EarthKAM!

I recently visited Christine Mendonca’s class at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School to talk about my favorite subject: SPACE! After learning about the history of human space flight, the students learned about Sally Ride EarthKAM – a digital camera, mounted in the window of the International Space Station, which allows students to photograph the Earth from space by submitting photo requests that are transmitted to the Station. The students at Vartan brainstormed areas of the Earth they were curious to see from space. Today, I visited the students again to showcase their results!

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2016 App Submitted

Last-minute tips on your application to #BeAnAstronaut

The moment is finally here. After months of obsessing over our applications to “#BeAnAstronaut,” we will finally be released from worry by the closing of the announcement! Rumor has it that over 8,000 people have already applied to be a member of the NASA Astronaut Class of 2017. If NASA selects 8 Astronaut Candidates (like last time) then we need to show off what makes us 1 in 1,000+. How does someone make the cut between “Highly Qualified” and “Better luck next time”? Since we still have a day or so to fiddle with our resumes, here are a few tips for folks like me who just can’t stop wondering if their application could use a last, little bit of polish.

DISCLAIMER: I am neither an expert nor a member of the Astronaut Selection Board; this is my first time applying, and at least one astronaut applied fifteen times before being selected. Over the years, however, my friends at NASA and I have had many conversations with folks related to astronaut selection. This is a compilation of the advice garnered in these many conversations – which I am passing along to help my fellow astronaut hopefuls reach for the stars! (Yes, I’m cheesy, too.)

The Number One Question any reviewer asks: Would I want to go to space with this person? Astronauts spend days in small capsules with their crewmates. The Space Station, though it has the volume of a 3-bedroom home, is still a relatively small, confined space isolated from the rest of humanity. Evaluating whether an applicant would fare well in these circumstances – whether they’d get along with their crew, be productive, stay calm under stress, etc. – is understandably a key consideration in the selection of astronauts.

Answering that question via the current application system requires you to be a bit of a resume Jedi. If you’re reading this you probably already know that the application itself is technically quite simple, which is a big change from the astronaut applications of old. There’s no personal statement, no cover letter, no “why I want to be an astronaut” section. It is, simply, your resume in the standard USA Jobs format. In this case, though, you’re applying for a highly unique job (understatement of the century) and it’s important to keep yourself from being confined to the “resume box.” Astronauts need a broad skillset, and some of the important skills – like how good you are at fixing things – may be hard to communicate via a traditional resume. As astronaut Cady Coleman told me, “If you think it’s important [to answering the questions below], find a place to highlight it,” even if you have to be creative with your resume’s content.

In addition to the “big question” above, here are some specific questions a potential reviewer might ask as they look over your application:

  1. Does this person have “operational” experience? Do they have experience working in isolation?
  2. How well does their work experience relate to being an astronaut?
  3. Can this person adapt to new situations and environments? Space is a new environment for most people. (Understatement of the century #2.)
  4. Is this person handy? Can they fix things and follow directions? As a former ISS flight controller, I know from experience that astronauts spend a lot of time fixing things – including the space toilet. They also have to follow procedures to correctly run research experiments, so following directions well is key!
  5. Can this person learn new languages?
  6. Is this person a team player? As Duane Ross said in his interview with Popular Science, “Everything we do at JSC and the other centers is a team effort, whether a big team or as small as a flight crew.”
  7. Do they have the ability to push themselves physically and mentally?
  8. Would this person be a good representative of NASA?

You’re off to a good start if your application addresses these questions. I hope that sharing this compiled advice helps you put your best foot forward and, perhaps, end up on a spaceship someday. Good luck!

Now, off to proofread my application one more time…

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In addition to personal communications, this post also draws from two sources:

[1] Hadhazy, A. “Popular Science Q&A: How NASA Selected the 2013 Class of Astronauts” Popular Science. 31 Jan. 2013

[2] Anderson, C. C. (2015). The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut. U of Nebraska Press.

 

Women eXploring Space: Eryn Beisner, Spacewalk Controller

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to walk in space? Eryn Beisner knows better than most Earth-bound astronaut hopefuls what it’s like to put on the big white suit and climb out of the airlock. She teaches astronauts how to walk in space – and maybe, someday, she’ll get to take a zero-gravity jaunt, too!

