Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lights and Darkness

As I write this, we are well into a very special time of the calendar, one that celebrates lights that remind us of what we strive to be.  A wick that burns though the oil has run out.   A fire on the darkest, longest night.  A star that shines brightly above.  Even the space geek can take comfort in such images, and plan for the coming year.

I want to thank the INSGC staff and affiliates for bringing us to a place of light over the past year.  Yes, there are definitely new anxieties surrounding our funding for next year, and that is really the point of these Directors’ Notes.  When we first moved to Designated status in 2005, there was an influx of funding, and a range of unexpected new challenges.  Despite the challenges, we have definitely shown through these past years, in ways that make our current situation a bittersweet interplay of darkness and light. 

Those of you who remember our Affiliates Meetings between 2003 and 2005 will recall, though others may find this improbable:  at one point, we feared having too few affiliates to manage a rich and vibrant portfolio of higher education, K-12, and general public activities.  Fortunately, we developed a process, even then, that allowed us to consider how we would add new affiliates, and when we’d say, “enough”.  This month, however, we are processing a request that would bring us to 27 affiliates—including a significant fraction of all outreach affiliates in the national Space Grant network.  This is a glorious riot of illumination across the state… but from a Director’s standpoint, a delicious burden.  More affiliates than ever before in the history of INSGC, but budgets that are flat at best.  More academic affiliates to provide supplemental support, and more competition to select a diversity of campuses and cultures and disciplines for undergraduate scholarships.  It’s at this point that I can say with confidence that we celebrate our current affiliates, and welcome those currently under consideration… but to maintain the quality of our light, we no longer seek to add quantity of affiliates. 

A few years ago, INSGC implemented a process of Consortium Priorities, in an attempt to ensure that we could meet and exceed NASA expectations for Space Grant each year, while supporting a rich competition and cultivation of new ideas and affiliate contexts.  During 2010-11, we experienced the last bright year of funding exceeding Priority demands.  We were able to identify and manage the old model of priorities then, but the new Base + Augmentation model from NASA Headquarters does not permit that model to continue as we designed it previous.  It’s curious how something novel can become traditional and expected in just a few years (“well, of course we’ll burn that log tomorrow night!” for a habit that just started within the memory of all but the youngest members of a family), and painful when the tradition changes.  As you read through the funding levels and focus areas for the 2012-13 INSGC award programs, you’ll notice some changes.  Smaller award levels.  We’re requesting additional elements of budget detail in the proposals.  This is not because we love bureaucracy in the INSGC Office.  It is because new winds and potential storms blow in the East, and I am determined to have INSGC navigate these storms well and with beauty.  We will maintain our commitment to serve our citizens well, and to be a spark for STEM education—Space Grant is STEM. 

Despite what looks like danger and darkness, I have never been more proud or confident of how INSGC is poised, and where we will be able to shine in the future.  We’ve ridden the candle of STS-135, a student spaceflight experiment on the final space shuttle flight.  We’ve celebrated our first guiding navigators: Gus Grissom and his pioneering flight 50 years ago, and took our turn to celebrate the memory of Yuri Gagarin’s flight that is now an international party.  We’re linking Education and Engineering, kids and kinematics, imagination and implementation.  

Even our State Seal and our INSGC logo celebrate light: stars and a torch flame.  It’s what we do, to burn brightly, and to shine into the distance. 

Blessed Holidays to all.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Engaging STEM Education

Those who have visited the INSGC website in the past few days have noted a new page reference and splash leader, “Engaging STEM Education for Indiana”.  In some ways, that’s not anything novel—the INSGC Mission, Vision, and Values all highlight those elements (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).  But, why did we decide to make this change at the very top of our website presence (figuratively and literally)?

Thanks, Angie Verissimo.

Angie is our Operations Coordinator, and is primarily responsible for keeping our accounts and budgets aligned when dealing with NASA, Purdue, and our affiliates’ sponsored programs and activities.  But more importantly, she takes the time to remind us what it feels like not to have spent the past 10, 20, or more years thinking about NASA research and student opportunities.  As we in INSGC (and Space Grant nationally) know, there is more to Space Grant than astronauts, satellites, and stellar formation (although we do fund projects that link to all of those).  But, a friend whose college-aged son or daughter was thinking about returning to Indiana in a science discipline.  Angie pointed out that there could be INSGC scholarship funds available. 

‘Why would they want to apply to a Space Grant?  They’re not interested in being an astronaut.’

