Groundhog Day at NASA-Ames: Episode 1, The State of NASA

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At Ames: “The Big White Dome”

This is my second “NASA Social”, part of a new(ish) PR program at NASA which is (successfully, I should add), linking the venerable government institution with this modern social-media-dominated universe. At Ames Research Center, which just celebrated its 75th birthday, I even qualify as “younger generation.” That alone is worth the price of admission. Last time, I stayed in the Facebook & Twitter world; this time I worked on my photos & videos for the blog.  While I may not tweet as rapidly as those youngsters sporting Google Glass, I hope I’m bringing a relatively-informed viewpoint to the show along with my fangirl attude.

Yeah, I know. I have my own engineering Ph.D., but I’m still a fangirl when it comes to space stuff, science stuff, and robot stuff.  And the best place to find all that stuff is still NASA.

OK, so, I’m expecting this one to be relatively dull, as the thrilling event of the day is The State of NASA (insert non-martial fanfare here) address being livestreamed from Kennedy on the big screen at the Ames Exploration Center. The last-minute info email the Ames team sent out last night hints at more than that: a “preview” of the ATV-5 re-entry, a “tour” of the Roverscape (a dirt lot with rocks in it), and (oh, joy) all about the new budget proposal.

Waiting for the livestream from Kennedy Center to get under way, it becomes clear we’re really just watching NASA TV, only without access to the DirecTV remote. There’s a very brief, flashy video of inspiring fun NASA images: think ooh! ahh! all accompanied by the voice of the lovely Peter Cullen (aka Optimus Prime). But then NASA TV switches to their familiar old-style rolling globe image with a static “coming next” title. No sound, just a slide. Not something that would get a channel-skipper to pause and watch. A teasing view of the crowd jostling for seating and the Director finding his spot in front of Orion would be more engaging. Maybe they could bring in an intern from a college media studies program to keep viewer interest up when there’s a little delay in an event startup.

Meanwhile, here’s a party game: What did you recognize in that rapid-fire video with Optimus Prime narrating? Here’s my list:

Orion completes first EDL (Courtesy of NASA)

Orion bobbing in the sea

Curiosity exploring Mars

Entry!Descent!Landing!

 

 

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Scott Kelly with SPHERES on the ISS (Courtesy of NASA)

Astronaut Scott Kelly elated for a yearlong mission

ISS’rs playing with SPHERES and R2 the Robonaut

SpaceX and Saturday’s Launch of SMAP

 

 

The View from Ames

The View from Ames

Well, you can watch the State O’ NASA message yourself on YouTube, to get the full effect. It’s only a half-hour, plus that four-minute preview video featuring brief glimpses of the work NASA is doing, with Real Scientists and Engineers. And robots. And Astronauts. Run it in the background while you’re updating your Facebook. Make the kids watch the preview, maybe inspire them to consider training to work at NASA someday.

What you get here is a few my own off-the-cuff reactions and observations.

No surprise, The Journey To Mars is still a core theme. If you’re down on manned spaceflight, one thing I’m noticing is that there is a heck of a lot of science being packed into these projects. It’s almost as if the popularity of the notion of sending human beings to Mars is being leveraged to get more actual discovery accomplished. Hmmmm. As always, at least since Apollo ended, NASA’s a shoestring operation, and it’s rather astonishing just how many things are going on under that big umbrella.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you might not know that our current NASA Fearless Leader is a former astronaut, Charles Bolden. He flew on four Shuttle missions between 1986 and 1994, so he was part of NASA for Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, and Clinton. Ten years after Bolden had left the astronaut business to go back to his first career (the U.S. Marine Corps), G.(noH.)W. Bush got so inspired by the success of the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers that he decided NASA’s new mission should be to get people back to the moon and on to Mars. And just five years after that, Obama put Bolden in charge of that mission, as well as the rest of the tasks NASA manages with a budget equal to about 3% the size of the defense budget.

The fun part of the State of NASA speech was not the words, because they were pretty much what you’d expect: upbeat, replete with “Reach for New Heights” inspirational affirmations. The fun part was the setting: they talked the engineers who’d been happily disassembling the Orion capsule to put it back together, and Bolden gave his talk in front of the blackened shell of the successful first trial of NASA’s new system designed to carry humans into space…even to Mars. To add flavor to the show, the organizers commandeered a space large enough for not one but three future human vehicles. There was a SpaceX Dragon C2+ capsule

Dragon Hangs Out

Dragon Hangs Out

—said to be the actual capsule used for the first successful ISS resupply mission flown by SpaceX—and, for fair balance, a Boeing CST-100 capsule

CST-100 Shows Off Innovative Structure

CST-100 Shows Off Innovative Structure

showing off its innovative weld-free design structure.

Oh, and there were lots more people at Kennedy than we had at Ames. But at Ames, front-row seats were very accessible and anyone wanting to spread out over several seats was just fine.

