Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Touching Down and Springing Up

Last Saturday was a great day to be a Space Grant Director on the Purdue campus.  The weather was a wonderful and warm backdrop for a range of delightful activities: speaking with Purdue astronauts and their families; examining artifacts from the Barron Hilton Flight and Space Exploration Archives in the Purdue Libraries’ Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center; smelling the mulch and straw and manure; listening to the bleats of the lambs…


Although I grew up an East Coast city person, I recognize that I have now spend nearly 30 years attending, living and working on agricultural campuses.  April 12, in addition to being the date of the Astronaut Forum, was also the date of Spring Fest, a celebration of agricultural and life sciences and their role in the life of Purdue and Indiana.   It’s no longer surprising to me to see people in Holstein-themed aprons or booths that demonstrate milking cows, shearing sheep, or crop management.  It’s part of the life of a comprehensive land grant university. And, at the risk of revisiting a controversial topic, it’s why I don’t see adding an “A” (for agriculture) to STEM.   Agriculture is an application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, in much the same way astronautics is.  We don’t add an extra letter in the acronym to describe the specific problems of human spaceflight.  Keeping Gene Cernan alive on the moon, or helping Drew Feustel repair the Hubble Space Telescope, involves solving problems in a range of science disciplines, using the language of mathematics, and the skills and products of engineering and technology.  I could also talk about harvesting high-yield alfalfa to keep my herds healthy through long winter months.

What do we learn from human spaceflight? What do we get out of it?  This was a question posed to the astronauts during the Public Forum held on Saturday evening?  There were lots of sentiments expressed—not just in the cold analysis of economics (all the money spent on human spaceflight are spent to develop technologies and employ people here on Earth: it’s too expensive to launch money), but in the passion of people who want to share a perspective that has transformed their lives.  As Charlie Walker (a native of Bedford, IN) stated, human spaceflight is more than just people and technology—it is the change in perspective and value that comes from “viewing our home planet from beyond”.   Spaceflight is also about inspiration—“inspiration to change people’s lives” (Drew), to “inspire them with passion to do what has been left undone” (Gene).

Video of Astronaut Public Forum

Perhaps more important than what we get out of human spaceflight is what goes into it, and that is education—particularly STEM education.  Some people (like me) went into STEM specifically wanting to be an astronaut, but ended up somewhere else.  Some started out somewhere else, and ended up as astronauts.  As Mark Brown (a native of Valparaiso, IN) put it, “we were willing to take a chance,” to see where the education would lead.  The common feature, though, is a curious, interested approach to education: curiosity, in Gene’s words, “is the essence of human existence”.  We should do this more, and early, and often, according to Gary Payton, who continues to be involved in STEM education (at the US Air Force Academy):  “wrap [kids’ lives] around STEM, in the 6th – 8th grades.  STEM is critical for the nation’s future.”  STEM also involves a process of how to “think about things and go do them,” according to Loren Shriver: “you’ve got to put it all together and think on your own”. 

Astronauts and agriculture?  I think it’s interesting that Charlie, Drew, Gary, Loren, and Mark all grew up in Midwestern towns strongly influenced by agriculture: farming, lumber, and farm equipment manufacturing were frequent themes. And from these backgrounds, through Purdue, all sprung from earth and touched down once more on the Space Shuttle, one of the most amazing engineering vehicles ever built.  As I’ve said before, and repeated to myself while walking across campus last Saturday… It’s all STEM to me.

Monday, January 6, 2014

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas...

It’s just after noon on Monday, January 6 (Epiphany, the supposed “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” or Orthodox Chrtistmas, depending on whether you prefer your calendar Gregorian or Julian), and we’re not at the office today.  Not only Purdue, but much of the State of Indiana, is closed or under travel warnings (only “essential personnel” or “emergency travel” permitted), and as devoted to INSGC as I might be, it’s more important to stay home and safe with -15F Fahrenheit temperatures.  From a science geek perspective, there’s much to get excited about: does the 12 days of Christmas come from the gap rectified by the Gregorian calendar adjustment?  Or is it an older reference to the Druidic belief of the Solstice (“sun standing still,” or relatively consistent length of day) as a 12-day period?  And what about that temperature?  Zero Celsius is the temperature at which fresh water freezes.  Did you know that zero Fahrenheit is the freezing temperature for the saltiest water Mr. Fahrenheit tested?  That’s why, of course, salt on your sidewalks or roads won’t work today—the water refreezes, no matter what salt concentration you use. 

