Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Launch Confirmation

Forty years ago this month, Apollo 17 began the last ("most recent") human mission to the moon with a nighttime launch from Cape Kennedy.

Apollo 17 launches from Kennedy Space Center, December 7, 1972, 12:33 AM.  Photo courtesy NASA.

Purdue alumnus Gene Cernan was on board, and helped further reinforce Purdue's place in aerospace history as the last man to walk on the moon.   It would be great fun to just talk about that, but let me focus a bit more on the launch part.  Why was the launch scheduled for just after midnight?  Was it the brilliant illumination opportunities?  Hitting a particular news cycle?  No.  It's orbital mechanics.  In order to get the mission to the moon with the fuel and communications and life support and other technologies available, engineers have to calculate very precisely when you *must go* for launch.  We call it the "launch window".  Miss the window, and you don't go.  Very simple.

We've had a few launch windows here at INSGC the past couple of weeks, the most recent regarding two major grant proposal activities.  Both proposals were in response to the NASA Space Grant Innovative STEM Pilot call--one for undergraduate student retention, and one for pre-service teacher training.  Both projects are two year, $500,000 awards, and NASA insisted on projects that involved a strong cohort of students that remained involved throughout the two-year project period.  The proposals were due on Friday, December 14 (after a "slip" from December 7).  Miss that window, and we lose the opportunity to compete for those funds.  (I apologize to all those friends whom I forgot to wish a Happy Hannukah--things got kind of busy that week.)

I want to express my appreciation for the enthusiastic and active participation of the the INSGC affiliates as we worked on both proposals (nicknamed "SKATE" for the pre-service teachers, and "SURE" for the undergraduate retention).  We have solicited, and continue to receive, input from an overwhelming majority of our academic and outreach affiliates--these are truly statewide, collaborative initiatives reflecting the strengths and unique capabilities of the Indiana Space Grant Consortium.  I remain excited and grateful for the supportive offerings and ongoing enthusiasm for the projects.  In some ways, INSGC is working from a sense of service to the consortium as a whole--very little of the funding stays at our Purdue Space Grant Central offices for administration, but instead will be going to support K-12 programs, junior and senior education students, and frosh and sophomore STEM majors. (This is not unlike the weight ratio of an Apollo Saturn V rocket.  Very little of the launch weight is actually the lunar module, command module, or astronauts--it's mostly fuel to attach lunar injection velocities.)

I'm thrilled to say that we met our launch windows--the two proposals were submitted at 5:00 on Friday afternoon.  (Not quite as dark skies, not quite as brilliant launch flames, but still a sense of excitement, relief, and triumph.)  I am glad for the commitment of both Angie Verissimo and Dr. Dawn Whitaker--assisting in bringing the pieces together when anyone else *would have been home in bed, sick* (actually, they had been home sick earlier that week, but roused themselves enough to complete the launch sequence on Thursday and Friday).    With a team like that, the thrill of a successful launch is even more sweet.  Let's hope for a great funding return next Spring.

At this point, it's time for a holiday break.  We at the Indiana Space Grant Consortium office thank you for your participation, support, and unfailing enthusiasm for our STEM Engagement mission.  We strive to be a vibrant Face of NASA in Indiana.  But, time now for some well-deserved rest and recovery.  So, we'll be closed for the end-of-year holidays, starting at 6:12 AM EST on Friday (The December Solstice, of course).  We'll be back on January 3.  Until then, a peaceful and quiet and enjoyable season to you all.

--Barrett Caldwell

Friday, November 9, 2012

Moving towards Crunch Time

This is the time of the semester where students and faculty alike are frequently seen walking around college campuses with expressions ranging from mild panic to steely-eyed determination (and maybe even some nervous tics).  Projects need to be assigned and completed; exams are to be written, and taken, and graded.  There is so much to be done, and not much time before Thanksgiving to do it… and of course, barely any time passes after Thanksgiving before it’s final exam time. 

