Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

A Visit With NASA

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

I sometimes wonder if the glory days of human space exploration have passed us by, and I’m forever stuck in a post-Apollo world.

Though I wasn’t alive for it, a story of excitement, patriotism, and adventure inspired by NASA and its brave astronauts has been portrayed in countless books and documentaries since the 1960s. I never cease to be amazed at what humanity was capable of between 1961 and 1969. In the following decades, however, NASA has battled wavering support and a volatile budget amidst a ruthless political landscape, resulting in the inability to capture the public attention like it once did.

I visited NASA’s Glenn Research Center this week for an all-access tour of the facility. I came away from the experience awestruck and captivated, but more than anything, with the firm belief that the drive and determination established in 1961 has returned.


Skylab III Apollo Capsule at the Glenn Visitors Center

Skylab III Apollo Capsule at the Glenn Visitors Center

Weeks ago I had seen a news article about NASASocial – a new NASA programmed designed to give those heavily involved in social media a chance to visit their local NASA centers to meet with some of the employees and tour the facility. Though I thought Vikings Astronomy didn’t stand much of a chance, I applied for the opportunity, and nearly forgot about it.

Last Thursday I received an email from NASA, and the first word was “CONGRATULATIONS!” Instantly I knew I was soon to be on my way to Cleveland, OH, to visit the Glenn Research Center, so named for John H. Glenn, the first American to orbit the planet.

wpid-20150202_115718.jpgDue to the winter weather of the Midwest, I traveled to Cleveland a couple days early, and was able to visit the Glenn Visitors Center located in the Great Lakes Science Center. The star of the show is the Apollo capsule used for Skylab III, the second manned mission to the Skylab space station flown in 1973. Interestingly, two of the thrusters on the spacecraft leaked while docked to the station, and for the first time in American spaceflight a second craft was brought to the pad in case an emergency rescue was required. Fortunately the craft was able to maneuver back into Earth’s atmosphere, and a rescue was not needed.


On Campus

Jim Free, Director of NASA Glenn

Jim Free, Director of NASA Glenn

My official NASA visit began with a visit to the security center located at the main entrance of the 350 acre campus. After my credentials had been verified and a photo had been taken, I was directed to a nearby parking lot. Shortly thereafter arrived a shuttle, taking myself and my fellow social media enthusiasts to the new Mission Integration Center. There we were welcomed by Kathy Zona, the Center’s public affairs officer.

Administrator Bolden's speech

Administrator Bolden’s speech featuring the CST-100, Orion, and Dragon Capsules


After meeting some of the team, we were introduced to Jim Free, the Directory of Glenn Research Center. Jim gave us a quick overview of the facility, and what was in store for the day. Watching via webcast, we listened to NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, give an impassioned State of NASA speech. Placed directly behind Bolden were three icons of NASA’s future, the Boeing CST-100, the SpaceX Dragon, and the Orion crew capsules. All three will be making manned spaceflight missions in the next five years.


NASA Tour Bus


Following the speech, we were ushered back outside to what will probably be the coolest bus I have ever ridden on. Covered in future NASA spacecraft, the interior is fully loaded with NASA embroidered leather seats, LCD TVs flanking every row, and a ceiling speckled with white LEDs, bearing a strong resemblance to the night sky.


Dr. Dave Manzella presenting SEP

Dr. Dave Manzella presenting SEP

Our first stop was the Solar Electric Propulsion building. While standing inside the opened vacuum chamber, we were treated to an in depth explanation of Solar Electric Propulsion – a technology utilizing electricity captured via solar panels which excites ions to incredible speeds, providing thrust. The talk was given by Dr. David Manzella, a senior engineer on SEP, and obviously very passionate about its development. SEP is currently being used in numerous space applications, including the DAWN mission which is nearing the solar system’s largest asteroid, Ceres. SEP provides very little thrust – only what a paperclip exerts on your hand – but can be run for years at a time and is extremely efficient when compared to traditional chemical rockets.


Clayton Meyers presenting Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) Research

Clayton Meyers presenting Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) Research

Another journey across the complex brought us to Building 5, where cutting edge research into aviation is taking place. NASA is currently partnering with GE Aviation to increase fuel efficiency out of jet engines. GE is able to utilize not only the state-of-the-art facilities provided by NASA, but also its expertise in the field. Presenter Clayton Meyers has more than three decades of experience in aeronautics, and was extremely knowledgeable about the process and products being developed in his facility.

One of NASA's T34 Aircraft

One of NASA’s T34 Aircraft

Our last stop was perhaps the most impressive. Built during the height of WWII, this massive airplane hangar is the icon of the Glenn Research Center. Within it are a multitude of aircraft, including a number of Learjets, and a massive S-3B Viking. From Roger Tokars and pilot Jim Demers we learned about NASA’s efforts to research the recent algae bloom occurring in Lake Erie using a T34 aircraft modified to fly with a unique spectral analysis instrument. This information has been critical in helping identify and predict the location of contaminating algae.

Roger Tokars giving a talk on algae bloom detection

Roger Tokars giving a talk on algae bloom detection

A final ride back to the Mission Integration Center brought us to a demonstration on a new research project to help determine the cause of ice buildup within the turbines of jet engines. Donning 3D glasses, we watched a simulation of the giant chamber developed to recreate the atmospheric conditions of an aircraft at cruising altitude. NASA is partnering with engine manufacturers to understand and help mitigate this phenomena to ensure safer travel for commercial passengers.

Our final presentation was a phone conference regarding the proposed 2016 budget. The president has requested an increase of $500 million to NASA’s budget over 2015, much of which will go to human space travel and new mission planning to an asteroid and Europa.


Looking Back


NASA Tour Bus

Upon reflection of my time at NASA Glenn Research Center, I came away with a few realizations that aren’t quite captured in news stories or press releases.

First, I believe much of the public has a strong misconception that NASA is a waste of public resources, as there is no economical return on sending probes to other planets or moons. But in actuality, the planet studied the most by NASA is the one we live on. NASA lends its expertise, facilities, and research to private companies to not only improve their efficiency, but their safety as well. They also are pivotal in rapid response to large-scale environmental issues such as the algae bloom in Lake Erie. It’s not just that NASA research has spin-off technology that eventually trickles down to the consumer; they are making real contributions to real issues right now.

Additionally, I really get a sense that NASA’s space division is finally setting its sights on the ultimate goal of our generation – Mars. We’ve had rovers there for nearly 20 years, but as humans, we do not truly experience another place until one of our own visits. I believe NASA is determined to avoid setbacks from the volatile support of congress, and ultimately put people on Mars by their stated goal of the mid 2030’s. I can sense this in every aspect of NASA I interfaced with – the missions, the budget, the technology, and most importantly, the people.wpid-20150202_131846.jpg

The people. What I took away most from my visit with NASA was not the futuristic space technology, or the cutting edge research, but the passion and drive of its people. Every single person I talked to was buzzing about their contribution to America’s space program. I could tell this wasn’t just a job, or even a career, but a purpose for their life. Keenly aware of the challenges laid before them, they all attacked their work with the mentality that anything less than absolute success was unacceptable, and their contributions to our society and its future are real and tangible.

Needless to say, I will be applying to the next NASASocial Event.


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