materials science buddies might want to examine what makes it so impossibly delicious.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

First Day On the Field

Today was the team's first day at Ellington Field. When I walked through the gate all I could think was "this is it, we're going all the way". Shortly after we sat down, the "Weightless Wonder VI" DC9 aircraft rolled in for inspection just feet from where we were setting up. It was amazing, and perfect timing. This is not the aircraft we will be flying on; ours is a 727 aircraft and won't arrive on the field until Monday. We were greeted with a warm welcome by the Reduced Gravity Office staff and hanger crew. Immediately following, work began. Despite the piece that broke off during shipping, the rest of the box construction went together smoothly. Everyone at Ellington field is so supportive of our research and they want to do everything they can to make sure our experiment is safe and ready to fly on Tuesday.
It was great seeing experiments from other teams. They have all put a ton of work into them and the excitement and anticipation is contagious.
We have a very large team in comparison and needed two tables for setup! The University of Nebraska was short a flyer so we let them "borrow" our alternate flyer, Kyle. Needless to say, that really made Kyle's day and will be a great networking opportunity to get to know other students in the program.
As the team lead, I've spent most of my time going to the meetings, writing support documents and making sure information is properly communicated. The schedule here is pretty tight with work and training but has room for some pretty exciting tours. There is so much to do and the adventure has just begun!

A Thousand Words

Yes; I'm talking about pictures. 107 on the big camera and at least 40 more on the little guy today. A sampling will be posted soon, but until then, let's just say the day began with an accidental tour of Ellington Field, hit its stride with a Gulf Coast monsoon outside the hangar and ended with a bit of a dance party (and a sad attempt at group cribbage). 

Tomorrow we get tested, physically and mentally. Let's just hope we hold up as well as the box.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


The day finally arrived. Early. The team started trickling into the Boise Airport around 6 a.m., and to everyone's surprise and delight, TSA didn't bat an eye at any of our strange cargo. Dan walked in with something resembling the briefcase from "Pulp Fiction," and just to be safe, he was packing the 49-page TEDP (test equipment data package) to prove that he had no plans to blow up Texas. 

A quick flight (and some priceless napping pictures) later, we arrived in Denver, and Alex led us straight to the Wolfgang Puck pudding. Turns out vanilla makes a great breakfast, even with a plastic spoon.

Before we landed in Houston, we could feel the humidity coming on -- 85% and rain in the forecast. We crammed ourselves and our luggage onto a shuttle, into a rental car office and then, miraculously, into a van that was dwarfed by our colorful mountain of stuff. Without revealing anything damaging, let's just say engineers know how to make it work (especially Mallory).

Headed down the freeway toward NASA country, we got a sense of the enormity of Houston and the devastation caused by Hurricane Ike. With Barbara as our guide, we made it to the hotel and were welcomed with complimentary popcorn and well-wishes from the staff. A few lucky students got a sneak peak at the Johnson Space Center's "Rocket Park," which I hear is exactly as awesome as it sounds. 

Then the infamous voice of our NASA principal investigator, Pedro H. Curiel, materialized. Pedro joined us for dinner at a cozy Thai restaurant down the road, where talk ranged from string theory to viral YouTube videos. Dessert was the unearthing of "the box." Foam peanuts flew and the assembly began. While it was not without calamity, everyone ended up smiling and hungry for more. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ... 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pizza and Pi

This was a weekend of reckoning for the team. With mere days to go before the big trip to Houston, all of the physical pieces needed to come together. In the space between, I learned some new trivia:

1) Alex likes magnets. A lot.
2) Mallory once recited Pi past 200 digits for a free pizza.
3) Travis is putting his money on the tractor wheel getting the best traction.
4) When you promise Ryan "pie," understand that he's hoping for key lime, not pepperoni.

With the assembly close to complete, today's demo for local TV news should be smooth sailing — provided nobody takes credit for colonizing the moon. Ha.

Nine days and counting.

Friday, March 13, 2009

'The Journey Begins Now'

Four decades after Neil Armstrong put the first footprint on the surface of the moon, NASA is planning a serious return. The last of the six American lunar missions — Apollo 17 — took place in 1972, and there is new impetus to explore the poles, far side and ancient craters of the moon as well as its potential to be a permanent launch pad for future missions, possibly deeper into space than human beings have ever gone.