With those thoughts in mind, and a few facial expressions of my own, I am extremely glad and pleased for the two teleconferences we’ve had this week with our Affiliate Directors and Advisory Board members.  (Incidentally, I am pleased to welcome Kelly Orr, and Angela Diaz, to the INSGC Advisory Board.  Kelly works at Catepillar; Angela is at Purdue’s Global Policy Research Institute.  Some of you may recognize Angela’s name from her time at NASA Headquarters, including a stint in the Office of Education.  She has an intimate knowledge of, and longstanding history with, Space Grant.)  Even with the increasing intensity of the semester, we had nearly all of our 18 Academic Affiliates deeply engaged in the Friday teleconference.  This is in addition to the Wednesday conference, focused on the 10 Outreach Affiliates.  (Though a couple of Outreach folks missed Wednesday due to conflicts, they did call in on Friday.)   In itself, this is fairly remarkable.  Over 80% of our affiliates were dialed in to participate in the work of the Consortium, and made sure that Angie, Dawn and I were busy with notepads from all the great comments brought to the discussion.  I am also highly encouraged by the collaborative and generative style of the discussions as we did something that, like laws and sausage, usually should not really be seen up close.  We were organizing strategies for our INSGC proposal submissions.

Near the end of October, NASA announced a Cooperative Agreement Notice (“CAN”) for Space Grant Consortia to propose projects in two areas:  Undergraduate STEM Education, and Effective K-12 STEM Teacher Education.   Each Consortium is allowed to submit at most two proposals, and the proposals must be kept strictly separate.  This is not why we had two teleconferences—we moved to that model several years ago, when we realized that too large a group, with too disparate a set of interests and challenges, was not a recipe for an effective meeting.  But it just so happens that the two project areas linked well to both segments of our Affiliate interests—INSGC mission emphases on Engage, and Educate, based on Inspiration, and working towards Employment (as STEM workforce, or STEM educators).  Both teleconference sessions worked well, bringing together people who had very valuable suggestions and insights based on their varied experience.  I never heard “my way or the highway” or “not invented here” statements; not only was there clear synergy between the comments, but also a recognition that the different affiliates have a diversity of capability and focus that is one of our strengths. 

It was especially helpful when it was suggested that we incorporate…  hold on.  I may be tired, but I’m not that foolish.  We’re not going to discuss the proposal details in the blog.  But I will brag on the quality of the Affiliate Directors and the strong involvement that is supporting these proposals.  Yes, it’s crunch time, with two large proposals due in mid-December.  (Wow.  Could it be true that I actually have three additional grant proposals due before the Space Grant CAN deadline? )  Well, maybe just a little bit of sleep might be a good thing…

Friday, September 21, 2012

Changing Perspectives

After a week, I thought I would be able to evaluate the net effect.  Define and bound the scope, my engineering mind would say.  I was wrong.

We live in a culture of celebrity, one that idolizes fame and enables people to be famous for... being famous.  But it's something else to talk about an historic figure--one that "will live in history after everyone in this room is long forgotten".  Of course I thought I understood what it meant to be here, where *he* went to school.  I have the pictures in my head, and on my computer drive--him speaking to the crowd, framed by the statue of him as a student.  A moment of silence at the football game, celebrated by the band where he was a member.  A collection of memorabilia in the atrium of the building others insisted be named after him.  

That was before I got the invitation to be part of the Purdue delegation to travel to Washington for Neil Armstrong's memorial service at the National Cathedral.  I had teaching that day, and other meetings, but slowly it dawned on me.  It's *him*.  So, on September 13, I got up, made sure the Purdue and INSGC lapel pins were in my jacket pocket, and went to the Purdue airport before dawn to get on a plane and fly to Dulles Airport. The experience was a surreal convocation.  Even the weather in Washington was pristine--brilliant blue skies, wonderful sun, moderate temperatures, as if to say that even the air currents and storm fronts recognize the man.  

I made sure I had my invitation in hand, and it was important that I did.  Hundreds of people there, hundreds more wanting to be inside.  We were welcomed into the front section--Acting President Sands, Vice President Diaz, Engineering Dean Jamieson, historian Norberg, student body president Rust, Trustee Spurgeon... I spoke a word of greeting to NASA representative Alan Ladwig, whom I remembered from prior National Space Grant meetings.  "Glad you could make it."  I couldn't understand why it was so important that we be there, although I was certainly awed and honored to be.