What sort of answer do you provide for that?  We took a look at the website, from the perspective, “Why would someone know to look at INSGC for scholarships, projects, and outreach programs in STEM, if they didn’t already know about us?”  In my research life, and the courses I teach, an ongoing theme is that one of the challenges of developing expertise is that once one becomes an expert in something, it’s very hard to remember what it’s like to be a novice in it.  Dr. Dawn and I know about the breadth of NASA research… because we have lived it through our PhDs and our careers.  But it’s easy to forget how much others never learned, things like:

  • ·      Why “Space Grant?”  Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who wrote the original legislation, wanted something for NASA STEM education that echoed the transformative impact on the country that Land Grant did for the nation’s universities (including Purdue) that were created in the 1860s to improve the education level in the “agricultural and mechanical arts”.  That’s why there is a Space Grant in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.  The name is supposed to evoke, not restrict, a picture of innovation and stimulation of children’s imagination. 

  • ·      Aren’t you just astronomy and astronautics?  Space Grant is a NASA Office of Education program, recognizing that our strengths as a nation are based on a broad view of STEM education.  If you think about what’s involved in keeping an astronaut alive on the International Space Station, or keeping a rover alive and talking to us from the surface of Mars, you realize there’s a lot going on: biology, electronics, energy storage, life support, materials science, radiation monitoring, signal processing, software development, water purification, and many other fields.

  • ·      What if I don’t want to go to Purdue?  Yes, INSGC is hosted at Purdue, and that’s where I am a faculty member.  However, INSGC now has over a dozen academic affiliates, and we have over two dozen disciplines and majors involved. 

  • ·      Didn’t they cancel / defund NASA?  The short answer is… NO.  Over the past 20-30 years, NASA has averaged approximately 0.7% of the federal budget.  (That’s seven-tenths of one cent of each dollar.)  The Space Shuttle program has ended, but NASA continues work in space science (those pretty Hubble pictures; rovers current and future), aeronautics (those winglets on airplanes that save gas), and human exploration (to a destination to be named later) at 10 Centers.  NASA funding is being considered for cuts (as is every agency), but 0.5% is not the same as 0%.  (Even the planned Space Grant budget for next year is less than we saw last year, but it certainly isn't zero.  There are many people who believe strongly in the Space Grant mission, and allocate funds accordingly.)

But when doing a quick web search, people don’t focus on all of that.  If they want to talk about STEM Education, they look for that.  (In fact, I am writing this while at a life sciences entrepreneurship discussion in Warsaw, the orthopaedics capital of the world.  There’s a lot I don’t understand, but when they talk about STEM education as an important element of bringing companies to Indiana and keeping them here, I get that.)  Our primary job emphasis from NASA is to engage and enhance STEM education and science literacy.  We’re designed and built to focus on the contexts, needs, and strengths of Indiana…

Engaging STEM Education for the State of Indiana.

Oh, yeah.  We’re about that.  Why don’t we just say it?

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Week That Was

Tonight, I provide just a brief update, after a long and action-packed week for the Indiana Space Grant Consortium.  Over the weekend, we learned that there will be an opportunity to write another proposal to NASA this fall, for augmentation funds to expand and enrich the program activities of the Consortia.  Thus, Monday afternoon’s activities emphasized a meeting to address some of the priorities to consider for this augmentation proposal.  It’s clear that while we are doing very well in a number of areas, there is a continuing push to increase the diversity of participation in STEM projects.  Over the next few weeks, this proposal will be the focus of a number of our strategic planning activities, and a highlight of our Affiliate teleconferences later this month. 

Starting on Tuesday morning, Dr. Dawn Whitaker and Angie Verissimo represented INSGC at the Great Midwestern Regional Space Grant Meeting.  (I had to stay home and take care of some additional priority tasks, including other campus proposal development and getting my students ready for their exam and organizing their semester projects.  It’s times like this that the value of effective and skilled staff really comes through: Dawn took an active role to ensure that next year’s Regional Meeting in Milwaukee would be in good hands (i.e., ours), and Angie also contributed as one of the student poster judges.  Arriving home late Wednesday afternoon, they both turned around to start in Thursday morning with an important visitor: Diane DeTroye, the NASA Headquarters program manager for the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, who was here to greet and learn on her way from the Regional Meeting to another Space Grant activity in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Yes, it seems that our program manager is putting in some long hours, too.)  I can only express my heartiest gratitude to Dawn, Angie, and INSGC intern Isa Fritz for helping to demonstrate our improvements and quality in our program management, electronic and social media presence, and campus and statewide reach.  (There are lots of others to thank as well, including Ann Broughton’s lunchtime discussion of Space Day’s student participation; Martin Fisher’s great data from the Outreach to Space event at Science Central; Bruce Hrivnak’s Valparaiso event calendar, including congratulations to Todd Hillwig for his new NSF grant; and Dean Leah Jamieson, who made space in her busy calendar and described why we believe so strongly in EPICS as a transformative model in service learning.)  It can only be a good thing to have your NASA program manager to leave with a smile on her face, and positive words in her comments. 