Just as I notice a poster peering out from the edge of the Orion capsule, with logos and addresses for all NASA’s social-media connections, the feed goes down. The smartphones rotate 90 degrees and are all searching for the livestream. OK, it’s not just Ames, it’s NASA TV. But, really. Hire that intern, guys.

Well, it’s up again within a few minutes, though the audio is sketchy for a bit. What do interns get paid? Like, minimum wage, right?

So here are the highlights picked up in between tweets:

  • The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) gets first mention in the context of pathway to Mars—though we still haven’t decided if the plan is to capture a whole small asteroid or to extract a chunk from a larger asteroid.
  • A glimpse of the budget comes next…there’s a bump-up of $500 million for fiscal 2016, though who knows what Congress will do with the budget request. Keep in mind that NASA’s proposed $18.5 billion is about 3% of the proposed defense budget and about 0.04% of the overall budget. How NASA can do this much with peanuts is amazing. Oh, wait. Suddenly I understand the peanuts ritual at JPL launch & landing events.
  • There’s a return to the Mars topic with shout-outs to all our Mars explorer robots, including a total brag on the U.S. having the first and (so far) only Mars landers. (OK, yes, we still love our friends at ESA, who landed on a comet.)
  • Then we get a reminder of the brilliant science from our telescope projects
    Hubble Reveals the Butterfly Nebula

    Hubble Reveals the Butterfly Nebula (Courtesy of NASA)

    from Hubble (which Bolden helped launch) to Kepler to James Webb. Even Chandra, which does superb work in the X-Ray spectrum, gets a mention this time. And the Solar Dynamics Observatory scores a slot in the closing segment.

    Chandra X-Rays the Universe

    Chandra X-Rays the Universe (Courtesy of NASA)

     

  • The Shuttle program is over, but it still makes it into the talk. Keep in mind Bolden is a shuttle veteran but also remember that, like his boss, he’s the first African-American to hold his job. Bolden flags the Shuttle program as the one that brought diversity to NASA, since it finally opened up space to women, minorities, and others who previously “wouldn’t have a chance to fly”. That is the thing he tells us to view as the crucial long-term legacy of the shuttle program. (Side note: Bolden’s Deputy Administrator for 2009-2013 was the first woman to hold that position, Lori Garver.)
  • There’s a reminder that the money spent on space is money spent in the U.S., from small business to large ones, from textile mills to welding shops. And the cash gets shared out, with 37 states having a stake in the commercial crew mission.
  • Education gets a nod, though to be honest I’m a little disappointed that what gets the splash are the student science program at ISS and the flight of a student project on the Orion test flight. Those big projects still tend to end up at private and/or privileged schools, since it takes resources to play. I might have gone for a specific shout-out to one of the schools for which participation was a big leap, like Oakland’s Urban Promise Academy Still, if there’s a kid doing a science report who hasn’t logged into a NASA website, then that kid doesn’t have internet access.
  • All right, then we get a round of teasers on upcoming technological developments: “green” (less-polluting) propellants, advanced autonomous robotics, high-power solar electric propulsion, aviation advancements.
  • NASA’s moving forward in its ongoing role in earth and climate science. We’ve got that successful launch of the SMAP climate science satellite (http://smap.jpl.nasa.gov/), just a week ago, which has both direct practical applications for agriculture. And the Airborne Snow Observatory has already produced data to help with the drought in the West, especially California, where snowpack is key to water supplies.
  • True to the core message, the closing draws focus back to Mars, promising a geophysics mission with the InSight lander scheduled to launch in March of next year.   And a taste of special features planned for the Mars 2020  successor to Curiosity, including a way to shoot a sample back home to Earth.
The Core Message

The Core Message

 

One last item in the dark hall of the Exploration Center: we get to watch a video from the re-entry of ESA’s ATV-1.  Kinda cool, but old-school, dating back to 2008. But this is just a teaser, for the upcoming re-entry of ATV-5. Here we’re working at the opposite end of the scale from Orion and Dragon, where the concern is careful braking and heat-shield materials and safe landings. These re-entries are in the realm of Design for Demise, in which hardware at the end of its life is sent down to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. It’s not as simple as it might seem, when your goal is to NOT have bits of debris landing on the surface. I snipped together my video of their video to make a one-minute infomercial for ATV-5. Well, one does what one can:

There are two instrument packages onboard ready to monitor descent. ESA’s contribution is a video camera (wow!) while NASA’s package records acoustic data, temperatures, deceleration info and more. ESA's Camera Setup for ATV-5Both will “phone in” their results using the Iridium satellite network. Yep, ESA and NASA will be totally outclassing everyone else’s phone video uploads that day.  (ESA’s page is complete with a countdown clock. The twitter tag will be #bigdive.)

 

Next up:  At the Roverscape

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