Memorials for a head of state would do well to match this event.  And of course, other NASA faces familiar to me from my childhood through my time as Space Grant Director.  There to honor a friend, an icon, and one who brought back a piece of another world to hang in the very windows of this Cathedral. 

National Cathedral Space Window

The common sentiment was an emphasis on an uncommonly humble and honest and down-to-earth man--while being uncommonly noble, uncommonly able to bear an unimaginable burden of history and the dreams and pride of a species.  And what made him proud and grateful, all that time?

... being a Purdue-trained engineer.

Any emotion in my heart, or my eyes, froze as those words came from the dais.  The speaker mentioned Purdue.  In Indiana.  Where I'm faculty, and do Space Grant.  This is the real legacy that I'm witnessing here.  And suddenly, it all felt different.  What can I do to justify and continue Neil Armstrong's pride in this place?  It's not about grand self-elevation.  It's not really even about me.  There is this great web, on this little blue marble, that he could hide behind his thumb.  But in that moment, I could see a bit clearer what it might feel like to know one's purpose, and feel a bit more at peace with it, with a hope to manage whatever legacy and connection I might achieve with a fraction of the grace he did.

Shaking hands with Gene Cernan afterwards, I noticed that a major shift was beginning to take place in my own thoughts.  I tried to fight back a bit of speechless awe.  And then he smiled at me and said, "I like your P." 

This is part of my life, to have had these experiences, and these connections.  Yet another unexpected lesson, which is still affecting me today.  "What's it like to walk on the moon?  It's wonderful, but pilots are born to fly."  How can I, or anyone else, learn and experience and celebrate what one was born to do?  More than celebrity, more than history, more than adulation, that is a wondrous teaching and model...

To reach out, and touch the face of God.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Purdue MATE ROV entry: World Famous PotaTOS!

To students and faculty across many of our INSGC affiliates, it's "Welcome (Back)" week as classes are starting up.  Students return to campus carrying lots of items, new and old, that they have collected or enjoyed over the summer.  This past Friday, Seth Baklor of Purdue came by the INSGC Office with a fairly unusual item that he was carrying around, visibly proud and thrilled despite the weight.  Seth's burden was a happy one: the Purdue IEEE entry in the Marine Advanced Technology Education 2012 MATE Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) International Competition held June 21—23 in Orlando, FL.  The Purdue MATE ROV entry, nicknamed "PotaTOS", was one of our project awards in 2011-12; we were initially introduced to each other based on an INSGC awareness survey of students on the Purdue campus regarding our programs, scholarships, and other awards.   (INSGC provided a supplemental award to the team in 2010-11 to support their strong performance at NASA Johnson Space Center.) 

This year, the PotaTOS ROV could be seen as a clearly superior vehicle.  Seth could fairly easily, if somewhat awkwardly, carry the 35 pound vehicle himself.  Compare that to other teams whose vehicles rival me in weight (over 150 pounds).  The interdisciplinary team concept allowed the team to incorporate multiple innovations, efficiencies, and capabilities.  At the 2012 competition, Purdue was able to outperform in the water amid an international "pool" of competition (not unlike another Purdue product, David Boudia).  Overall, PotaTOS came in second in the Explorer (primarily University) Class, finishing behind only a team from Vladivostok, Russia.  (Seth reported that they only came in second because of a missed step in the mission execution.)  In addition, Seth also won one of the competition's two "MVP" awards—funny, but he forgot to mention that when he stopped by to visit. 

Seth's enthusiasm and excitement for a job well done, doing something he loves and enjoys with an explorer's passion, was definitely a reminder to me of why we at INSGC support student project teams.  The students can learn more in such a project about teamwork, meeting real-world challenges and requirements, and recognizing that performance trumps excuses and finger-pointing, EVERY TIME.  I'm exceptionally proud of the team, and pleased for something else that Seth said: their successes wouldn't have been possible without the support of INSGC.  That helps me demonstrate my enthusiasm and excitement for our job, and supporting others' passion with our own.  Thank you, Seth, for reminding me why we do this work.  (Why else would I be doing the fist pumping?)   I might also point out that the other MVP award winner was from Arizona State—Emily McBryan, team lead of a robotics effort supported by Arizona Space Grant.  Clearly, Space Grant is doing something to help invigorate and enable education and professional development of the next generation of STEM professionals and leaders.  While it's unlikely that Purdue and Arizona State will be meeting on the football field this season, here is a source of bragging rights for the coming year.  I can only hope that other Space Grant consortia get involved in the effort and fun.