Friday saw no letup in our activity.  I’m continuing to work on the Purdue campus proposal, but I did manage to join Dawn and Angie for a training session for Pathevo, a STEM career and college major counseling software package. Our training session was set up so that we at INSGC could deploy the software over the coming year.  We hope to focus especially on underrepresented and underserved students, and try to overcome barriers that prevent students from even moving into STEM majors at our great affiliates in the first place.  The training session was followed by a business office meeting—once a month, the three of us sit down with multiple business and sponsored programs managers to coordinate, improve, and sustain INSGC operations and fiscal / accounting flow.  As soon as we were done, Dawn got ready to deliver some INSGC banners for transport and display at the Celebrate Science Indiana event being held on Ocotber 8 at the State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis.  I went back to other proposal meetings (having read and commented on the students’ first team assignment—when did that get slipped in?) for the remainder of the afternoon and into the evening. 

Next week, we’ll be back at it again—more proposal activity, more NASA reporting, and more consortium planning and management tasks.  Just another week at the office.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mitchell, IN (Republished Director's Notes)

OK, I'm cheating a bit.  This blog entry is actually a repeat of my Director's Notes from the Summer 2011 edition of the Observer newsletter (which you can find electronically in PDF format at:  The truth is, I was so touched and excited by my visit to the only county I know of that is the birthplace of three US astronauts, I wanted to make sure other people saw the story.  So, here we are...

Mitchell, Indiana

“Went ridin’ around this little country town…”
--John Mellencamp, “Cherry Bomb,” The Lonesome Jubilee

No, I’m not making any of this up.  It all happened, as though I were trying to create a vignette of life in Indiana on a summer day.  –BC

On Friday morning, July 22, I returned from a conference trip, got in a rental car at the airort, and headed south on Indiana Routes 67 and 37.  It’s a really hot day: just the day before, the temperature hit 100 in Indianapolis, the hottest since August 1988 (about the time “Cherry Bomb” was on the Billboard charts).  The corn is tall, but the ground is dry, and the grass is getting brown and crunchy by the time I get to the county line.  I’m late to the luncheon at the Girls’ Club, but I do manage some good conversation with some of the local organizers and guests of honor.  Some good chicken, carrots, and green beans, too.   The evening event is the Ball, being held in the restaurant of the local state park inn down in the next town.  Before I get to the state park, I spend some time on the quiet main street of town.  An Amish buggy is turning the corner as I park the car and cross the street to look at some of the antique stores.  One woman comes into the store as I am browsing the postcards and porcelain, and asks if I’m here for the Ball…. Yes, they’d heard I was coming, and they’re glad I’m here. 

At the Ball, I’m seated at a delightful table.  I’m next to one of the guests of honor, and conversing with the one local mayor and his wife on my other side.  The other local mayor is a bit distant, until she is done with her obligation for the evening: singing the National Anthem.  After that, she relaxes and chats amiably.  I’m enjoying a great dinner of pork chops, and baked apples, and a bit of beef, and cherry cobbler, talking about civic responsibility and local roots.  After dinner, the one local mayor gets up, thanks people for coming, and introduces his “favorite band,” joking that while his colleague may be the singing mayor, he can dance.  The band checks the tuning, and then starts in on… yes, John Mellencamp’s “Cherry Bomb”. 

This all sounds like it could be anywhere in the Midwest, but it’s not.  It’s Indiana (I even drove through Bloomington, where Mellencamp lives, on Route 37).  But more importantly, it’s Lawrence County, Indiana, home of three NASA astronauts: Ken Bowersox and Charlie Walker of Bedford, and Gus Grissom of Mitchell.  We’re here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 launch.  The weekend program includes discussions with McDonnell Corporation engineers who worked on the Mercury program, remarks by Becky Skillman, the Lt. Governor of Indiana (who is also from Bedford).  The guests of honor at the Liberty Bell 7 Ball?  Gus Grissom’s brothers, sister, and other relatives (two tables of Grissom family in all), and Charlie Walker. 

Mayor and Mrs. Terrell dancing to the Summertime Band.

How does such a small place (county population, 2010 census: 46,134) generate such a legacy?  How does a Space Grant Director end up in such a place?  I asked that very question of the people I met.  Mayor Girgis of Bedford and Mayor Terrell of Mitchell spoke of the energy and enthusiasm that the communities had put into the Liberty Bell 7 celebration.  Astronaut Walker talked about launching rockets with friends who thought it was cool, not stupid.  Other residents talked about how Test Pilot Grissom would return back to Mitchell, and do flyovers in one of his jets during the annual Persimmon Festival.   Lowell Grissom was gracious and friendly, and talked about growing up in a town where it was okay to have bigger dreams than working at the local bus manufacturing plant. 

And how about the woman from the antique store?  Her name is Susan, and she has a flight jacket with mission patches and autographs.  She, like many others in town, knew about “that professor from Purdue, the one with the Space Grant,” and her welcome was warm and enthusiastic.  The experience, and the pace, and the spirit of the town all affected her choice to move back to Lawrence County after being in the Air Force. 

