Monday, April 6, 2009

Videos from the Flight

Here are some videos that were taken on the first flight day using an HD Flip cam. Use the YouTube player to scroll through the videos.

For better quality, click the HD button on the bottom right of the player.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Special Thanks

Now that the trip is pretty much over, I would like to take this time to thank the many people who made this project a success.

Aerotech for donation of the DC motor.
Idaho Air National Guard for the flight physicals.
Boise State University's Office of Sponsored Programs: Mark Rudin for the start-up funds and Lisa Williams for facilitating funding.
Idaho Space Grant Consortium for the travel funds.

The ground crew:
Matt McCrink for all his hard work on the mechanical arm and box as well as the support at Ellington Field. We couldn't have built this in time without him.
Bob Davidson for his mad driving skills and making sure we were on time to Ellington Field and JSC. Also for his comic relief when things got tense.
Jeff Perkins for engineering the foam that covered the sharp edges of the box and helped us pass the TRR.
Kyle Knori for being our alternate flyer and for his help with the emergency stop button. I'm glad he got to fly with the Nebraska team.
Travis Dean for helping with one of the most critical parts of the experiment, the SLA wheels.
Jake Foresberg for helping out in Boise with the logo design and the emergency stop button.
Jason Griswold, who couldn't make it due to last minute circumstance. He was missed.

The Reduced Gravity Office at Ellington Field:
Sara Malloy for her support during the past two and a half months as we were learning the ins and outs of the Microgravity Program.
Doug Goforth for managing the program with intensity and humor and reminding us to make a memory.
Dominic Del Rosso for being an inspiration on the ground and in the air and for sharing so much of his time with a bunch of rookies.
Rose Aquilina for sizing us up perfectly and making sure we were always standing on the right side of the line.
Veronica Seyl and Alissa Keil for being endless sources of information, especially about educational and professional opportunities with NASA.
Terry Lee for asking challenging questions during the TRR and helping our flights run smoothly.

The staff of Johnson Space Center:
Pedro H. Curiel for being our mentor and sticking with us over the last few months. His guidance was a crucial piece of the puzzle, and he flew and handled the experiment like a pro.
Luis Ramirez for getting us inside JSC's nerve center and putting the gravity of mission support in perspective.
Danny Carraho for giving us a tour of the ARED and lunar habitation mockups, and for expressing what it means to be a part of pushing human frontiers.
Amit Kshatriya for letting us drive "Dexter" and get up close and personal with some of the most exciting R&D on the JSC compound.
Mason Markee for giving us a demo of the ultimate off-road vehicle.
Everyone involved in training us for flight and giving us an inside look at JSC -- one of the most amazing concentrations of human achievement in the world.

Ad Astra Rocket Company:
Ben Longmier for the mind-expanding presentation on plasma thrusters and Lucia for setting up the tour.

Boise State University:
College of Engineering: To Dean Cheryl Schrader and her entire office (Kim, Andy, Jean), Margaret Scott, Michele Armstrong, Leandra Aburusa, Pat Pyke and Don Plumlee. We couldn't have done it without your support.
Office of Communications and Marketing: Frank Zang, for the banner that went with us on the G-FORCE ONE. Mike Journee for being a nimble facilitator of all media outreach during the trip.

Homewood Suites Houston:
To the entire staff for feeding us (cookies!!!) and making us feel at home in an unfamiliar city.

And a very special thanks to Barbara Morgan who has been with us from the introduction of Microgravity at Boise State to actually flying with us on G-FORCE ONE. Barbara has been an inspiration to us all and every student who she talked to this week.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Space Between

While the team put a lot of hard work into their time in Houston, there was plenty of fun to be had during downtime. Tonight, we celebrated the end of the project with a little sushi, including the NASA roll (pictured with Alex and Dan).

Earlier today, Jeff channeled his inner flight director in one of JSC's mission control rooms.

Last week at a toy store in the Denver airport, Dan communed with the wildlife.

And before one of the flight days, the crew prepped for zero-G by watching "Top Gun" (and singing along with Kenny Loggins).

