MarsRoadtrip Part 2: NASA Social

I made it to my uncle’s house in Akron without incident. My spine was definitely sick of that car seat by the time I got there, but it was not a bad drive! It did, however, seem like the entirety of both the PA and Ohio turnpikes were marked as construction zones, with only 2 patches actually undergoing any construction… o_0 So I was happy to get there, go out for a late-ish dinner (Mexican!) with my aunt and uncle and cousins and then head for bed before too long. Of course, we all know you can’t get proper sleep the night before a tweetup/social, but being horizontal and reading until I eventually dozed off for a couple hours sufficed! Then there were alarm clocks, coffee, and sunlight (in that order) and I was off to Cleveland!

NASA Social @ Glenn Research Center

A slightly frantic arrival, in typical “me” fashion, because (though I left on time) I didn’t see the meeting point, and took a little detour through GRC’s parking lot before finding my way across the highway to actual registration, but I made it just in the nick of time! On the bus heading to the briefing center (back across the road where I’d just been!), I discovered that @KelleyApril was also present, by way of a tweet saying she’d seen me arrive! (Funny thing, being sufficiently busy between work and planning a fairly last-minute tweetup/Social trip that I missed most of the Twitter/Facebook chatter about who was going to be at which Socials, so neither of us knew that the other’d be there!)


GRC’s Center Director, Ray Lugo, welcomed us with a couple of fun facts I didn’t know about Curiosity, including:

  • Before coming to Glenn, he had worked as the Launch Services Program Director at KSC, and was actually the person who selected the Atlas V rocket as the launch vehicle for Curiosity! That seems to have worked out pretty well. 🙂
  • The rover was named by a then-6th-grader from Kansas, Clara Ma, who submitted the winning contest entry – Curiosity!

(He got to head out to JPL for the landing… “Perks of being Center Director!”)

Then we got a brief hello from STS-134 astronaut Greg Johnson, also known as @Astro_Box! I was hoping he’d stick around for a while so I could say hi and maybe get a picture with him, since I got to watch his launch from so delightfully close! But when he asked if anybody had any questions, I couldn’t think of an actual question (my brain was slightly overloaded with excitement!) …and apparently nobody else could either! Unfortunately, by the time I realized it was now or never, he had surmised nobody had any questions, and had another event to get to, so I never got the chance to properly meet him! 🙁 It was still very cool that he took the time to stop by though! (and take/tweet a quick picture!)

We had a few minutes to mingle and check out some of the exhibits in the lobby, and then we were off on a whirlwind tour of Glenn Research Center! – which is painfully punny, since my group’s first stop was at the 10×10 Supersonic Wind Tunnel (which just means the test section is 10ft high and 10ft wide, and uses compressors and the shape of the tunnel rather than just big fans to get the air flowing faster)! It was cool to see another wind tunnel after visiting Langley Research Center in the fall, where we saw their transonic wind tunnel, which operates right around the speed of sound – whereas this supersonic one typically runs at 2-3 times the speed of sound – and that one was cryogenic (they could cool the air for more accurate testing on small-scale models), while here they can heat the air to test how air flows in jet engines or during atmospheric entry! (As they did for one of the initial parachute deployment tests for Curiosity!) 😀

The coolest part was we got to go inside the test section, since it wasn’t in use at the moment. It was all very, very, smooth metal, because any little glitch in the surface would create a sonic line or somesuch and throw off the results! Also very nifty: they can change the contour of the walls leading into the test section, with a serious of giant hydraulic jacks that could actually move the 1.5inch thick stainless steel walls in or out by several feet, with a ridiculous degree of accuracy! So neat!

Next we were off to a Physical Sensors Instrumentation Research lab, where they are working on developing more heat-tolerant sensors to for detecting pressure, light, certain chemicals, or whatever else in jet engine tests and other high-temperature environments. Normal sensors use silicon-based chips, but apparently silicon can only withstand temperatures up to 200 or 250 degrees, and the inside of a jet engine goes upwards of 700 degrees, so that’s not going to cut it! To solve that problem, they’re working on using Silicon Carbide instead, which allows the sensors to keep functioning at much higher temperatures. The process requires certain bits of something to be exposed to UV light and not others (something about polymers that went over my head!), so there are all these storage containers and windows covered in those orange UV filters… and they’re made with microscopic precision, so everything’s done in clean rooms wearing bunny suits!

Then we saw the Stirling Research Lab‘s “Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator” – a power system they’ve developed to provide electricity for future deep space missions, rovers, and satellites! Curiosity runs on a similar nuclear power system, but this one will be much more efficient. (It’s advanced after all! 😛 But seriously.) It’s powered by a little bit of plutonium-238 (which, we are assured, is much more stable than the plutonioum-239 used in nuclear bombs!) producing a lot of heat energy, that the Advanced Stirling Converter converts into usable electricity, with four times the efficiency of current systems. It’s designed to provide power for 17 years, and the test model we saw in the lab has been running nearly continuously for 4 years already.

There are three proposed missions NASA is currently considering for development, and two of them would use this power system (a “Comet Hopper” and a… well, basically a boat, that would land on one of the methane seas of Titan to study the “water cycle”-like methane weather patterns!) so they’re obviously hoping one of those two gets selected (the other is a Mars lander that would be solar powered) and now, so am I! 🙂
(UPDATE: The selection has since been made, and they went with the Mars lander. Still awesome, just not as cool as sending a boat to a moon! 😛 )

The last stop on our tour was to the SLOPE (Simulated Lunar OPErations) Facility – a giant sandbox! It’s full of special sand designed to resemble the surface of the moon (but without the very fine particles that would create epic dust clouds every time anything moved) or Mars to test the traction/behavior of different tire designs and rovers! Awesomes.