PotaTOS in the water

Monday, July 9, 2012

Going Back with the Old Mac Team

Wednesday, June 20: It was the first summer day, and it began with blue corduroy jackets. 

I have come to enjoy my trips down to Jasper, IN for the Grissom Memorial Golf Outing and Scholarship Banquet – the drive down, and the interactions with the Purdue alumni, are all valuable reminders of the ways in which my role connects with the people of Indiana.  And because this is Indiana, I have begun to appreciate some of the habits and symbols that are so important here in ways that were foreign to me growing up.  One of the most visible and vibrant of these symbols, driving through the Purdue West Lafayette campus, was the iconic blue jacket of student FFA representatives here for the state conference.   For me, it was like swallows to Capistrano, or baseball fans to the ballpark. 

However, I was going to Jasper a day early—the golf outing wasn't due to start until Thursday at noon.  Today was special.  I was invited down by Kent Olinger and Craig Kneis a day early, to visit and share dinner with this year's special guests of the Grissom Classic.  Over 50 years ago, a group of young engineers from McDonnell Aircraft Corporation were given a unique assignment.  Take a ballistic missile design which was not yet reliable, instrument it with electronics and control systems that had not yet been designed, and modify it for human habitation in an environment that many believed was not survivable.  This was Project Mercury, and four of those young engineers (Norm Beckel, Dean Purdy, Jerry Roberts, and Bob Schepp) had agreed to come to Jasper and relate some of their stories and experiences.  For me, growing up in the era of moon shots and space races, this was an unbelievable opportunity to sit and talk to the men who had created the history that has defined my life and career.  (It's kind of like a musician being invited to an intimate little occasion where a few old veterans—say, Paul, Mick, Keith, and Ringo—got together and talked about their first meetings, and playing R&B in clubs in Liverpool and London from 1959 to 1961.) 

It was only with a great deal of effort and discipline that we finished dinner at the Schnitzelbank Restaurant and went back to the hotel; it was with even more effort and discipline that we ended the conversation and went to bed to get ready for golf and a discussion panel the next evening.  The next day was hot, the golf challenging (I am getting better, but I am a long way from good), and unfortunately, a flareup of an old injury kept Bob from the evening banquet (and required a bit of last minute replanning).  However, there were great surprises and sharing of experiences as well.  Lowell Grissom, ever the modest one, gave us an understanding of the culture of McDonnell in St. Louis, and the loudspeaker talks by "Old Mac" to "the Team".  This was followed by stories from the guys who "volunteered" to move down to Florida for a "brief" assignment.  (It is also an interesting story to talk to Mrs. Beckel, Mrs. Purdy, and Mrs. Roberts about what it was like to live and try to raise children in Titusville and Cocoa Beach in 1960, long before the buildup of tourist attractions and upscale housing.) 

It so happened that I had been given a digitized copy of the Mercury Program Familiarization Manual as a Christmas gift (yes, I am that kind of geek), so when the guys said that they weren't sure if they remembered, I promised that I could refresh their memories.  In the end, that was more than just a lighthearted joke:  the manual was dated December 1959, and these panelists had literally been the ones to "write the book" on the origins of American human spaceflight.   I admit to being a bit of – no, very much – a fan of the history of technology, so I asked everyone to sign copies of the cover of the Manual as mementoes of the event.  (One of these is now in a frame in the INSGC Central Office.) 

I really wish I had learned history this way.  What is also interesting is the email I received later encouraging us to continue such stories, and maybe even collecting them for publication.  An interesting idea, I must confess.

Oh, and yes, the Scholarships.  Once again, INSGC was pleased to be able to supplement the Grissom Scholarship awards with INSGC Scholarships.  It is impressive to listen to the four young women's accomplishments to date: community service, internships, academic awards, and a real passion for their subjects.  (I did get to speak with one whose eyes sparkled when she talked about soloing in a Cessna, and looking forward to getting her first set of aviation technology tools.)  I'm glad I didn't have to go through the difficulty of selecting these students from the many qualified applicants.  I just had the easy part of announcing the INSGC awards, and posing for pictures.

