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.