…mankind’s role in the cosmos is here to stay and there’s no going back, only forward.” – Eryn Beisner

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Eryn Beisner, EVA Flight Controller (photo credit: NASA)

What is your role in space exploration?

I work on the ExtraVehicular Activity (EVA) Flight Control Team at the Johnson Space Center. Simply put, we train astronauts how to spacewalk and watch over them during an EVA from the Mission Control Center. We are the experts on the space station airlock, spacesuits, and the tools and systems that support EVA.

Fun Fact: The first EVA was performed by Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in 1965. Since then, more than 200 people have walked in space!

How did you get to where you are? Did you always know this is what you wanted to do, or has it been a winding path?

It’s been a little of both. I’ve known since I was 8 years old that I wanted to work for NASA. Like most children at one point or another, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I still do and am actively pursuing that goal. Since you can’t get hired right out of school as a professional astronaut, I had to find something else to do in the meantime but I didn’t know what that could be. I was fortunate enough to be hired at JSC [Johnson Space Center] only a few months after I graduated college. [It] Being my first job in the industry and honestly, not knowing any better, I was going to take whatever I could get and work from there. That was in 2008 and I held two different positions in various engineering groups before I found my way to the EVA Flight Control Team. They were all good jobs and great for life experience, but I can honestly say I LOVE my current job. It’s quite literally the next best thing to being an astronaut.  Because we train astronauts, we frequently get to do the same training they do in order to make us better instructors and flight controllers. This means I’ve gotten to wear the spacesuit myself and take it for a run at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL), where we can simulate the microgravity effects of space. That was the highlight of my career thus far!

Fun Fact: The Neutral Buoyancy Lab is a 6 million-gallon pool near Johnson Space Center, holding an entire mockup of the International Space Station. Astronauts (and their instructors) are able to make themselves “neutrally buoyant” – that is, they neither sink nor float in the water – to simulate the zero gravity of space.

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Eryn suited up in a training version of the suit astronauts wear when conducting spacewalks.

Was there a certain person or event that inspired you to pursue a job at NASA?

Absolutely: my parents. We lived in Florida, not far from Cape Canaveral, when I was young child and they made a point to take my sister and I to the shuttle launches. Living that close to Kennedy Space Center we also made trips to the space exhibits. My parents instilled in me the excitement [of] space exploration and the thirst for curiosity for knowledge. They always supported me when I told them I wanted to be an astronaut and never once suggested I wasn’t good enough or that it was not something girls did. When it came time to look at colleges and chose a field of study, they suggested I pick engineering since NASA is well known for hiring engineers. When I found myself struggling in school, they were there to remind me of my dreams and encourage me to keep pushing. I owe a lot of where I am today to them and their unfaltering faith in me.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job(s) at NASA? What was most surprising?

The most rewarding aspects of my job is actually talking to people outside of NASA. I love visiting classrooms or chatting with strangers. I always get lots of questions because most people are very curious and excited about NASA. I get a giddy thrill engaging them in conversation and making them feel comfortable enough to ask me their most embarrassing question (usually “how do astronauts use the bathroom in space?”). My favorite moment is when a student asks me a question phrased in such a way that they think they already know the answer is a negative one. When I can tell them “Absolutely you can do it too!” or “What you’ve heard is not true!” and see that look of disbelief (and, daresay hope?), in their eyes. That’s the most rewarding feeling in the world. I truly hope I’ve made a difference in at least one person and helped them on their journey just as I’ve been helped along mine.

You’ve been in a spacesuit, underwater at the NBL. What was it like? Were you nervous? Scared? Excited? What did you do while underwater?

It was amazing, difficult, exhausting, painful, and exhilarating all rolled up together and I can’t wait to do it again! What an eye opening experience. I have newfound appreciation for what our astronauts go through in EVAs. The suit, even when fitted correctly, is very tight and can make you feel a little claustrophobic. You have to learn to move with it and not fight it when it fights you. The neutral buoyancy sensation in the water is fantastic and very much how I imagined it would be to be weightless. I was excited for the opportunity (my inner child was beside herself!) and nervous I would make terrible mistakes in front of the family and friends who came to watch me. We did a basic training run; the same introduction course we teach new astronauts. That involved skills like learning how to get one from point to another using your hands and safety tethers and how to successfully operate the commonly used tools to accomplish basic tasks.  Between the pressurized suit and the dynamics of moving in a weightless environment, everything you thought you knew kind of gets thrown out the window. It’s quite literally like learning how to walk again!