Let me just say that this was another time for me to simply be thrilled to be Indiana Space Grant Consortium Director.  Earlier in June, I had the opportunity to speak with the new NASA Program Manager for Space Grant, and spend some time discussing the range of activities and initiatives that INSGC does as "the face of NASA" for many in the State.  I enjoy talking about my pride in being part of the "NASA Team" – maybe I'm not yet at the level of historical contribution represented by the "Old Mac Team" members in the picture, but I do want to contribute how I can. 

I even got to spend Friday evening, after my return from Jasper, watching the Indianapolis Indians baseball team win their game—after all, it was summer, and a good time to watch the local team at the ballpark.   Thanks once more to everyone in Jasper who manage to help me feel welcomed and appreciated.  That means a lot to me, and is simply one of the best reminders and gifts associated with being part of INSGC. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Right Place, Right Time

This entry was written as a guest blog for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, after my attendance at the SpaceX launch in May.  Over there, it's called "No bucks, no Buck Rogers"--a reference to the requirements for investment in spaceflight (and education).  Conveniently and coincidentally, that quote is attributed to Gus Grissom--whose legacy we continue to celebrate later in June in Jasper.  Watch this space.  --BC


Even in retrospect, it sounds unlikely… but it worked out this way.  When I was first invited to the SpaceX Falcon / Dragon launch attempt on April 30, I was thrilled and excited.  This was the third launch I’ve been invited to as the Director of the Indiana Space Grant Consortium.  However, the Lake County, IN SSEP experiments have been responsible for two of them: the Avicenna Academy experiment on STS-135, and now a larger community collaboration for this first commercial launch to the ISS.  I quickly booked my tickets… and then watched the series of emails and news reports as SpaceX scrubbed that launch date.  How about May 7?  No, I couldn’t attend—my first job is as a Purdue Industrial Engineering professor, and grades were due the next day.  That date slips by, as well.  We’re now looking at early in the morning on May 19.  Well, almost, but still not quite: I had already booked a ticket for Orlando, for my attendance at the Industrial and Systems Engineering Research Conference.  That ticket was for Saturday morning, and expensive to change.  I admitted defeat and put the NASA TV on my smartphone waiting for the countdown.  3..2..1.. Liftoff?  Not this time.  Gwynne Shotwell’s press conference was a marvel of poise and calm, and I was impressed.  But there was a secret bit of guilty thrill.  The next opportunity would be on May 22, and I would be there anyway! 

Jeff was great to respond to me when I explained, first thing Monday morning, that I could attend the launch, after all—if he still wanted to add me.  I could understand that multiple launch attempts can either reduce or enhance the desire to have visitors, and so I gladly escaped the technical session to take his call.  I found a car, took a nap, and found myself leaving the hotel at midnight, as other conference goers are finishing their evening at the banquet.  I was surprised to see very little traffic anywhere along the highways.  Of course, for the Shuttle launches, leaving Orlando only 3-4 hours before the launch could be a recipe for watching the fiery tower from somewhere on State Road 528.  Better safe than sorry, though, and I was relieved to pull into the KSC Visitor Center parking lot an hour earlier than expected.  That’s where I first met the student from Houston’s SSEP, and a few of the resilient folks from Highland Christian School who had managed to hang on and have a semblance of alertness at 2:00AM. These were the real stars of the launch for me, and in fact, some of the people I spent the most time talking to during this historic event.  (There were, of course some other folks in the NASA / SpaceX invite group viewing area, including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana, and commercial space habitation company founder Robert Bigelow.  Not bad company for me, who studied space systems engineering and design of damping mechanisms for space structures as an undergrad, and mission operations task coordination as a faculty member.)  Watching the launch from the balcony across from the Vehicle Assembly building on a clear, moonless night was a glorious sight—a bright Falcon stretching her wings and leaving the Earth. 

As I spoke to the student experimenters, and the parents, I was stunned.  Here are 12 and 13 year olds, learning about bioreactors and microgravity-based growth of livers, or the challenges of flight operations and project and team management.  When I was 12, I was no less excited about spaceflight, and was eagerly involved in watching and learning about the space station experiments going on at the time (that was Skylab, and the Apollo-Soyuz program).  What would it have been like if I had actually been able to design, build, and fly one of those experiments?  These kids are certainly in the right place, at the right time.  I had a secret lament that I couldn’t benefit from this experience in the ways that they were actively participating. 