Saturday morning, part of the group is participating in the Yuri's Day fun run (named for Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space), followed by some furious packing for a commercial flight that won't be pulling extra Gs. It will be strange to be back in Boise, but there will be so many great stories to tell ...

More from JSC

As a parting gift, Pedro introduced us to several of his friends who work at JSC, and they gave us even more insider tours. We started with Luis Ramirez, who works in the data processing discipline of the shuttle program's Mission Control Center. So the room we could only see from behind glass yesterday? Yup. We were in there.

Luis talked us through a simulation of a shuttle landing that his colleagues were supporting from their consoles. He said the shuttle's systems are divided up (main engines, propulsion, trajectory, electronics, fuel cells, life support, etc.), and teams of people are assigned to specific disciplines. They are trained to know their systems absolutely and must be able to anticipate and mitigate problems on the fly and under stress.

"The best simulations are the ones where you end up saying, 'That was tough. My brain hurts.' " Luis laughed. "Because you either learn a valuable lesson that you'll probably never make again, or you feel really proud of what you've accomplished."

One proud thing Luis helped us accomplish was revisiting the historic Apollo MCC, where we were able to get close to actual paperwork from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Heady stuff.   

Then we met up with Danny Carraho. He worked for years on the electronic components of the ARED (Advanced Resistance Exercise Device), which currently is keeping astronauts fit on the International Space Station. Sandra Magnus, who came down last week after 134 days, used the ARED for several months and said she was in great shape. Having seen it go from concept to reality, Danny said watching it be used for the first time was "very scary."

"It's like watching your kid ride a bike for the first time," he said.

Danny is now focusing on the inner-workings of lunar habitation mock-ups, and we were able to check out several concepts. While the return to the moon won't happen for many years, Danny said the wait doesn't dull the excitement of the job.

"I still feel like I just started. I feel like I'm doing something good here. Nobody else does this in the world," he said. "I don't have trouble coming to work everyday." 

We left Danny for another mock-up facility where some of the students got to operate a powerful robotic arm nicknamed Dexter. We also got to see a lunar rover prototype called the Chariot that is part of NASA's plan to return to the moon in 2020. Engineer Mason Markee explained that he and his colleagues try to buy whatever they can off the shelf, so the tires are not custom. But each wheel module has its own axis and suspension, making the Chariot the "ultimate off-road vehicle."

"Inside it's a smooth ride while it's going over really rough terrain," Mason said. "You can't even follow it with a truck."

The photo below features Mason kicking a tire. Apparently, NASA engineers do that too.

The last tour of the day was of the Ad Astra Rocket Company, its enormous vacuum chamber and VASIMR, or Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket. Plasma physicist Ben Longmier explained that plasma thrusters have a lot of potential when it comes to space travel and transport. Using ionized gas to create a plasma propellant, the VASIMR gets more thrust more efficiently than a chemical rocket. As usual, anything to do with rockets had the team enthralled (as did the 7,000 pound steel door on the vacuum chamber, which was formed with explosives).

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In Short...

I flew today. After spending Wednesday in and out of a coma caused by the flight drugs, Thursday came with much anticipation. The day started with a lightning lockdown in the hangar while Mallory, Jim, Kyle, and I were in our mission briefing. After a slight delay, we lined up to board the plane. With the wind in my hair and Kenny Loggins (Highway to the Danger Zone) in my head, I donned my Aviators and boarded G-FORCE ONE. The flight out to the Gulf was an anxious one. We had made the journey previously, only to return due to weather prior to the parabolas. This time the flight would proceed.

The first test went smoothly. We realized that we would be able to get two trials in per parabola. I decided that I didn’t need to be sitting to operate the computer interface. With my hands on the box for support, I proceeded to operate the experiment suspended in a handstand. Mallory was amazingly fast. Her quick maneuvers in the glove box allowed us to get two trials done per parabola. We were on track to finish early. Our enemy decided to strike again, however. The turbulence over the Gulf became too great for us to get in all of our scheduled parabolas. We were told we only had a few lunar left. Luckily for the team, we had doubled our parabolas and were on track to finish the test. We ended up collecting all of the data in time for a successful mission. We were left with one lunar, one Martian, and one zero-G that we could use for “secondary research.”