In other words, these small towns could have been like any other, but one of their favorite sons returned for visits, and the town celebrated his accomplishments.  The towns try to move forward, but they don’t forget that they hold a special place in history.  They have an obligation to honor their hero, and make sure others remember him, too. Could I have created that level of enthusiasm, or an excitement and passion for the outcomes of STEM education, in a place that wasn’t already eager to celebrate their role in spaceflight history?  As an outsider, no.  But as a visitor and witness to their dreams and passions, I can tell you that everything I could hope for in terms of public engagement of STEM is there.  In the yard next to Gus Grissom’s boyhood home, there is a sweetgum tree grown from a seed that Charlie Walker took into space.  

Folks gathering under the Shuttle Sweetgum tree.  The Grissom home (currently being restored) is at the right of the photo.

Mayor Girgis and Astronaut Walker discuss the importance of girls pursuing whatever career interests they want to follow.  Last year, some folks in a couple of little towns in Indiana decided to put together a program celebrating the history of US spaceflight.  They brought together Mercury Program engineers, and a couple of astronauts, and put it all together near the memorial that houses the Gemini spacecraft nicknamed “Molly Brown”.  Lt. Governor Skillman responded personally to the invitation, and put it on her calendar –because it’s her hometown, too.  And they’re not done yet.  They’re trying to create an Astronaut Hall of Fame.  They’re restoring the Grissom home.  And they want to know if the Indiana Space Grant would be interested in helping with scholarships and activity support and advice.  

I had whispered to Charlie, “I envy you your hometown.”   Correction.  I admire his hometown, and what he and Ken have been able to share with their town.  I admire Susan, and Mayor Terrell and his assistant Christina Lambton (who placed me with such wonderful dinner companions).  I appreciate the efforts of the head of the German-American Bank and the folks from the Hoosier Hills Credit Union, and the Lawrence County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, and the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Department of Natural Resources (remember, the Liberty 7 Ball and Grissom Memorial were at a state park!) and everyone else.  That experience was one of the best reminders of how lucky I am to be able to work with and talk to such people, and be part of the legacy of space flight in Indiana. 

Indiana Route 37, at the entrance to Lawrence County: “Home of Astronauts Grissom • Walker • Bowersox”

The band didn’t play it Friday night, but the next day as I was driving home, guess what song came on the radio? 

“I was born in a small town…
Educated in a small town…
Used to daydream in that small town,
Another born romantic that’s me.”

-- John Mellencamp, “Small Town,” Scarecrow

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Welcome and Farewell

Here on the Purdue campus, it’s getting to the end of the first week of classes.  After a summer of languid quiet, there are now tens of thousands of folks that weren’t here just a few days previously.  There are new schedules and new constraints: fewer construction barrels and more busses, but more requirements to be someplace for a meeting that starts right at that time.  Yes, the shifts associated with an academic lifestyle.

We also have some welcoming to do for three new affiliates: Anderson University, Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and Evansville Museum.  You probably know something about them, but here’s a little bit more about how they work within our Consortium:

Anderson University is a private university located in Anderson, IN, between Indianapolis and Muncie.  They have a strong program in Astronomy, and in fact will be hosting the next meeting of the Indiana Astronomy network of student and faculty researchers.  In terms of size (a bit over 2000 students), history, and mix, Anderson is more like our existing affiliates at Evansville, Taylor, and Valparaiso: competitive, highly regarded, undergraduate focused institutions with a strong religious tradition.  We are looking forward to their increasing participation in the astronomy network and their engagement of undergraduates in research in the physical sciences.

Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is located near the famous Meridian-Kessler neighborhood of Indianapolis.  They are internationally known as the largest children’s museum in the world, and one of the nation’s top museum tourist attractions  (not just children’s museums, but all museums).  They have a new NASA exhibit underway on aviation and modeling, and will be a strong partner in our informal education activities.

Evansville Museum is located on the banks of the Ohio River in the City of Evansville, at the southern end of Indiana (if you wade in the Ohio, or travel one mile south, you’re in Kentucky).  They are home to the Koch Planetarium, and have been hosting a featured Outreach to Space exhibit (INSGC has been working with Science Central to bring Outreach to Space to venues across Indiana, including some exhibits at the Indiana State Fair).  If you’re down there, check out the Moon Watch on September 3. 

As you can tell, these new affiliates all build on existing partnerships and strengths of INSGC, and represent richness in academic and outreach interactions that I believe is unparalleled in the country.  (According to one presentation, INSGC already has over one third of all outreach affiliates in the national Space Grant network; we are the only state with three Challenger Learning Center affiliates.)  In 2003, we were worried how we would manage on 12 or fewer affiliates; now we’re close to 25, and the major question facing INSGC is how to keep from growing too much.  We have this question because of the success and participation of our affiliates, and an ongoing habit of bold innovations and exciting engagement of NASA materials and experiences.

