WAS Day 4

Washington Aerospace Scholars, July 17, 2013

Our day started with Mission Briefing, as usual. The teams are starting to get some urgency in their interactions, we don’t have a lot of time left. On this morning the Ethics Team is paid a significant compliment by their faculty consultant that they had a teleconference with, namely that their ideas/questions had a depth that was not often (ever?) seen by that consultant. (The consultant is a professor with space ethics experience at the University of Washington.) There was some confusion at the briefing related to issues that come from the structure of the projects which the teams are working on. Each team has a main topic and then can choose 2 subtopics from a list. When other teams don’t know which subtopics have been chosen, they are sometimes caught thinking that another team is covering a detail when in fact they are not. It seems like this could be a common problem in a project-based learning activity such as this, the solution of which would be to better align and inform participants about what to do when topics have *not* been selected. Completeness in covering one broad topic, but not going into depth on another subtopic seems to be a challenge for some of the scholars.

At 8:30a we met in a main auditorium at the MoF for a video conference call with NASA. Specifically, we were able to participate in a two-way audio, one-way video chat with Mission Control at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas via a program called the Digital Learning Network. After a short introduction to some of the current space missions underway, e.g. the International Space Station (ISS) and the new Orion Spacecraft, we were able to pose questions to the Flight Director then on-duty in Mission Control. Our questions were pre-submitted but were then read live to the NASA folks who then answered them. The question and answer portion was carried live on NASA TV. Since I am a geek, I was able to bring up the NASA-TV feed on my phone and watch our session “live”, i.e. via NASA-TV and delayed about 1-2 minutes, instead of on the screen in our room. One of my favorite questions was “where is the International Space Station right now”, in answer to which the NASA folks turn around and look at the big map on the wall and give an answer.

It was a fairly non-routine call to Mission Control since just the day before, an astronaut on the ISS had experienced some water (coolant from his Personal Life Support System) collect in his helmet during a spacewalk. The Flight Director we spoke with described a higher level of excitement than usual during that event, which resulted in the safe return of the astronaut to the ship after an abort of the spacewalk. [Recall, if you are imagining a pool of water in the bottom of a facemask, that
in microgravity, water in the helmet is floating around, in either large or small blobs, getting in your eyes, nose and mouth, and you can’t reach up and into your helmet and do anything about it.  According to the report, the astronaut affected was willing
to continue the mission until another astronaut was able to come closer and look into the mask and recommend that Mission Control advise on an early termination of the spacewalk.  Much to be learned from situations like this and a timely reminder for scholars
in this program about the perils which still exist in space although it may seem routine.]

At 11:00am teams were to participate in the Design Review Board, which was mentors and assistant mentors and HQ giving feedback on Mission Project Work that each team had completed to date and also allowing them to get an overall feel of where all teams were on their projects. I did not attend that meeting, but hear from the Red Team Mentor that we were grilled on a few points, but were not the team most grilled.

Time is short, but to put that in perspective, teams have limited time to complete their presentations. Presentation drafts are due on Thursday (tomorrow) and they will be presenting them at the luncheon on Friday.

In the afternoon we went to the University of Washington to hear from Jim Hermanson at the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and tour some research labs. All teams visited the Nonlinear Dynamics and Control Lab (101 AERB), the RAM (ramjet lab) and the ESS Plasma Lab (Johnson 275A).

[I would like to type comments here on how I think the visits to the lab went, but let me do that later.]

After the lab visits we had the Rover Request for Proposals (RFP) presentations in Johnson Hall 111. Each team presented their thinking for the design of a new rover and based on the quality and depth of information in their proposal they were awarded money for their team’s account. Red Team made a good impression on the 3 faculty/graduate research folks on the panel and came away with a total of $50 million for our team’s account. I must say here that HQ had warned us that we were not to produce carbon copies of the Curiosity Rover (currently on Mars) for this presentation and I think all teams more or less heeded that warning.

After dinner in McMahon hall, we took our schoolbus back to the MoF for our evening activities.

The staff of HQ, and other SR-AFs here this week had been saying all week that the “Payload Lofting” engineering challenge was the most fun to watch. Based on student responses to the activity it also appeared to be fun to participate in. Here’s the setup: a fishing line is attached to a second-story balcony and railing and the other end is on the ground. Students are asked to use balloons to move the unassembled parts of their “rocket” (another engineering challenge) from the ground below to the balcony which signifies Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Various monies are charged/credited to the teams for multiple balloons that they use, for successfully being the first team to get a part lofted, for being the first team to lift all their parts successfully, and for leaving any parts on the ground at the end of the activity. The results of our lofting exercise have not been published yet, but Red Team was the first to loft a part successfully and the third team to complete the lofting of all their parts.

The next challenge we completed or prepared to complete was the rocket-building and egg drop (lander) activities. Our team had designed both of those together, but it now fell to half of the team (we were split up) to construct the design for the rocket and the lander simultaneously. I stayed with the lander team, and I’m happy to say that we were able to successfully get our egg to the ground from a third-story railing. However, we were not able to land our egg within the safe target and so only collected another $40 million (I think, let me double-check).

Once again, a bunch of tired—but invigorated—students and staff returned to the hotel to tell a few stories from the day and turn in.

PS: I asked someone from HQ how hard it was to design the tasks so that an appropriate level of difficulty was achieved. In the payload lofting scenario, you would be surprised how high you can get parts of various weights on fishing line and a standard drinking straw with a 6-9-12 inch balloon. As far as the egg drop is concerned, eggs are much tougher than you think, and our team’s design while not flashy did get the job done. Again the implications for the educator and the classroom are: the projects teach so much in the way of problem solving and team work, you have to do them, and iterate as needed, and students will be engaged the whole way. What I take away is that doing something, anything in the real world will always lead to complexity sufficient enough to illuminate or demonstrate physical law. So get busy!

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