All of this is due to what is described as a massive “polar vortex,” or shift of very cold air normally kept in northern Canada and Alaska, now affecting large areas of the “lower 48” US states. 

Satellite image of storm and vortex behavior, ~January 3.  Image from NASA, via BBC.

The temperatures as a result are some of the coldest in recorded history here, approaching levels not seen in Indiana since the 1940s.  This is on top of a massive snowstorm (not quite a blizzard, since that term is reserved for winds over 35 mph along with heavy snow totals or rates of snowfall, which we didn’t quite get) that has left about 10 inches of snow outside my front door.  In other words, fairly extreme weather.

Extreme US weather warnings, Jan 5.  Magenta references winter storm or blizzard warnings; cyan references wind chill warnings.  Image from NOAA.

As severe as this weather is, imagine a world of 50 or 100 years ago or more, where long-range forecasts and telecommunications advising residents and travelers of “extreme threats” to life were not available.  This is one of the responses I have to people who say that NASA and STEM aren’t relevant to their lives.  Satellite images, computer models, satellite transmission of news broadcasts, and maybe even the emergency blankets and improved battery technologies in your home or car, are all due to the technological advances inspired by the missions to the Moon in the 1960s.

It was actually those missions that were the original intention of my blog entry, before this weekend’s storm.  Over Christmas, with family and friends sharing warmth and companionship, I teared up over two items:
  • ·      the closing scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, with the family and neighbors in the house, and George Bailey’s younger brother raising a toast to “the richest man in town”; 
  • ·      the broadcast of the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast in 1968, wishing peace and a good night to “all the people on the Good Earth”.

The picture, Earthrise, from Apollo 8 taken by the crew (including Indiana native, Frank Borman) is now considered one of the most important photographs ever taken.   

“Earthrise,” NASA photo AS8-14-2383.

These photos are the first to give us a new perspective on the Earth, its relative tininess and fragility, and how the natural events and processes of the Earth affect us profoundly (as we have learned this weekend, and continue to learn and experience).  It’s that Christmas Eve event in 1968 that drove me to study engineering, and seek out a career path with NASA research, and eventually take on this role with INSGC.   In honor of the 45th anniversary of this event, NASA released a video showing images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter reproducing what the Apollo 8 crew would have experienced while maneuvering the spacecraft and viewing the lunar surface and the Earth in the moments before and during the taking of the photograph.

So, from December 25, to January 6, NASA and INSGC remain very strongly on my mind and in my awareness.  Once we get back to work, we’ll be continuing to assist those interested in applying for our INSGC program awards and scholarships.  I’m very pleased to note that INSGC has already received funding for the 2014-15 program year starting in May, so our awards process will be continuing on schedule.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk a little about INSGC on our local public radio station, WBAA.  The interview was broadcast last week on December 30, (the “six geese a-laying” day, I believe), and you can read and hear it here.

Be careful, stay warm and sheltered, and my continued good wishes to you during our extended winter holiday.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

It’s Still Rocket Science to Me

“Let’s have applause for CLARE OF SCIENCE!”

A girl of about 10, keeping her hat out of her eyes, has just successfully completed a challenging study of centripetal force.  Using the test apparatus provided, she has demonstrated the fundamental principle that keeps satellites in orbit, and would function as a primary mechanism of providing artificial gravity to astronauts during long duration spaceflight missions.  And more impressively, she demonstrated these principles flawlessly on her first attempt, confirming the hypothesis that inducing sufficient angular momentum and torque can create forces to compensate for friction, gravity, inertia, and drag.