The last lunar was spent jumping around and running up the walls. I managed to pull myself up and walk on the ceiling of the plane. Martian gravity followed. I managed to pull off a reduced gravity version of Conan O’Brien’s String Dance. Hopefully it was captured on camera. Lastly, we had three zero-G parabolas. These were incredible. The sensation is difficult to put into words. "Pure Awesome" is close. The best way I can describe it is that it is like being suspended under water, but under normal pressure and no control. I had anticipated being able to swim around and float about, but I exhibited no such control in this environment. It is a struggle to even keep from flailing about. I always thought that floating would be somewhat like a rollercoaster. I was very wrong. There is no wind and you don’t actually realize that the plane is at a downward incline. It seems as if the gravity was just sucked out of the room and you are left floating. The only way to really express this sensation is to share the pictures and videos. I managed to lay my body parallel to the floor, but suspended in mid air. Meanwhile, Mallory showed off some yoga positions while Jim attempted to pull her around the cabin. Mallory and I both got the flip treatment and were wildly spun about the cabin. The feeling was surreal. I can't wait to share the pictures and videos.

(I have a much longer and detailed version of this post if anyone wants to read it).

Inside the Nerve Center

Mission Control. The holy grail. All of the students in the program were treated to a tour of JSC, but this was no ordinary trot around the grounds. We started in a hallowed place, the command room where flight directors Gene Kranz, Glynn Lunney and Cliff Charlesworth and a vast support staff helped Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins successfully complete the first manned mission to the surface of the moon. It was the technical core of many other missions over the years -- including the infamous Apollo 13 -- and is a National Historic Landmark of epic proportions.

Sitting behind the consoles looking almost exactly as they did on that fateful day in 1969, it was almost eery. Of course, everyone took a turn in the flight director's chair. 

It didn't quite hit us how special our tour was until we looked back into the enclosed viewing room and saw the people on the traditional tour. It was really something to be able to place a hand on such an indelible piece of history. 

We went on to several other control rooms, including one for the international space station. Our guide told us that nearly all of the people working in these rooms are engineers.

"NASA is looking for people who think a certain way," she said.

Observing the Motion Base from the outside, we couldn't help but imagine the astronauts inside dealing with high-fidelity flight simulation while a room full of instructors comes up with all sorts of ways to make things go wrong all day long. But such monkey wrenching is crucial when it comes to building an astronaut's proficiency.

Also crucial is the ability to conquer the space toilet, a necessary and intriguing piece of equipment. Thanks to Matt for giving it a try. 

Along the way, we got to see mock-ups of the international space station and its labs, the space shuttle, the Russian Soyuz and engineering marvels that are being developed as part of the Constellation Program. Once again, we were down on the floor of the bay while other tourists were confined to perimeter catwalks. It was such a thrill.  

Tomorrow, the day will be split between saying goodbye to Ellington Field and going on more tours. This trip is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we intend to take full advantage.


Despite getting cut eight parabolas short, crew two collected all the necessary data and managed to capture some zero-G yoga moves on camera. Congratulations.

Kyle flew with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln team at the same time and assisted them with an experiment on the flow of lunar soil simulant through a hopper. It was lucky he was there, because they ended up needing an extra person to manage the functioning of the solenoid. For those of you who don't know what a solenoid is, refer to the lovely words of Bob Davidson:

"Solenoid is an electromagnet that consists of a coil of wire wrapped around an iron core, and when you energize the coil it creates a magnetic field that can be used to move other things that are magnetic," said Bob. So when Kyle flipped on the solenoid, the slider on the hopper opened to allow the lunar soil simulant to flow through and the Nebraska team to collect their data. While Kyle would have preferred to work with his home team, he was happy to help and get exposed to different research and engineering students from another university.

Research Angle

Right about now, Ryan, Mallory, Jim and Kyle are doing this (see above). The rest of us just filled out evaluations about the experience so NASA can improve on the program, though I'm not sure how. It's pretty spectacular the way it is.