Eryn Astronaut 2

Eryn floating in the NBL, learning about the tasks astronauts do while walking in space. (Photo credit: NASA)

What kind of training got you ready for your “EVA” in the NBL?

My crew mate and I were given training on what we would be doing in the water, how to use the tools, safety protocols, and communication procedures. Also you need to be somewhat physically fit to operate the suit (hence why you’ll never see a fat astronaut!). So we hit the gym together regularly and worked on our aerobic endurance and strength. Because the suit is pressurized you have to fight against that pressure just to move. It’s like a constant arm wrestling contest any time you want to use your hands. So we did a lot of strength training in the months leading up to it and even then we were pretty tired by the end of our run. I noticed my hands were becoming clumsy when using the tools that required dexterity.

What is your advice for young people interested in someday having a job like yours?

There are going to be many times when people, yourself included, make you feel like you’re not good enough to do something this amazing. As if you have to be born a rocket scientist and anything less will lead to certain disaster. They won’t take you seriously when you tell them your goals and they’ll say discouraging thing like “That’s going to be so difficult. Why would you want to do that when you can do this instead?” To me those kinds of words always held a terrible underlying message: I think you’re going to fail. If you’re not careful you’ll find yourself believing it too. I’m certainly guilty of this. Quite frankly they are stupid, and they are wrong. I was reading an article about how people succeed and found this quote that I love and try to live by every time I start doubting myself. What a difference it’s made:

“You have to do the hard things in life. The things that no one else is doing. The things that scare you. The things that make you wonder how much longer you can hold on. Those are the things that define you. Those are the things that make the difference between living a life of mediocrity or outrageous success.”

The Apollo 11 moon landings defined space exploration for an entire generation of NASA employees. What mission or event do you think defines our generation of space explorers?

Ooh good question! I don’t know if it was or will be any one event. I grew up in the golden years of the shuttle program, which certainly impacted me. Then we have our International Space Station which is still going strong and making headlines almost every month. I think the Mars Curiosity Rover was another noteworthy event in which the whole world stopped for a moment and marveled at its significance. Personally I’d love to see a serious plan to get back to the Moon and establish a permanent lunar base.  I think that would solidify in the public’s mind that mankind’s role in the cosmos is here to stay and there’s no going back, only forward.

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The Great Instron Migration

The last few months have seen an almost unbelievable brightening in the light at the end of my PhD tunnel. Why? WE MOVED A MACHINE.

Yep. And you thought I was going to explain some insanely cool data I’d collected.

The triumph this month was relocating our Instron apparatus (which I highlighted in a recent post) to our new and improved Ice Lab. It’s something I’ve relentlessly coordinated (= was an interminable squeaky wheel to the people with the means and power to actually make this happen) over the last few years, and at times it seemed like the Instron would remain in purgatory across the street. First, we needed a place to put it. Then a lab space opened up, but we had to wait almost a year for the outgoing professor to take all of his equipment off to his new job (to be fair to him, though, he did let me use his lab equipment while it was still around).  The room needed a paint job, deep cleaning, and a new power outlet to accept the machine. Finally, at the beginning of my fourth year at Brown, the Instron began its journey.

In other words, instant activation of Mother Hen Mode occurred as the means of accomplishing my PhD research rose into the air, balancing on a 4×4 on a forklift.

First motion of the Instron!

First motion of the Instron!

What surprised – and scared – me was that the forklift/4×4 combo was lifting the machine by its crosshead (the big, tan bar at the top). Nobody had discussed the fact that the clamps holding that crosshead onto the machine, which were now supporting the entire weight of the machine, were meant to resist only the force of the machine itself pushing on a test specimen. Would they now hold up the entire 1,200 lbs of very expensive apparatus? I didn’t know, nobody had checked in advance, and the legs of the Instron were gently swaying with every turn of the forklift. It was too late now! I closed my eyes, then turned away to find something to distract me while the forklift driver expertly navigated a maze of equipment between our machine and the exit.