I was, eventually, convinced that my participation was valuable too.  INSGC did underwrite the Lake County collaboration at a critical time in their project.  As a line from the Right Stuff points out (via Indiana astronaut, Gus Grissom), “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”   Inspiration for these young scientists, engineers, inventors and project leaders is essential.  But so is investment.  Elon Musk has made a lot of money, and has decided to use much of it to create and support SpaceX.  Robert Bigelow has made a lot of money, and is committed to using much of it to create and support space habitation at Bigelow Aerospace.  No, most of us don’t have a few hundred million dollars lying around.  But each of us makes choices with the funds we do have.  You don’t just wake up one morning and drive to Cocoa Beach and happen to see a rocket launch.  Sometimes you get a little lucky… but most of is planning and investment and dedication and belief and commitment spanning months and years and even decades.  That commitment is essential, or else success remains a thing of wish and hope and dream.  I want to thank all of those at NCESSE and SSEP who allowed me to be at the right place at the right time.  I’m glad I could be in attendance as a Space Grant partner.  I am hoping, most of all, that others see what commitment and investment in our capabilities can do… and choose accordingly to help us and ours be where we need to be, and do what we need to do—now, not just someday.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Wait for It...

If there is one thing that Space Grant is not… it's not boring.  Nervous waiting, last-minute rescheduling, dynamic rebalancing and reprioritization, and unexpected novelty have all been part of the action since our Affiliates Meeting two weeks ago.  (By the way, if you didn't make it, we missed you.  You could have helped us finish some of the food we ambitiously ordered from Adelino's.)

As promised and intended, the INSGC Central Office submitted our Annual Performance Data (APD) report on Friday (yes, April 13) after the meeting; I was able to add a few details mentioning our rich and very helpful discussions about our SMART Objectives, and the Affiliates' engagement in "Next Big Thing" discussions and priorities.  Officially, our submission of the APD begins the formal process of gaining approval for the 2012-13 Base budget for the program year beginning May 17. 

As I had mentioned, we are very excited and proud of the INSGC-supported group of students whose Student Spaceflight Experiments Project is due to launch on the SpaceX / Dragon mission representing the first commercial launch to the ISS.  I was able to pry open a small window of time to attend the launch on April 30… but the launch was delayed until May 7 (right in the middle of finals and grading for me).  Sigh.  Oh, well.

However, lest I spend too much time sulking and brooding, I got some very good information on Tuesday.  Our Augmentation funding has arrived from NASA Shared Services!  Yes, the moment we've been waiting for, and now subcontracts can be written, additional support can be allocated, and we can even look at repurposing some funds to make sure students can start on their summer NASA Center internships.  This is the source of a huge sigh of relief from Angie, and from Dawn, and from me.  It will still take some time to get all of the paperwork through Sponsored Programs, but we are focusing on that now.

Interestingly, one of this month's Wired Magazine's cover articles is "7 Ways to Spot the Next Big Thing".  Funny, I don't remember any journalists in the audience during our Affiliates Meeting, but that's exactly what we were discussing.  It's clear that we're on our way already.  Based on discussions with, and activities led by, our new INSGC Partners, Indiana Afterschool Network, and Wisdom Tools, INSGC will continue to be involved with the NDIA / AIA discussions to address STEM education and employment in Indiana.   This is certainly a challenge we cannot wait to address.

I could go home now, and wait to post this on Monday… no, I have been doing enough waiting.  Copy, paste, post… doing is better.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Indiana in March: It Must Be Basketball!

The phenomenon that is known as "March Madness" is winding down; NCAA basketball games are now just a manageable number as we watch the continued progression to men's and women's national champions.  But on Saturday, March 17, the concept of March Madness was alive and in full swing on the Purdue campus.  Even the weather was insane—a few days before the Equinox, temperatures were in the 70s and 80s for the great elimination round competitions due to square off in the games of roundball.  The teams were prepared to fill the nets, the fans were loud and engaged in the stands, and the referees were ready to manage the clock timing and check for fouls.  The anticipation is great as we prepare for… autonomous mode!