She used a jumprope, a cutting board, and a glass of water.

Welcome to the educational (and a bit irreverent) explorations of Doktor Kaboom!’s “It’s JUST Rocket Science” show.    I was pleased that INSGC could provide sponsorship for the show, which promised to be a fun and accessible introduction to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education for K-12 audiences.  But the messages were even more powerful than that.  It’s a bit of comedy, it’s definitely science, and we even saw a rocket (made of 2 liter soda bottles) launch into the balcony of Loeb Hall, using nothing more than vinegar and baking soda (the latter conveniently wrapped in tissue paper to serve as a timer).  

Doktor Kaboom aims for the... balcony.

In the persona of a German scientist, Doktor Kaboom discussed Newton’s Laws, and the essential processes of science (it’s not about calculations and operations, but curiosity and observation), and the importance of safe laboratory techniques (practiced with an intelligent adult)… as well as a lesson or two in self esteem and confidence in the face of subjects that most of us are taught to be scared and ineffective.

Doktor Kaboom prepares CRAIG OF SCIENCE for rocket propulsion.

“When I ask you if you are a smart young man/woman, say YAH!”  Why is it that we teach our children to devalue their own skills in mathematics and science?  Why do we relegate fundamental skills to those strange and magical people who are “good at math,” and claim that the rest of us can’t do it, and can’t do anything about it?  Science isn’t hard.  It just takes effort.  You may not get it right the first time.  That’s okay.  Most of us do science all the time.  Some of the best audience participation of the show came from a “math trick” that Doktor Kaboom showed: how to multiply any two-digit number by 11, faster than using a calculator.   It’s not cheating, it’s not magic.  It’s a tool.  In general, he explained, math is not just about numbers, any more than literature is just about letters.  Math is about patterns.  Numbers are just an alphabet we use.  (I will admit that it was at exactly that point that I became a confirmed fan of Doktor Kaboom.  I’ve tried to say the same thing.  But he’s funnier.)

Steal this video!  Yes, the good Doktor put in a plug for his DVD, “Don’t Try this at Home!” Yes, you can get it in the lobby.  Yes, it’s available on the website.  But enough people buy it to make him happy (and keep him in safety goggles).   “If you make unauthorized copies of it… I don’t care!”  In other words, the message of getting kids (and their parents) turned on to, and more comfortable with, and more capable in, science is his real mission.  It’s not very often that you hear any scientist’s or engineer’s passion come through so clearly, so void of self-interest, so focused on what is needed in our society to make society (and not just that individual scientist or engineer) better off.
I cannot thank enough the Ann Broughton and the students of Purdue Space Day for helping out with stomp rockets and balloon rocket cars and planispheres and just lots of kid-focus STEM fun.  Even Doktor Kaboom remarked on how special this was, leaving us with a memorable day, and a very successful hands-on pre-show activity.  It was memorable in several ways: one budding rocket scientist managed to lodge a rocket in one of the Loeb lobby clocks.  Great fun, and the rocket remained there for the rest of the afternoon. 

Don’t underestimate how much a bit of inspiration can do.  I can still credit my visits to the Franklin Institute, and the impact of my elementary and middle school teachers, in helping me to believe that maybe I could become a real rocket scientist.   And I did.  One of those kids in the Doktor Kaboom / Purdue Space Day audience may grow up, go to college, and become the Purdue Space Day Director.  

Purdue Space Day Exec Board members help bring rocket science to kids before the Doktor Kaboom show.