One of the privileges of participating in the program is being able to hang a university banner in the high bay of Building 993. Our team is leaving this beauty behind to represent the latest frontier of Boise State research. Back on campus, classes already are being taught to get more and younger students involved in programs like this. Who knows, maybe a Bronco will walk on Mars. :-)

Go for Flight

Team two is away, cruising through sky full of shadow and light. It won't be long before they feel the first nose over and open their eyes and mouths as wide as they will go.

The beefed up ground crew was onboard right before setting things up, and thanks to the rain, they had to wear these fashionable booties. Nothing was broken this time, but the team was trying to get the camera prepped to shoot the subtle yet eyebrow-raising movement of the lunar regolith.

It's not often you see a "hypergravity" button on your computer. 

A Great Big Tiny Lesson

We are now on the infamous "lighting hold," on lock-down in the hangar until the storm rages past. Seems like a perfect time to explain the above picture, what could have ruined the entire experiment before it even left the ground. This is actually the victory shot after Matt and one of NASA's best (a mechanical engineer as well) were able to coax a broken ball rod end out of its threading. According to Matt, this piece secures the critical mount for the shock assembly that is responsible for transmitting the load that pushes the wheel down into the regolith. This critical piece got broken in transit, but a little patience and overnight shipping did the trick.

The photo below, pre-fix, demonstrates the contrast of moods in the room. Jim unwittingly came in with a cart full of goodies while Matt -- well, you can see what Matt was thinking. In any case, this is yet another example of how often engineers have to deal with problems as they come and count on each other for ideas, technical support and maybe a little sympathy.  


Even though Mother Nature ruled the day yesterday, there were a few bright spots. Right before the flight team was to board the plane, the ground team went in to make sure the experiment was in good shape. Apparently it wasn't.

Per Bob Davidson: "Matt saved the day by fixing a broken power wire just ahead of the second day's flight. When we went out to check things, we couldn't power up the unit. Luckily we caught this in time to fix it. If we hadn't checked, it would have been too late when the flight crew boarded."

Back in the hangar, the second set of fliers is still in limbo. Hail is pounding the roof as I write, and a thunder storm is making its way through the air space reserved for the G-FORCE ONE. The JSC folks handed out two alternative schedules in case things get delayed another day, but they think the intense weather will burn out fast. Here's hoping.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Farewell to Good Friends

After a fantastic week, we had to say goodbye to both Pedro and Barbara yesterday evening. Together, they represent the best of NASA, from the engineer behind the scenes to the astronaut in the spotlight. Both provided crucial guidance and support, and I think it's safe to say we couldn't have done it without either one of them. They helped put this experience in context as well as making it a really good time. We miss them already.


The weather has decided for us. The day-two flight teams will try again tomorrow, and we're hoping they'll get some extra sympathy parabolas for their trouble. Barbara said this is actually a great glimpse into the necessary sensitivity of NASA missions. Getting "scrubbed" means that every precaution is being taken to ensure the safety of the crew, and no one can (or wants to) argue with that.

Unsung Heroes

One of the things that has been emphasized over and over this week is the importance of team. The Discovery astronauts we saw last weekend were quick to credit all those who contributed to the success of their mission, and the list was long indeed. While Boise State's flight teams will come home with some of the most impressive anecdotes, they could never have gotten near the plane without a lot of support and encouragement from the steadfast ground team, including Jeff Perkins, Bob Davidson and Matt McCrink (pictured above). 

There are many more individuals and organizations that need to be formally thanked for contributing to this project (and they will be), but for now, we in Houston would like to recognize our vital teammates at home.

Jason Griswold, aka team "mom," wasn't able to join us as planned, but his name has been mentioned many times this week. We wish he was here.

Travis Dean was instrumental in fabricating the wheels, which are the heart of the experiment. He would have been here if not for a very joyous event in his life, which we're guessing is probably even more of a thrill than microgravity. 

Don Plumlee helped a great deal in supervising the design and execution of the experiment's motor and mechanical structure, and he should know that despite a few glitches caused by crazy gravity, everything is working beautifully.