I let out a huge sigh of relief when those legs once again met the ground outside. Thank you, Instron, for designing good clamps!

From there, a few “simple” steps got the Instron across the street and into our nice, new lab.

Step 1: Tip the machine on its side.

Timmmmberrrrr!

Step 2: Drive it onto a truck.

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Step 3: Drive it from the truck onto the loading dock at GeoChem.

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The conversation here went like this:

Rigger: “Are you sure those loading dock plates can support the weight of the forklift?”

Bill (guy in the photo): “Yeah, they’re 100 lbs of steel apiece.”

Forklift starts driving…

Bill: “Stop! Stop! The plates are bending!”

Fortunately, we were able to move the Instron onto a dolly and roll it into the loading bay without the forklift!

Step 4: Fit the Instron into…

a) the elevator

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b) a tiny doorway into the lab.

20150921_100535     20150921_100651Fortunately, we tested this procedure in advance with an incredibly high-fidelity INSTRON SIMULATOR.

Instron Simulator

The extreme high-fidelity Instron simulator. Yes, I got to spend a day doing crafts! These are skills I learned while working at NASA.

At long last, the Instron is in the Ice Lab.

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Now I can get started with the last phase of my research! You’ll be the first to know when that incredibly cool data comes out.

How Studying Geology Makes Me a Better Engineer

When I tell people that I decided to “leave engineering and become a geologist,” most of them respond with, “Wow, that’s different!”, or “That’s quite the change.” And initially, I thought the same thing. How much can building spacecraft and studying rocks overlap???

The years since beginning grad school have been eye-opening, to say the least.

As an engineering student I learned about materials; how to understand their limits and avoid them, so that I could design part of a machine, building, or spacecraft, secure in the knowledge that the item – whatever it was – wouldn’t fall apart. “How much load can you put on this steel beam before it bends? Divide that number by 2.5 and you’ve got your design limit.” Engineering is about avoiding breaking or bending, because when beams bend or a bolt breaks, your machine becomes useless at best and dangerous at worst.

Well, too bad for all the engineers: the Earth is CONSTANTLY BREAKING AND BENDING. Faults like the San Andreas are brittle fractures of the Earth. The Earth’s mantle is solid rock that is, at the same time, in constant, incredibly slow motion. So the study of geology is about understanding the limits of a different material – rock – and what happens after you go beyond them.

To that end, “we” (geologists and engineers) have spent unbelievable amounts of time coming up with carefully crafted machines – which need to avoid breaking – to squish the heck out of rocks – which we want to break or flow – and see what happens.

In my research, the rock in question is made up of a mineral called ice. Yes, ice is a rock!

To figure out what happens when ice is pushed beyond its limits, I had to apply my engineering background to designing an experimental apparatus that could a) keep my ice from melting, while b) measuring the extremely slow (you might even say “glacial!”) change of shape of the ice during my experiments. Geology provides the “design requirements,” which I then employ to make engineering decisions while designing the machine. The process has challenged my engineering skills and pushed me to develop better understanding of aspects of engineering – such as measurement system design – which I had little experience in.

The result? A machine originally designed for engineering tests, now outfitted with a cooling chamber that goes down to -100 degrees C and a sensor system capable of measuring position changes as small as 0.000000001 meters.

It looks like this:

Cryostat Detail

So despite most peoples’ first impressions, geology and engineering have a lot in common. In the process of using my geologic knowledge to define expectations for a machine, then using my engineering background to design, fabricate, and integrate the apparatus, I’ve merged two seemingly disparate fields and become better at both… meaning that my new job title is really “engineer and geologist,” rather than “engineer-turned-geologist.”

Geologists and Engineers Head North to Find… Ice!

There are a lot of people who, like me, spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about ice. One of those people is my friend, Dr. Rachel Obbard, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College and an expert on the microscopic features of ice. Right now she’s bundled up in Barrow, Alaska with a team of fellow scientists and engineers, hunting for the perfect sea ice to take back to her microscope.

Rachel and her team are keeping an excellent blog about their adventures. Click on over to The ICE-MITT Project to follow along with their science mission, learn about the unique challenges posed by  field research on ice (polar bears included!), and see what sorts of crazy antics they get up to on their snowmobiles.