Clare and Craig of Science may become real researchers someday.   The first thing we need to do is give them the opportunity and encouragement to try.  The second is to stop telling them that it’s not for them.  Science is everywhere.  Everyone uses it, and everyone needs it.  If we forget this, as Doktor Kaboom said, we’ll be lost and at the mercy of those in other countries who do understand and value science and math, creativity and investigation.  But wait.  That’s not funny.  That’s not a message for a kids’ show.  Or is it?  Those kids in the audience—they had parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends’ parents, and those people have an impact.  No eight year old can say, based only on their own experience, that girls can’t grow up to be astronauts, or that it’s too hard for boys to sit still and behave long enough to learn their math facts.  Someone taught them that, and someone can teach them that it’s wrong.  We don’t even need to wait as long as the New York Times did to retract its editorial denouncing Robert Goddard’s beliefs that rockets don’t push against the atmosphere, but eject gas under pressure (another important lesson Kaboom highlighted… using a paint can, a bit of water, and a heater)

See, it’s just rocket science.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Informed and Engaged, Part 2: Dr. Rendezvous

This has certainly been the time to be involved with INSGC on the Purdue campus.  As we were getting ready for the Tyson lecture, I received another quiet request.  Could INSGC help bring *another* distinguished guest to campus for a public lecture?  I was reminded of discussions with Angie and Dawn to learn to say no, and to remember that we don't have lots of money available, but I decided to ask anyway.  I was told who, and quickly responded: INSGC would be honored to help sponsor the visit of Dr. Buzz Aldrin to speak on his vision for space exploration, including Mission(s) to Mars.  

I cannot express my thrill at being able to attend this lecture, and be part of a welcoming dinner beforehand.  This is, of course, Dr. Rendezvous, the first astronaut with a doctorate, and the second human to set foot on the moon.  But the person whom I met, shared a few words, and listened to his conversations was engaging on another level.  He could speak on a variety of topics, sometimes tiny tidbits, sometimes grand surveys of the tides of history.  Notable and noteworthy.  But even since my prior experience of Dr. Aldrin (two years ago at an MIT event), I saw something that I hadn't expected to see.  Graciousness and passion.  A sense of humor, as well as a need to share and communicate across the generations.  Even a joke about him sounding amazingly like Neil Armstrong.

A simple picture doesn't do justice to the feeling of inspiration that I got from the talk.  Fortunately, I was able to take some fairly good ones, as I found myself sitting right behind Dr. Aldrin after his entrance, and while Dean Leah Jamieson introduced him.

Listening to him talk about both the science and the social systems of space travel, I recognized an unavoidable element:  this is what incessant curiosity and indefatigable passion can do, and be.  I could go on about the Cyclers, but he was extremely elegant and supportive to say that a Purdue AAE grad student had extended, and even improved upon, his longstanding work.  (High praise indeed.)  He bowed to and acknowledged Jim Longuski, with whom he's collaborated for 25 years (and who helps others learn to Think Like a Rocket Scientist).   He talked about STEM Education, and the role of STEM as being valuable for everyone on Earth.  It's not just that I grew up wanting to be like Buzz Aldrin.  It's that I felt that Dr. Aldrin was now speaking to a shared passion, and a recognition of what is needed for the future.  

Afterwards, he stayed to sign the Mission to Mars books.  He signed them all.  This is not to be ignored.  Over 800 books were sold at Purdue, and others attending the lecture brought their copies as well.   Past 11:00, he was still signing books, with kind words and gestures and jokes with the attendees.  ("He told me he liked my sweater!")  I stayed around for a while just to watch the happy faces and renewed enthusiasm from the folks as they emerged from the signing area in the Purdue Memorial Union.  That was feeding enough for me.  (It also helped that I had already been gifted with a signed copy of the book. Thanks, Mike.  You've done pretty well already as an INSGC alumnus, talking about the future of spaceflight and space operations.)  

Thank you, Dr. Aldrin, for reaffirming why this INSGC leadership, and STEM Engagement, is such a significant part of what I must be doing right now.

Informed and Engaged (from Director's Notes, INSGC Observer)

This morning, I made some people happy.  Because INSGC was one of the sponsors of the Neil DeGrasse Tyson lecture on September 19 (see other stories, this issue), I was (unexpectedly) provided with some additional tickets for the lecture.  Two members of the staff in my IE department had asked if I might be able to find them a seat, and I brought them the tickets this morning.  What pleased and enthused me the most is the level of excitement and pleasure they demonstrated when receiving the tickets. 