INSGC is proud to be a sponsor of the annual Boilermaker Regional competitions of FIRST Robotics (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), held in the Purdue Armory during Friday and Saturday of the university's Spring Break.   It is truly amazing to see over 2000 high school students, teachers, parents, and other participants come to watch the competitions every year.  In fact, attendance was down a bit this year… because the fire marshal was concerned about too many people in the pits and stands.

INSGC logo during the FIRST Qualification Round, Saturday morning.  The bleachers represent less than  ¼ of the crowd; beyond the screen is the pit area.

This year's competition, entitled Rebound RumbleSM, highlights "coop-etition" with robots designed to shoot foam basketballs at hoops for 1-3 points, and then balance on teeter-totters for additional scoring.  I have always been amazed at the FIRST competitions, not just from the innovation and creativity of each year's event, but the variety and ingenuity that high school teams generate in only 6-8 weeks between contest announcement and Regional events.  (Rebound RumbleSM was announced on January 7, in a ceremony including George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and along with Dean Kamen, and carried on NASA TV.)

One of the enjoyments I have of attending the Boilermaker Regional is that INSGC is not a sponsor of any one team.  No matter who does well, I can enjoy it.  So, it's easy to get excited about a well-crafted range sensing and guidance mechanism, an effective multi-shot loft mechanism, or even the clever team that decided that just a hollow tube that pours balls into the 1-point hoop was an effective and low-risk scoring mechanism.  In other words, it is everything that an engineer could love about requisite variety in problem solving and pathways to solution.  Shoot the ball!

Robot from FIRST Team 868 (Carmel, IN TechHOUNDS) shoots free throws during autonomous mode.

Unfortunately, I couldn't stay for the whole event, as I had another basketball event to attend.  Yes, at the same time as FIRST, and just a few hundred yards away in Mackey Arena, Purdue was also hosting the first round of the NCAA Women's Basketball tournament.  Purdue was playing their first round game against South Dakota State, and as a very loyal season ticket holder, I needed to attend that game, too.  Of course, I was a lot more invested and focused on which team won that one… Purdue came out on top there, too, with a record-breaking shooting performance.

Purdue player KK Houser shoots a free throw against South Dakota State.

However, I'm not here as a sportswriter.  I'm here to express my appreciation for the Purdue FIRST student organization, who began with a dream to bring FIRST teams to the university, and then to host a regional competition, and to support K-12 engagement and STEM education excitement in Indiana.  Anytime you can fill the bleachers for robots, while two Miss Indiana basketball stars are playing just down the street, that's a fantastic accomplishment.  A slam dunk, if you will.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Godspeed, Janice Voss

The week of February 20 was an historic and meaningful one for space geek folk and Space Grant Directors like me, for a variety of reasons.  (Please excuse me for the delay in posting this entry—although I had wanted to, the emotional intensity of it all actually made it more difficult than I expected to process my thoughts in an eloquent way.)    The sharing may be insightful for others, or simply cathartic for me; I hope that you won't find the sentiments too maudlin or mundane.

The Director aspect of me was engaged, and enthused, and enmeshed by an email that we have been waiting to receive for several weeks—the acceptance of our 2011-12 Augmentation funding proposal.  Yes, I know that it seems confusing and unreal, but it was only on February 21 that we were able to determine our total budget for the current program year that is scheduled to end on May 16.  Ironically, it was only a day or two later that I received another email, reminding INSGC that we should begin our annual performance report, due 60 days before the end of the program year, or March 16.  Yes, there is a bit of a scramble to simultaneously begin to generate award authorizations for scholarships, fellowships, and grant activities, while also trying to identify how we would report on their activity in preparation for next year.  Such is the nature of being at once a manager of award funds (within INSGC) and the recipient of those funds (from NASA) in what is seen as a novel and challenging federal budget environment.  Those of you who are patiently (or impatiently—I understand your perspective as well) for announcements, I can sympathize, and I especially appreciate your ability to function in this chaotic environment.

