"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Vignettes from my Pilgrimage to NASA Glenn

No revelations, folks. No confirming of a rigid ideology or one true body politic. No sense of the struggle ending and the golden age beginning. Something wonderful but far more understated happened when I arrived at the place I sought. Upon arrival, this pilgrim saw what he expected to see, felt what he expected to feel, and left fully satisfied that he had visited a special and worthy place.

Through Security at Glenn Research Center

On Friday, August 3rd at 7:00 am, I stepped up to a small table in an old parking lot outside Cleveland’s airport and handed my driver’s license to a man with a gun. Oddly, it was a cordial moment. But for his security uniform and firearm, it wouldn’t be off the mark to say that this particular guard was a teddy bear of a man. He gave his post-9/11 “We’re just being careful” spiel with the warm gentility of Mr. Rogers. It takes a special quality to warn people while simultaneously making them feel welcome.

Security followed our group from building to building all day long. But it was quid pro quo at Glenn. We space bloggers were keeping an eye on NASA as well. Our adoration is not unconditional. We second-guess our beloved agency all the time.

It’s important to emphasize that security is a shell. And once inside the shell, we were given a great deal of access. Still, the longest our leash ever got was during lunch hour. We were permitted to mill at will between the employee gift shop and the cafeteria, where tables were set aside.

I suppose you can learn something about a NASA enthusiast’s priorities by whether he shops first and eats second or vice versa. I had a veggie wrap with Swiss cheese, Italian dressing, and sweet pickles on the side. It gave me a clear head for when it came time to choose a postcard for my nieces and nephews.

Greetings from the Higher-Ups

I was one of about two-dozen bloggers invited to tour facilities at NASA Glenn. In turn, we participated in a multi-site broadcast originating out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. We previewed the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory. Our morning included brief hellos from Glenn director Ray Lugo and astronaut Greg “Box” Johnson, who piloted the final flight of the shuttle Endeavor.

Mars Science Laboratory, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The subtext of their and other NASA officials’ remarks was explicit: Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, might crash. Only about a third of everything we’ve tried to land on Mars has done so successfully. One of my favorite remarks, darkly humorous, came from an employee who said (and I paraphrase), ‘This thing is going to land on Mars. No doubt. It’s just a question of how fast it will be going when it reaches the surface.’ We chuckled, but in discreet moments some of us confessed real doubt that Curiosity would land safely. Of course, that’s history. Curiosity did land!

On August 3, however, we kept most of our worries to ourselves and enjoyed touring a center of research and development. This is a long post, so if you’d prefer, feel free to jump over and browse my complete album on Picasa.

NASA’s Mighty Wind

The 10x10 Supersonic Wind Tunnel is easily one of the coolest things at Glenn. In 2008 NASA used it to do scaled-down tests of Curiosity’s parachute, which had to open at supersonic speed in the Martian atmosphere. Keep in mind that only the test section of the wind tunnel is 10x10. The entire facility is roughly the size of a city block. One of my favorite moments was when the gentleman below matter-of-factly told us that tests done at Mach 2 are “low-end.”

NASA employee discusses wind tunnel testing

They let us stand inside the wind tunnel, but I don’t have a picture worth showing. The eyes were willing but my camera was weak. Thankfully, one of my fellow bloggers, Alicia, had a better camera. Visit her blog and scroll down to the third pic. Now here is a short, admittedly crude, video from the control room where they played back the test for us.

There was a funny moment in the control room when a NASA engineer answered a technical question. After giving a best guess, she paused for perhaps a second and then added, “…but don’t quote me on that.” Immediately several Wi-Fi-happy tweeters responded in chorus, “Too late.” Everyone, including the NASA engineer, shared a hearty chuckle.

Throughout the day we visited several venues, including a sensors lab where high temperature testing is done. The goals are increasing air safety and reducing emissions for jet airplanes. We also visited the Stirling lab where Plutonium-238 (not the bomb-grade 239) is used to quadruple engine efficiency on spacecraft. Yeah, we all wish gasoline engines could jump from 30 miles per gallon to 120.

NASA Gives Us Wheels

We had a lot of fun in the SLOPE facility, where a new lunar rover is being put through terrain tests.

We took turns holding a replica lunar rover wheel from the old Apollo days. One of these replicas is the middle tire above. Turns out these wheels were made with hand-woven piano wire. (Yes, Mom. I did ask the engineer which piano wire they used. He didn’t know offhand. From eyeballing, I’d say it’s a wire for the treble clef.) Now please pardon some extremely grainy video below. This short clip shows the considerable abilities of the prototype rover, including "inch-worming". Let’s get it to the moon!

Mingling with the Experts

Our day culminated in a quintessential briefing room scene, gulping down soda and bottled water while watching PowerPoint presentations and jaw-dropping video. All the while we tweeted facts and figures served up by NASA VIPs. Not all of our tweets were technical in nature. Here is one I posted that NASA retweeted to over 40,000 people:

One of the treats of the day was meeting with NASA scientist and award-winning sci-fi author Geoffrey Landis.

Many of the questions we fired at Landis, a Mars expert, focused on proposed future missions. Here, more than at any other point during the day, discussing tight (some of us prefer the term "stifling") budgets was unavoidable. However, Landis focused his remarks on the wonders of Mars, a planet that becomes more fascinating the closer we study it.

Being Social Because of NASA

In the week since the social, especially as I sit alone typing this, I’ve been struck by a realization. In contrast to almost every other thing I’ve used the Internet for, this NASA Social increased my in-person socializing with others. Overwhelmingly, even on Facebook, surfing the Internet remains a solitary experience…but not this time.

On August 3rd, thanks to our gracious hosts at Glenn, we bloggers shook hands. We literally rubbed shoulders while tweeting in cramped laboratory space. And we smiled and joked face to face while sharing lunch and dinner together. I tend to be reserved in new company, but I prevailed on a fellow blogger to help me take a goofy picture in the employee Exchange Store.

Got anything larger in the back?

Parting Nod to Peaceful Exploration

NASA brings people together and gets them talking. NASA Glenn in particular voices the mantra to dream big. This is done in the name of peaceful exploration for the benefit of humankind. If that benefit is not yet evident to you, I encourage you to visit any of NASA’s many online pages. You might start with @MarsCuriosity on Twitter, where the photographs of a neighboring world are beginning to roll in.

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