This is a great example of the positive experience that we at INSGC can bring to others when we support opportunities for STEM engagement.  As I have previously mentioned in my Director’s Blog (, the challenge may in fact be to identify what do our customers / prospective partners / students want to learn, do, or share.  Sometimes it is about going out to them; other times, it’s bringing them in to help us understand what excites them.  One INSGC-led project is attempting to take this approach within the context of a “research experiences for teachers” project.  Research (to me) is a grand exploration and scouting process.  There is a process of providing information about facts and formulae and functions, but real research is not just about piling those facts up.  It’s about having tools to go out and solve problems, and make sense of a context that you didn’t previously understand… perhaps a context no one has previously understood.   The process of education is not a passive one, as most inspired (and inspiring) teachers will tell you.  In my research group’s blog ( , I recently wrote about being “eaten up with curiosity,” as Rudyard Kipling described Rikki-Tikki the mongoose. 

So, what does that sort of experience look like—the well-informed, effectively-engaged, continuously curious citizen as researcher?  Well, we have a historical grand exploration and scouting process, which set out from Indiana (Clarksville) in October 1803: The Corps of Discovery, led by Lewis and Clark.  Now, you would never send out people into the vast unexplored wilderness unprovisioned.  For the Corps, it was medicine and gunpowder and cartography equipment and notebooks: things to go exploring, and make notes, and bring back descriptions of what you found.  For an informed, engaged person, the provisions of research are equally important: analysis skills, mathematical techniques, understanding of physical properties and laws.  But no one would confuse the provisions for the expedition.  They are simply tools to allow you to do a better job exploring.  What’s out there?  What do we want to know?  How do we bring that experience back to others?  That’s a bit harder, especially when the territory is vast and your experience is greatly limited.  (There’s an ocean out there, or some magical destination that may or may not really exist.  Even after the Corps returned, it was hard for most people to believe things like the Badlands, or the Rockies, or the herds of bison, really existed—the explorers had experienced things far outside of the previous experience of those in the United States in 1806.)  And this is always a challenge of the researcher.  How do you share what you’ve seen and learned with others?

That is one way that I appreciate and enjoy Dr. Tyson: he engages people to do the exploration that they can, and he provides them with provisions to do more exploration if they choose.  The stories are accessible, and interesting, and entertainingly presented.  And it helps that stars are visible to lots of us, and we want to tell stories about them.  But Dr. Tyson doesn’t just entertain.  His informative examples are also powerful tools and provisions, useful for a journey of discovery.  I have come to see how vitally important it is to find out which exploration journey a person wants to take, and provision them for that journey, as well as other potential journeys and side trips not yet envisioned.  (One challenge that a high school teacher has, that I don’t have in my university lectures, is that I can make a better guess as to the range of journeys that an Industrial Engineering undergrad will be ready to take after I have tried to provision them with project design or statistics.  It’s still a pretty large range of journeys, so I better make sure my provisions will last, and they don’t leak away or rot over the years to come.) 

I love the process of exploration.  Through my career I have noted that more information, about more subjects, means more provisions that help me discover and document and describe more about those territories I encounter along the way.  Sometimes the information is challenging and new, but that’s okay.  Skis and snowshoes don’t seem to be that useful along the Ohio River in September and October, but I can be glad to acquire them along the way to North Dakota, or learn how to make them when I need them.  If it is our job to teach the excitement of exploration, and not just the excitement a specific person has for a specific subject, there is an added responsibility to learn about a variety of journeys, and get people ready and well-provisioned for those.  I’m pleased that INSGC is able to help with West Lafayette events this fall that excite and engage both kids (Dr. Kaboom, Purdue Space Day) and adults (Dr. Tyson and other general public visits by astronauts).  A broad set of offerings provides our audiences with a range of information and a span of topics that increase the value for more people, regardless of their area of interest.  In other words, a rich stock of provisions for a explorers set off on a variety of journeys of discovery and experience.