Week 14
September 13 - 17, 2004


It was back on the road for us this week. Part of our training consists of lectures and tours at each of the NASA centers. This is done so that we can be well informed on all aspects of NASA's work and not just the human space flight side of things. This week we went to parts east and toured NASA Headquarters, Goddard Spaceflight Center, and the Glenn Research Center.

We spent Monday and Tuesday at HQ. I'll spare you all the gory details of what we heard since this was two days of presentations on HQ business. Obviously, they are the owners/managers/policy makers of all of NASA's work. While I am not saying the presentations were dry, I will say that looking at hardware and facilities can be a little more dynamic than looking at Power Point presentations. Actually, we covered a wide variety of topics while at HQ - everything from legislative affairs to the financial side of the house, from all of NASA's science programs to the launch services that NASA provides, from external relations to what the chief information officer is working on. If HQ does it, I think we heard about it.

Tuesday evening we had a bonus engagement. It turned out that the Jet Propulsion Lab was giving its annual state of the union address. They apparently do this each year with a to-do at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Not only did we get to go and listen to all their accomplishments and see wonderful videos from their Mars explorations, we got to rub a few elbows with some big wheels from both inside and outside NASA. We hung out with a few of them before the presentations in the VIP room - John Glenn was there as was James Cameron. If you don't recognize the name James Cameron, he is a writer/director known for such movies as The Terminator, The Abyss, and Titanic. Apparently, he is also a schooled physicist and a huge supporter of NASA's work. I also was introduced to JPL's Center Director. After telling him how fascinated I was by JPL's work, being a space physicist, I told him (in fun) that JPL declined to hire me for a job when I was a senior in college. Everybody thought that was pretty funny.

Wednesday we were to spend the day at Goddard. It is not exactly clear what all the transportation problems were (partly traffic, partly mechanical, and partly who knows what) but instead of getting to Goddard in the morning as planned, we didn't make it there until the early afternoon. This was an unfortunate turn of events because it cut in half our time that we could spend learning about the work that Goddard performs. We still saw many nifty things, though. One of the first groups we heard from were the folks that run the Scientific Visualization Studio. These people do some slick computer work. They take data from satellites and create movies so that you can see what is happening on a planetary scale over time. For example, they had movies of ocean temperature measurements that clearly showed the ocean currents (and El Nino patterns) over the course of a year or two. They had movies of forest fires all over the Earth as well as movies zooming over the surface of Mars and of solar activity. I sure could have used something like that when I was in graduate school trying to visualize the data I was analyzing from Venus. The hurricane images that you see on the news at night come from them also.

After the Visualization Lab, we saw a clean room laboratory where they make cutting-edge sensors for telescopes. We also saw the facility where they integrate and test spacecraft. We had a little media dance in the afternoon and for the last tour of the day, we met with the managers of the Hubble Space Telescope program. As you may know, NASA is not planning to send any more astronauts to service the Hubble telescope. They are planning a robotic mission instead. We were able to see some of the hardware working that they are in the process of testing for the mission. While that is not going to be an easy mission at all, the benefits of it are going to go way beyond the Hubble. It will prove capabilities that can be used in the Moon and Mars explorations. It will be interesting watching the progress of the Hubble mission.

Thursday we didn't have any tours and we spent the day traveling from Washington DC to Cleveland. That left us free for the afternoon and evening. I was glad for this, as I was able to spend time with an old and dear girlfriend from my early days at JSC. I think we talked, gossiped, and caught up on our lives to well past midnight. And, it still wasn't enough time, but we both had to get some sleep.

Friday we had a whirlwind tour of the Glenn Research Center. I think we had a different activity scheduled every half hour. We were definitely kept hopping. We started out with a welcome/overview from the Deputy Center Director then headed out to the Materials and Structures Laboratory. The folks at this lab are working on things such as how ice chunks will damage the Shuttle during launches. They have giant blowguns where they can hurl objects at targets of their choosing. When they aren't studying ice, they are often evaluating Shuttle window damage. Speaking of ice, we got to see inside the giant icing research tunnel where scientists study ice buildup on airplane wing surfaces. To get a feel for the size of this wind tunnel, we were all able to troop inside of the tunnel and stand around comfortably (no one was ducking) while they briefed us on the operating aspects of the facility.

Some of the other interesting places we visited were the Space Experiments Lab. In this facility they have a 500+ foot deep silo where they drop experiments. It is used to do zero-g studies during the few seconds of free-fall. At the bottom of the silo, the experiments basically plunge into a big pile of packing peanuts to break the fall. We also saw the Electric Propulsion Lab where they are working on new propulsion technologies (as opposed to the chemical rockets that we use today) for future exploration missions. These are the folks that are going to make the trip to Mars go a lot faster (hopefully). We spent some time with the folks working on new power systems technologies and we visited with the Glenn education folks. The folks that were herding us to all the facilities did a good job of keeping us on schedule. Good thing, too, since we had to hi-tail it out of there to catch our plane back to Houston. Luckily we didn't have any transportation problems for a change and we were able to get home at a fairly descent hour Friday night. I think after all the tours and traveling we were all ready for a relaxing weekend. I know I was.

© Shannon Walker   2004

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