With all of this hoopla, though, there is one bit of mixed feelings with the coming of this fall.  Ben Weiss, who has been our undergraduate INSGC intern since 2009 (with responsibilities for website, data reporting, longitudinal tracking, Facebook upgrading, and general honesty, integrity, and “what else do you need me to do” approach), has graduated and is moving on.  We just heard a few days ago that Ben has been accepted into the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, fulfilling a long-term dream.  He promises to buzz the INSGC Central office in a high performance jet the first chance he gets.  Good luck, Ben, and be well.  I for one will miss you tremendously.  INSGC owes you more than we can express.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Looking Up

This month, I have gotten to have several enjoyable experiences in naked-eye astronomy, and a reminder of a bit of memory and trivia.  Years ago, there was a program called “Jack Horkheimer, Star Hustler” on PBS, hosted by Jack Horkheimer, Director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium.  With his distinctive voice and waddle along the rings of Saturn, Jack would talk about the various constellations, displays, and events in the night sky that week.  He would end each show with the happy encouragement to “Keep Looking Up!” Unfortunately, the timing of the broadcast where I was living at the time was such that Star Hustler broadcast was the Saturday night at the end of the week Jack was describing.  Thus, the shows weren’t very useful at all. 

Real-time information technology access and electronic search has changed all of that.  (Supposedly, it even changed the name of the show: after the advent of web browser search, the program stem “Star Hustler” was changed to “Star Gazer” so that well-meaning young astronomers would not accidentally begin their search with the pages of an adult magazine.  I will not add any racy or humorous comments here.)    Smart devices and smartphone applications have made tremendous progress in helping the amateur with keeping tabs on what is going on in the skies, and I was able to enjoy and learn about several tools.  One of my favorite iPhone apps is StarWalk, one of the best things on the device (not just my opinion!)  StarWalk allows you to point your iPhone up at the sky, and its accelerometers and GPS sensors will allow you to identify what you’re looking at, and what celestial events are ongoing.  I’ve used StarWalk in South Africa (note my prior blog entry “Under African Skies”) and China.  Late last Friday night (August 12-13), I also managed to find and watch some of the Pleiades meteor shower while I was at a conference in Boise.  (Too bad I didn’t have a car, to go up into the mountains for a much darker sky…)

The NASA App is available on a variety of devices, and I have found this extremely useful as well.   There’s great access to NASA images, NASA TV schedules, and other information about the Space Program (yes, we still have one), but my favorite component this past week was the ISS sighting opportunities.  Sunday night (August 14), the NASA app told me where and when to look for a sighting of the International Space Station from my home in Lafayette, IN.  On a good night (such as last Sunday), the ISS is one of the 3-5 brightest objects in the sky, streaking high overhead much faster than any star or planet, but without the tell-tale blinking lights of an aircraft.  (Please note that NASA has a number of other mobile device apps available; I just haven’t used them.)

Coincidentally, my best friend was also outside, looking up at the same time, happily seeing the same streaking ISS between the clouds.  My friend was using another nice app named (with some unfortunate irony) Space Junk.  Once again, beautiful graphics and “through the device” viewing of the live night sky.  It’s easier to see the orbital tracks of the Hubble, ISS, and a number of satellites, although NASA App is easier to search for future passes over several days.  Either way, your smartphone turns into a delightful tool to learn what is happening in the sky (even below the horizon or on a cloudy night), anywhere in the world, right now.
While I was in Boise last week, I did see a new episode of “Star Gazer”: it had the same picture of Saturn as the background, the same music, and the same encouragement to “keep looking up!”  Jack Horkheimer, though, was not there.  He died almost exactly one year ago, on August 22, 2010.  I don’t think he’d mind that the software now available has made it much easier than his show ever was to follow his advice. 

(Did you know that Libra is rising just south of due east, as I finish this blog at 4:45 PM?  The sun is bright this afternoon, but my iPhone can still tell me about the other stars.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Summer Vacation, Part 2

In my prior entry, I described some of my experience, and sense of beauty and passion, of my vacation trip to the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum.  Now, I would love to tell you that not all of my vacation was technology geek focused, and that would be true.  (I went to two plays, including a performance of The Merchant of Venice set in 1930’s Chicago.)  In addition to the history of aviation and space flight, I spent time in the National Building Museum’s exhibits of the World’s Fairs and Exhibitions of the 1930s (entitled “Designing Tomorrow”), and Lego(TM) models of several iconic buildings from around the world.   But, all of that was an appetizer, a warm-up, for the primary emphasis of the week:

I went to Kennedy Space Center for the launch of Atlantis and STS-135.