Also during the week of February 20 was the 50th Anniversary (Really?  Already?)  of John Glenn's first orbital flight that heralded the entry of the United States into human exploration in space.  I don't remember the state of the world the day of Glenn's launch from Cape Canaveral—I was in existence, but not yet external.  For people older than I, the phrase, "Godspeed, John Glenn" was a password, an "open sesame" to a different type of future.  I find it amazing, then, that I had the opportunity to meet John Glenn – astronaut, US Senator, national treasure (a semi-official designation that kept him from flying again for over 30 years) at a Space Grant meeting a few years ago.  That is a special connection to history, more than any artifact or piece of memorabilia could provide.   A connection to history, a special gift.

BC and Sen. Glenn at National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award Banquet, 2006.  Photo courtesy of Ann Broughton.

However, the more significant and intense experience of the week for me was on Friday, February 24.  This was the day of the Distinguished Engineering Alumni (DEA) awards on the Purdue campus.  One of the awardees was Janice Voss, the first of Purdue's female astronauts, and a VIP guest at Purdue's Fall Space Day.  I was not alone in my excitement to see her back on campus and speak to her about how she continues to inspire students, including the student project team designing an educational model of the solar system as an exhibit to be placed on campus.  The exhibit is named, most appropriately, "Visiting Our Solar System," or VOSS, and had just moved into the phase of selecting the artist and refining the final design concepts. 

Janice Voss and students at Purdue Fall Space Day 2000.  Photo courtesy of Ann Broughton.

However, the celebration changed significantly as we learned that Janice died on February 6, unable to continue her fight against breast cancer.  And yet, there was still a celebration, one of life and presence and effect.    Janice's parents and sisters came to Purdue, and brought a number of artifacts and reminders of her five spaceflight launches.  Dr. and Mrs. Voss accepted the DEA award for Janice, and insisted on a Celebration of Life reception later that afternoon. 

My connection to Janice Voss is more direct than that to John Glenn, and one that I was grateful to be able to share at the reception.  When I was the faculty mentor for a Purdue reduced gravity student flight experiment project, one of the students had connected with Janice and scheduled dinner.  We had a wonderful meal together at one of the little restaurants that surround Johnson Space Center, and though the mentoring was mostly directed at the students, I learned some important lessons as well.  I have no pictures of the event, no posed shots or autographs… just a reminder of her appreciation for Purdue's continuing embrace and connection, and her insistence that we pay for the students' meals.  I told that story, and managed to get through it without choking up… too badly, that is.  I also offered to have INSGC help support a named scholarship in Janice's honor, one that the Voss family has endowed.  For all of our desire to celebrate them, the best gifts were given by the Vosses.  The reception, they stated, should not be seen as a somber memorial, but a special connection, a recognition and observance of a "sixth launch". 

Godspeed, Janice Voss.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

NASA and the Super Bowl

Of course, it would be considered impossible for anyone but a geek to do this, but...

Imagine that you scheduled a trip, and didn't check the travel schedule very closely.  As a result, your flight home occurred while hundreds of thousands of people were descending on your city to one of the biggest sports events of the entire year.

Actually, if your home airport is Indianapolis, this happens every year for Memorial Day weekend.  (It's that 500 mile race we have at the motor speedway near the airport.  You might know we are very proud of that race--so much so, it's on our state quarter.)  But last week, you might have noticed some news reports and some late night TV shows from Indianapolis, and a particular football game last Sunday night.    Clearly, sports get a lot of attention in Indiana... but I was pleased to see NASA provide some links to the game.  Not only was there a Landsat photo of Indianapolis from space, but even an acknowledgment of critical Super Bowl technologies that were spin-offs of NASA innovations.  You will want to check the article in more detail, but I will spare you the suspense:

1.  Foam padding for helmets and pads

2.  Anti-scratch visors for helmets

3.  Cushioning material for shoes

4.  Moisture-wicking garmets

5.  Wireless headsets in helmets

6.  Video stabilization software

So, whether you were rooting for the folks who play their home games in East Rutherford, NJ, or the folks who play their home games in Foxboro, MA, when you take a look at the picture of Mario Manningham's feet landing inbounds during a critical pass in the 4th quarter... yeah, NASA was responsible for that technology.  And I could feel justified for being a fan.  (Of NASA spin-offs.  No comment on the teams in the game.)

And now, back to basketball season...  (Did I mention that we like our sports here in Indiana?)