Their goal when the facility was built was to pick up where Apollo folks had left off… they wanted to test the moon buggy tires and go from there, but obviously the ones actually used are still on the moon, and the rest are all sitting in museums somewhere… but they managed to get in touch with one of the guys who designed the tires, and he “just happened to have a spare sitting in his closet at home.” With his help, partnering with Goodyear, they managed to replicate the original design and manufacture 12 new ones, which they did use for research and as a starting point for new designs!

We got to see/poke/squish/roll a bunch of the designs they’ve been testing, and he drove the prototype rover that was in there around for us! It was really neat… each of the four wheels is on a sort of arm thing, and has its own motor, so they can both drive and position each independently, which makes for some neat tricks! (Including “inchworming” up hills, tilting the rover in relation to the ground incline to keep it level and improve stability, and all sorts of fancy “getting un-stuck” maneuvers!) And I got to pick up a handful of fake moon sand! 😀

That concluded the tour, and the bus took us over to the cafeteria/employee center for lunch and gift shop time! I had a pretty tasty cheeseburger and fries (which I think is becoming a tradition, since that’s what I ate at Langley, and I’m pretty sure also at KSC during 134), and a lovely chat with a fellow spacetweep who’s a police officer in Wisconsin! That’s one of the things I love about tweetups/socials – hanging out with people with whom you’d probably never even chance to cross paths, much less sit down and have an actual conversation, otherwise!

After lunch, we headed back to the briefing center where we’d started the day (not the parking lot – after that) for the multi-center portion of this first-in-history Multi-Center Social!

JPL Social Media Manager Veronica McGregor kicks things off

It was basically a simulcast, broadcast from JPL to the other 6 centers tweetupping that day (at some point they added a 50th Anniversary social at KSC, conveniently coinciding with the rest!) as well as NASAtv!

(Oh! Sweet! Turns out it was also streamed on Ustream, which apparently keeps the recording available online for a while! So feel free to skip my rambly bullet points and just watch it for yourself!)

The program started off with a rapid-fire sequence of presenters, including:

  • A brief welcome from JPL Director Dr. Charles Elachi
  • A recorded message from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden
  • Deputy Administrator Lori Garver spoke about why we’re going to Mars at all!
  • Dave Lavery, NASA Program Executive for Solar System Exploration, talked the difficulty of landing on Mars.
  • Clara Ma! – no longer eleven – read the essay she wrote to suggest the name Curiosity.
  • Doug Ellison showed us the simulation of Curiosity’s landing on Eyes on the Solar System (check it out!)
  • Stephanie Smith, part of JPL’s social media team (who came to our 134 tweetup and let us hold aerogel!) acted as host/moderator/MC for the panel discussions
  • The science panel – Ashwin Vasavada, of JPL, MSL Deputy Project Scientist; Pam Conrad, from Goddard Spaceflight Center, Deputy Principal Investigator for the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument; and Ken Edget, Malin Space Science Systems, Principal Investigator for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI – one of the 17 cameras on Curiosity, specifically at the end of the arm) – talked about why they chose to land in Gale Crater (largely the 6mi. high mountain of sedimentary rock at its center) and a bit about what the various cameras and instruments do.
  • The engineering panel – Rob Manning, MSL Flight System Chief Engineer; Adam Steltzner, EDL Phase Lead (@steltzner); Steve Lee, EDL and Surface Ops Engineer (@LeeCuriosity); and Anita Sengupta, EDL and Advanced Technologies Engineer (@Doctor_Astro) – kicked off with the “7 Minutes of Terror” video (which I’m sure most of those present had already seen at least once, but absolutely nobody minded watching again!) and discussed how complex Curiosity and her mission are, learning from and improving on past missions, actually getting to Mars, how they developed the rover and EDL systems, testing the different elements (since they can’t exactly test the whole thing together without being on Mars!), and how (and how soon) we’ll get data and pictures back from Curiosity!
  • A brief “interruption” by Astronaut John Grunsfeld (@SciAstro) just to sort of say hi and how excited he was about this mission!

…and time for some Q&A with both panels! That’s where it really got “multi-center” – each participating NASA center had a microphone hooked into JPL and the broadcast, so tweeps could ask questions live, regardless of which Social they were physically attending! What was particularly neat to me was how many of the question-askers I had met at prior NASAtweetups! (They’re addictive!) Seriously, I think I knew at least half of the folks who got to ask questions during the broadcast!

If you’ve ever wanted to see what this NASA Social/tweetup stuff is all about, or love tweetups but couldn’t make this one, or were there and just want to relive its awesomeness, you’re in luck! Almost 2 hours of NASA-y goodness are just a play button away!

The next and final segment of the NASA Glenn edition of the Curiosity NASA Social featured GRC’s resident Mars Expert, Geoffrey Landis. We had a whole hour to pick his brain, so covered quite the array of topics – everything from how rovers’ landing sites are selected, the weather on Mars, and a ton about Martian geography, to what it’ll take to get a manned mission to Mars, to how the Mars of science fiction relates to non-fictional Mars! As it happens, he has a pretty unique perspective on that last bit – being both a NASA scientist and award-winning sci-fi author! (Definitely going to have to check out his stories!)

We wrapped up, presented our lovely hosts with a poster signed by the tweeps, and hopped on the buses on last time to head back to our cars. A quick group photo with GRC in the background, and the our NASA Social came to its end… but only officially! Most of us just relocated across the parking lot to the 100th Bomb Group Restaurant for an early dinner and drinks and a few more hours of NASASocializing with our fellow spacetweeps! (Thanks once again to @KelleyApril for organizing!)

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