From what I hear, the traffic and crowds were intense, and potentially overwhelming, but I did get to miss much of that.  (Just the families of the astronauts took up 18 busloads of guests.)  Because of the Avicenna Academy participation in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, I was invited to access just a few miles south of the KSC launch complex.  There I met Amanda Arceo, the lead (and heart) of the Avicenna project.  She, some of the students, and members of the Academy’s board were in attendance as part of the celebration of the participation of these amazing student researchers.   (You can read more about Amanda’s launch experiences at the NCESSE site.)  It was an exciting morning, with lots of the hopes and promises of the entire Shuttle Program and NASA in general symbolized in the periods of clear skies among the cloudy morning, and uncertainties all the way through the launch hold at T-minus 31 seconds.  Commander Ferguson’s pre-launch message was one of the highlights for me, as he spoke of the capabilities of a people who dare to attempt bold goals and work hard to achieve them.  (If I can find a recording of those remarks, I will certainly link to it.)  Eventually, we got to zero, and the flames from the engines became brightly and intensely visible over the water and trees at KARS.  (Because of the cloud cover background, this was an even brighter display than the previous launch I witnessed, during mid-afternoon of a nearly cloudless day in August.)  A few seconds later, the ground (and our bodies) shook with the echoes from the launch pad.

Yes, there were more tears.

I remember being a college frosh in April of 1981, in the “Lobby 7” of MIT with others craning to watch one of the television screens for the first launch of Columbia and STS-1.  For STS-135, there was a lot of bittersweet memory, and thoughts, and hopes.  When will we be able to go see astronauts launch from Kennedy Space Center again?  I’m not sure.  Is the space program over?  No, but I do believe that it will look very different in 5-10 years than at any previous time in my adult life.  Would I want to be involved in whatever comes next?  Of course—that’s what I designed my life and career to be able to do. 

So, was this vacation, or work?  Neither, and both—attending the launch of STS-135 was a form of passage for me, and a gift, and a piece of sacred experience.  I was there, and it is a memory I can carry with me.  That is beauty, and life, and passion—and isn’t that worth doing when you get the chance? 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summer vacation, Part 1

One thing that I will have trouble understanding about blogs... if you blog about your work, you can spend time at work blogging.  If you blog about your vacation, and tie it to your work... there's a risk of spending time blogging about your vacation instead of having your vacation.  So, I hope you will excuse the delay in this first of two little blurbs about how I spent the week of July 4.  (Pictures to follow.)

I've heard for a long time that you have to go to the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport.  However, most times I am in Washington, I am car-free and with a tight schedule--both factors that limit the ability to get there.  But, on Tuesday, my best friend and I decided to take a trip, as part of my aerospace history vacation.  It's one thing to see pictures of a museum on a website.  However, it's pretty amazing to go into the front hallway of the Center, and off to one's left, is a bunch of planes.  (Since it's the Smithsonian, you just walk past the security desk, and you're in.  No hiding the goodies from view, or waiting for you to pay your admission (other than the $15 parking fee).  No preparation, or pretense.  Instant immersion.)  Normally, I'm a pretty calm and circumspect engineering type person.  And, to be honest, I don't remember aircraft silhouettes or production specifications.  But, the first experience I had of the exhibit was about a dozen planes dating from before 1930, suspended from the ceiling or sitting on the floor, or mounted in various poses.  Samuel Langley's monument to elegant failure (scaling up a small test model doesn't always get you a working bigger system).  I had never seen this concentration of prior flight before.  Wood and canvas, bold new experiments in pushing back the frontier of the heavens.  Life and dreams from over a century ago.  I got every one of the airplanes' names wrong.  The planes were displayed, almost as though encased in amber, flies from a past age.  One was even unrestored, with canvas frayed and torn from flapping in the winds and a century of waiting for its story to be told.

I broke down and started crying.

I've cried at sunsets, and night skies filled with stars, and expanses of oceans, and wonderful music, and exquisite poetry.  People understand those things as beautiful, as precious, as transcendent.  How can an old plane garner that response?  Because, to me, such museum pieces speak of the history of science, technology, and society.  I get a sense of the passions of those who built and flew those planes, and their desires to do something that spoke to their souls.  That's beautiful to me, too.  It's how I feel with some of my research.  It gets me excited when I see a student getting turned on about their internship, or their research project.  It's an expression of what I have always called, signs of life.  And that is overwhelmingly compelling.

There were lots more experiences, and dozens of photos, and wonderful stories about the history of flight and space travel.  No more tears, but lots more enjoyment and excitement and wonder.  Since I was on vacation, I resisted going into lecture mode when listening to kids talking about their newly-blossoming enthusiasm and learning about a particular aircraft system or element of human physiology.  It was nice to just drink it in, on a summer day.  That's a good vacation experience, whether you're a passionate engineer or not.