Jake Forseberg contributed his time and skills to several projects, including the emergency stop button on the experiment and the sweet logo on all of our team shirts. He is observing the action this time around and hopefully will get involved in future projects.

Kim Long is a wonder. She helped with everything, from the scheduling to the financing to the cheerful smiles whenever they were needed. She deserves some serious NASA swag from our favorite souvenir shop.

Andy Diehl made it possible for the team to reserve space in the engineering buildings every week and enabled telephone and Internet conferences with our NASA mentor, which were crucial to the execution of the project.

Margaret Scott and Michele Armstrong have been getting the word out on the home front, using the College of Engineering homepage as an ever-evolving billboard. Thanks also for all the creative and technical help with the blog. It is our window on the world.

To everyone else supporting this team, thank you, and stay tuned for a more extended note of gratitude.


Unfortunately, the day-two flight crew had to come back in before executing any parabolas. The turbulence over the gulf was too intense, and after all, NASA's motto is "The safe way is the right way."

Fortunately, the fliers will probably get to go out later today when the weather clears, or tomorrow. That's one of the reasons the flight week is scheduled over more than two days. Houston is notorious for moody weather.

For now, we'll comfort ourselves with cajun food. And the fact that the rest of us were driving Moby Van (Our 14-seat assault vehicle) right underneath the G-FORCE ONE upon its descent. It was loud, and we liked it. 

30 March 2009 - 0915 - 200 miles South of Ellington Field...

The Boeing 727 known as G-FORCE ONE noses over for its first lunar parabola of the morning. The majority of its crew being first-time fliers: a unanimous wave of excitement and awe sweeps over the interior, as they miraculously lift off the floor for the first time.

During our training in the days before the flight, we'd been told to just take the first few parabolas to get used to the sensation of reduced gravity as well as the hypergravity experienced while the plane recovered in altitude for the next drop. Despite all the verbal and mental preparations I had been run through, it was still something quite different than what I was expecting.

There are no windows in our section of the aircraft to see out of, but the pictures of the plane during its ascent and descent show a pretty impressive angle. And although the plane certainly doesn't fly like any other commercial plane, it felt surprisingly natural after the first few nose-overs.

Not so much a sensation of falling or panic, as one might expect from a plane about to free-fall, but credit goes to the skill of the pilots for keeping the ride so smooth that you can't really tell anything other than feeling alternatively lighter and heavier during the parabolas.

I was busy most of the time, operating our experiment, but even with that distraction, the experience was one that I will hope to carry with me the rest of my life. Especially the first few parabolas getting used to lunar gravity, and the zero-G parabolas at the end, were awesome. If I had the chance to do it again, I would take it in an instant.

Normal things act very differently in reduced gravity, and even more perplexingly in zero-G. I noticed that at least the look of things floating in zero-G, or people hopping around in the lunar parabolas, seemed exactly as I had seen on video from NASA footage from the actual locations. The lunar gravity seemed more fun to me, partly because I could still do normal things, but just felt like a superhero, and the zero gravity was so wildly different, it was hard to control your movements.

And now, 24 hours after our flight, the second day's fliers are preparing to take off, taking the experiment through its second run, as well as taking in the Zero-G experience. :)

Flight Day 2

Heading into Ellington for the last time, we were greeted by a cloudy sunrise, a good omen on the day. Mallory and Ryan are set to collect the rest of the data for Boise State's experiment, while Kyle (our alternate flier) will be assisting the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in conducting a study of the flow of lunar soil simulant through a hopper.

All fliers are issued flight suits and NASA name badges, and some have a hard time resisting the urge to go a little Top Gun. The team rented the classic last night, singing and quoting along and staring gape-mouthed at the jet engines (despite having seen them millions of times). Some things just never get old.

Mallory is a lot of things, a ball of pure energy being one of them. She also is an inspiration to young women who may be thinking about studying engineering. She has not skipped a beat with any of her male counterparts on the team, most of them several years older and a lot more experienced when it comes to research. She is about to fly, and I have a feeling she will produce some impressive pictures of what is possible when a human is lighter than air. Somehow, it seems like her natural state.