Drama on the Space Station! Follow Along from Mission Control

The International Space Station has been in the news today due to a (probably false) ammonia leak. As a former flight controller, just thinking about an ammonia leak in the ISS gave me an adrenaline rush. What does this mean, and why is it such a serious situation for the astronauts aboard the orbiting laboratory? Read on!

You can also follow along with the action as if you were sitting in Mission Control. The NASA website ISS Live! streams real data from the International Space Station. Open it up in a separate tab, then keep reading – I’ll talk you through the signs of today’s action.

Once it’s open, click on “Live Data.” This page shows you the crew’s schedule and tells you a bit about what the astronauts are doing at any given moment. Of course, their schedules are completely messed up on a day like today!

Next, click on “Console Displays.” This brings up a spreadsheet-looking page with a bunch of crazy acronyms on it. Each of those acronyms is the call sign of a flight controller in Mission Control! You can spend a lot of time clicking around, learning about the different disciplines (most of the pages even have short PDF documents that explain the job of that flight controller in a bit more detail – and they’re written in plain English, not engineer-ese)! But for today, click on ETHOS: the flight controller who monitors the air, water, and cooling systems inside the ISS.

You’re now looking at a small subset of the data an actual ETHOS flight controller sees when they are sitting in the Mission Control Center.

ISS Live ETHOS screenshot

The data is laid out in a pattern similar to what the space station looks like if viewed from above (compare to the picture of the station below). In the center is the “Destiny Lab,” which is where a lot of the science is conducted on ISS. You’ll see the pressure in the station, temperature, composition of the air (partial pressure of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide), as well as whether the fans in the Lab are running. Similar information is given for the other core modules (which I can go into later, if you ask via a comment).

Now, a little background on today’s issue:

The ammonia on the ISS is part of the “External Thermal Control System”: NASA lingo for pipes filled with cold ammonia that take heat from inside the space station and move it outside, to two huge radiators which then cast off that heat into space. It’s something like the antifreeze in your car, which takes the heat from your engine and gets rid of it through your radiator. See the big, silver, rectangular panels sticking out the back of the space station in the photo below? Those are the radiators with ammonia flowing through them.

ISSOf course, ammonia is extremely poisonous to humans. Why would the Station use such a dangerous chemical for heat transport? It’s really good at it! It also doesn’t freeze at the extremely cold temperatures outside the Station.

The engineers who designed the ISS knew that it could be dangerous and went to extraordinary lengths to make the space station safe, but there’s always the (very, very small) possibility that the cooling system will leak and ammonia will enter the living area of the Space Station. The astronauts are trained to respond immediately to the slightest sign of a leak.  They drop what they are doing and get to the Russian Segment of the Space Station as fast as they can!

An ETHOS flight controller in Mission Control looks for a couple of different things when watching for an ammonia leak. As a NASA press release said this morning, one of the signs is a cabin pressure increase from the ammonia entering the air. You can keep an eye our for this, too, by checking the Pressure in the Destiny Lab and the Quest Airlock!

The Russian-built modules of the ISS do not use ammonia coolant. By sealing themselves into that part of the ISS, the astronauts are then safe from exposure to ammonia. That’s what the crew did this morning when the signs of an ammonia leak started.

While it’s starting to look like this was a false leak (perhaps a sensor gone bad inside the cooling system), flight controllers in Mission Control took action to help keep the crew safe. You can see this if you look at the ETHOS display again. The “coolant temperature” in the Harmony Node is very high (>33 degrees C as I write this). This is because flight controllers shut down the cooling loop, which would slow down a leak (if there were one). Without cooling, the temperature started rising!

You can also see this by going to Page 2 of the ETHOS displays (which, conveniently, also has a simple diagram of how the cooling system works inside the ISS). Look at the temperatures of the cooling loops – see how the temperature in the Lab is low, but the temperature in Harmony is high? The Lab temperature is normal. As the flight controllers in Mission Control get the Space Station back to normal, you’ll see the temperature in Harmony come back down – fast! Also look for the cabin fan in Harmony to come back on.

At this point, most of the high drama is over and it sounds like the crew will safely return to the rest of the Space Station soon. You can keep watching ISS Live! throughout the evening, looking for signs that life is getting back to normal in orbit. For now, I hope you enjoyed taking a look at a flight controller’s point of view!