Stay tuned for Part 2, with mosquitos, more tears, and flames against the sky.  (Yes, I went to the STS-135 launch.)  

Friday, July 1, 2011


From an astronomical perspective, it's only been summer for 10 days now, since Solstice on June 21.  I worked it out, though, that my "summer" (in other words, the time between the end of Spring Semester and start of Fall Semester obligations) is approximately half over on that date.  However, the life of an academic is never really "done," and of course Space Grant obligations operate on a 12-month basis.

My latest INSGC-related activity was at the Purdue Alumni Club of Dubois County, and its annual Grissom Memorial Scholarship Awards (and golf outing) on June 23.  Lots of people say that the worst day golfing is better than the best day at work.  I would tend not to agree with that in general, but hey--in how many other jobs can one say that a day golfing is a day at work?  Here I am, in my "Work Outfit," in a picture from Kent Olinger:

See, I'm wearing my NASA Space Grant Director hat, and the INSGC pin.

Any rumors of me becoming a golf pro are drastically exaggerated.  However, I did actually hit a ~60 foot putt with my foursome, clearly witnessed.  It's amazing how a couple of great shots do manage to offset even a day's worth of mediocre play... and for me, this is my first full season of golf.  Ever.

I was also able to award $1500 scholarships to four outstanding young students from Southern Indiana who are attending Purdue this fall.  You know, this is the real reason I go to this event.  Fortunately, the scholarship committee enjoyed the surprise element of this award, so I got to work up to this surprise, and I admit to truly enjoying the expressions on the faces of the students and their parents.  By the time of this photo, they're starting to have it set in (photo credit again goes to Kent Olinger):

(I did get changed into something slightly more work-relevant--a Purdue Space Day polo shirt.)

Well, after a quick trip to Toronto for research meetings (one of my areas of human factors research is team coordination and performance improvement in radiation therapy), I'm back in the US.  Our joke is that this is the "North American Autonomy Celebration Non-Productivity Very Long Weekend": Canada Day is today, and US Independence Day is Monday.  Unfortunately, I couldn't stay in Toronto long enough to see the Philadelphia Phillies play the Blue Jays for a Canada Day matinee.  Hey, and it's Canadian Football League Opening Weekend!  (Just because I do aerospace, doesn't mean I prefer the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.  Any team highlighting that they're BC, though...)

Next up for me... an actual vacation.  I'm taking time off.  Hold it.  Part of my vacation is to go to the STS-135 launch, and celebrate the Avicenna Academy participation in the SSEP program.  So, when vacation includes work, most people say it's not vacation.  When your work includes justification to take a trip to Florida for a historic and memorable event like the last Shuttle launch...

Talk to you soon.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Really, There are More First Round Awards …

In previous blog posts, I had announced both project awards and undergraduate scholarships as part of our First Round of 2011-12 awards.  We in the INSGC office continue to evaluate the proposals that have been submitted against our funding constraints.  There is no difference in priority or quality between the previously announced awards and the ones listed below. 

Our graduate fellowship awards are intended to support student pursuing a Master’s degree (with or without a thesis), or a PhD / EdD (dissertation research proposal required).  These awards are much larger than the $1500 undergraduate awards, and there are fewer affiliates with eligible students.  It’s not surprising, then, that the total number of fellowships is seven students:

Master’s Fellowships:

Name                                                Affiliate                                    Major
Galen Harden                                  Purdue WL                     Aeronautics and Astronautics
Corie Moore                                    Ball State                        Middle School Math Education
Helena Olatunji-Fleming                 Purdue WL                     Interdisciplinary Engineering
Adam Prise                                      ISU                                Geography

Doctoral Fellowships:

Name                                    Affiliate                        Major           
Jessica Dowell              IU-Bloomington            Astronomy
Dennis Lamenti            IU-Bloomington            Astronomy
Matthew Wierman        Purdue WL                    Aeronautics and Astronautics

Additional Projects:

In addition to the awards previously announced, INSGC is pleased to be able to support the following projects for 2011-12:

Project PI                        Affiliate                        Project
Martin Fisher                  Science Central            Outreach To Space
Elizabeth Rubens            IUPUI                         Multidisiciplinary Undergrad Research Institute

In some cases, revisions of budgets and changes in the statements of work can overcome previous concerns raised in the review process.  In other cases, we just need clarification of what the proposed means to do and when.  Sometimes, the reviews just take a couple extra days to get back to us.  We don’t want to hold up the entire awarding process for everyone to wait for these elements, so some awards may be announced on slightly different schedules. 