This message was broadcast to the Boise State team through what looked like a trailer for a summer blockbuster. At the end, the screen flashed to black emblazoned with the words: "The Journey Begins Now." You bet it does.

The short film was followed by a digital videoconference that included representatives of Johnson Space Center, Carthage College and Boise State. NASA systems engineer Ann Bufkin kicked things off with a look at the technology she's helping developing for the Orion lander, a crew exploration vehicle that is part of the Constellation Program to send human explorers back to the moon, and then onward to Mars and other destinations in the solar system. She also talked about the vital role of the systems engineer in making sure communications specialists don't design something that's all antennas and that propulsion specialists don't make the same mistake with engines.

"You have to take folks out of their own little worlds and help them work together," Bufkin said.

Students from both schools asked questions before NASA's Dr. Carlton Allen took the virtual stage. If you boiled down his deservedly long and prestigious title, you could call him an Astromaterials Curator, but he knows about a lot more than the nearly half-ton of moon rocks and soil samples that have been brought back to earth over the years. After congratulating the teams on being accepted, he said of their impending adventure into microgravity:

"It's a whole different world. You'll be absolutely amazed when something you've been used to your whole life suddenly becomes something else."

In revisiting all of the previous moon missions, Dr. Allen explained that the infamous craters were and are caused by meteor impacts, as is the singular consistency of the lunar surface. He said the moon lacks the atmosphere that protects Earth from constant bombardment, and any plans NASA has to establish a permanent base will require engineers to address the issue in their designs and material choices. He talked about moon buggies bouncing in the air and men in 200-pound space suits jumping high to salute the flag. He talked about China, Japan and India sending spacecrafts to the moon, ushering in a new era of international exploration. He talked about NASA's plans to slam something into the moon's surface ("the 12-year-old boy way of doing science") to try to discover if ancient ice is lurking deep in craters that have never seen the sun. And he talked about the fact that all six missions were accomplished successfully using the technology of the late 1960s.

"Imagine what we'll be able to do now," Allen said. "Your generation will be the one to design, build and fly the next generation of vehicles."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Classic rock goes great with aluminum shavings

On a brisk Saturday, Matt gave Dan a lesson in machining in time to billboard gold by Aerosmith and The Doors. While most of the equipment for the experiment could be bought, several key pieces of the box that will contain the lunar dust had to be individually designed and fabricated. Surprisingly, the guys were not alone on campus. Engineering students were everywhere, working, by choice. Maybe it’s the boom box …

Maybe next time, they’ll let us drive the tank …

On February 18, most of the student contingent of Boise State’s Microgravity University flight team passed the security checkpoint at Gowen Field (despite Dan’s suspicious license plate ...). The Medical Group of the 124th Wing of the Idaho Air National Guard had generously agreed to support the flyers by administering complimentary Class 3 Flight Physicals, and it was the moment of truth for Dan, Mallory, Ryan and Kyle.

One by one, they were taken for tests on everything from vision to blood pressure to reflexes. But the most intimidating test involved what looked like a tiny phone booth and ear phones so tight even breathing made it hard to hear the intermittent, painfully quiet beeps. Crammed in the booth and concentrating hard, the students not only experienced the head trip of trying to differentiate between real and imagined sounds, they also learned that noise pollution lurks just about everywhere (crying babies can be dangerous, and young people have been known to fail from driving to the base with their windows down).

The staff nurses and doctors made the day a treat. Jokes flowed from the moment we walked through the door, though everyone got serious when Dan picked up the remote control. Despite the lovely HD flat screen above the front desk, the 124th Medical Group was resigned to watching daytime court shows with a picture so fuzzy it was hard to tell Judge Alex from Judge Judy. In a matter of seconds, Dan used his “powers of telekinesis” to switch the band from analog to digital, instantly giving the office crew more channels, all with crystal clear images. Although Dan already accepted a job with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory after he graduates, we’re pretty sure he got some unofficial offers to stay and fix all of the computers on the base.

After posing for victory pictures, the team got back on the road to Boise State. They were approved for flight on the infamous “vomit comet.”