Again, congratulations to these INSGC awardees, joining the other students, faculty, and project staff that are part of the first round of 2011-12 awards.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Selected in the First Round…

Now that the announcements have been distributed, the INSGC staff can take a bit of a breath and survey the first set of scholarship, fellowship, and internship awards for 2011-12.  Since the official name of the Space Grant NASA program is “The National Space Grant College Scholarship and Fellowship Program,” you can correctly guess that scholarships and fellowships are a major focus of what we do and why we exist.  In fact, there are only a few non-negotiable elements of how INSGC spends its NASA funds, and almost all of them are tied directly to the scholarship and fellowship piece.  NASA requires us to spend 25% of our total budget on scholarships and fellowships; for us in INSGC, these fellowships also involve opportunities at NASA Centers. 

INSGC is also quite fortunate to have a population of excellent students at a range of institutions, so there are of course challenges associated with giving out awards to the most deserving students.  The NASA internships are the easiest—the student has to apply to one or more NASA Centers, and then they have to be selected by researchers at those Centers.  Having said “the easiest,” that doesn’t make the process easy.  In 2011, there were 71 students from eligible Indiana institutions (only students from our 12 academic affiliates are eligible for funding) who applied to NASA internship positions through the online website system.  Approximately 12 were selected (this is already an acceptance rate of less than 20%), but of those, roughly half had other offers (either positions outside of NASA, or NASA opportunities that did not require INSGC funding).  Thus, we have a total of six outstanding students involved in NASA summer internships.  Each of them receives a summer fellowship stipend, and a travel allowance of $500. Their names, schools, and NASA Center placements are below:

Student                               Affiliate                        NASA Center
James Cutright                     Ball State               Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC)
Adam Harden                       Purdue WL            Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC)
Timothy Harris                     Purdue WL            Langley Research Center (LRC)
Paul Johnson                        Purdue WL            Johnson Space Center (JSC)
Nicholas Kowalczyk            Purdue WL            Johnson Space Center (JSC)
Kevin Tait                             Purdue WL            Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC)

I know what you’re thinking—why all the Purdue folks?  Well, students at Purdue know that the best way to work at NASA is to get an internship at NASA, and they tell each other to apply.  Of the 71 students from Indiana, 57 were Purdue students—so, the acceptance rate is still pretty low, and thus being selected for a NASA internship for INSGC funding is still a highly competitive process.  In most cases, those students will be starting their internships next week—as you might guess, that was our highest priority to set up those awards as we received selection information from NASA.

The scholarship process is even more complex.  With 12 academic affiliates, and a variety of disciplines, it can be hard to get a good mix of students.  Sometimes, I feel like it’s a bad thing to encourage more competition, only to say “no” to more students.  But, as we see more and more applicants from across the range of INSGC colleges and universities, the value of an INSGC undergraduate scholarship or Master’s fellowship goes up.  (I won’t talk about the doctoral fellowships here, because the number of eligible institutions is so much smaller; it’s not the same process, or discussion.)  We try to keep the scholarships at a level that is large enough to mean something at every institution, but small enough that we can award a decent number across all of our affiliates.  Over the past three or so years, that level is $1500—enough to be worth at least a year’s worth of books at any school.  That enables us to award at least 25 undergraduate scholarships overall, and at least one to each of the academic affiliates who have more than one applicant. 

This list starts looking more like the list of a sports network’s mock draft projections, and in a way, that’s a good analogy.  A scholarship isn’t proof that the student will do well in a particular major or at a specific school, but it is our guess.  We’re making a bet that these are good folks, who are likely to excel.  We at INSGC want to be part of this process, and we hope that our support helps them be more successful.  So, the first round picks, with name, year, affiliate, and major, are:

Last Name
First Name
Mathematics/ Secondary Education (double-major)
Electrical Engineering
Computer Engineering
Dibble II
Computer Science
Construction Engineering Technology
Mathematics Teaching: Secondary Education
Electrical Engineering & Computer Engineering
Computer Science Honors
Biomedical Engineering
Mechanical engineering
Mechanical Engineering Technology
Agricultural Engineering
Chemistry and Biology
Aeronautical Engineering
Physics and Astronomy
Mechanical Engineering
Secondary Mathematics Education
Computer Science
Biomedical Engineering

Next month, I will be in Jasper to congratulate four new winners of the Grissom Memorial Scholarships for local high school seniors attending Purdue in STEM majors.  I am proud of our opportunity to supplement those students’ scholarships with INSGC scholarship awards, and provide an ongoing recognition of the spacefaring legacy that Gus Grissom has left for all of us in Indiana.

We’re still processing the details of Master’s and Doctoral Fellowships; stay tuned for more on each of those students.  I should also point out that, if you’re not a first round selection for the undergraduate or graduate awards, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re rejected.  There are possibilities for additional funding augmentations, and our assumptions are that we will be funding additional students.  We just don’t have those numbers yet.

So, if you’re on one of these lists, or you’ve been an awardee in the past, we want to hear from you and let us know how you’re doing and whether INSGC has made a difference.