Tag Archives: NASA

Book Review – The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Apologies for the long silence here recently.  Work travel schedule has been a little crazy – in fact, there was only one day this week where I was not on an airplane.

But all this travel afforded me some good audiobook listening time in the various car and airplane rides, so I finally got around to one that has been on my list for ages.  I have wanted to learn more about the Mercury 13 for quite a while, so I used one of my stacked-up Audible credits to pick up The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann.

Written with a beautiful forward by journalist (and NASA journalist in space finalist, before that program was canceled) Lynn Sherr, the book tells the story of some incredible pioneering women in the early days of manned spaceflight.  Their stories are interwoven with political and social context of the times, giving excellent perspective on what was happening – and why- with astronaut selections.

It’s amazing to me just how close we came to having a female astronaut in the early days of the Mercury program.  The Lovelace Foundation privately put thirteen women through the same testing as the male Mercury astronauts, and they excelled.  In many cases, the blew the men out of the water with their performance on those tests.  Mary “Wally” Funk, for example, stayed in the sensory deprivation chamber for a record-setting 10 hours, 35 minutes.  There was also a strong argument for using astronauts who were smaller and lighter in a time when the U.S. space program was having difficulty getting larger payloads to orbit.

The frustrations, challenges, and – in many cases – outright sexism and unfairness did not deter these women.  They continued their personal careers pioneering as champion air racers, military reservists, FAA examiners, flight instructions, and commercial pilots, while also hoping and fighting for the chance to go to space.  NASA’s blanket policy of only using military test pilots unilaterally barred women.  Since women were not allowed to be military test pilots, none would ever pass that wicket  – NASA didn’t need to specifically say “no women allowed,” they just had to include a prerequisite that already said it for them.  The all-white-protestant-male face of NASA would not change for many more years, but it’s important that we don’t forget that there were women who were more than qualified and fighting to go.

The program was kept pretty quiet at the time, and so has almost been lost in history.  I think it’s important to remember these stories.  This book is a well-told story of some amazing women.  I strongly recommend reading this book as a fascinating piece of our history with examples of amazing female role models, and a good story of fighting for equality for all.

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Satellites That are Old Enough to Drink = Engineering Win

A couple years ago in grad school I did a small project involving a still-working satellite that was about 25 years old. The tech told me that a few years before he had been able to joke that the satellite was old enough to drink, but now he was even starting to see grad students who were younger than the satellite.

The satellite was still usable and perfectly functional – if one was able to use the punch-cards and their old corresponding IBM machine to communicate. At the time, it completely amazed me that engineers in the late 1970s had designed something so robust that it had made it so very far past its 10-year design life. Pardon me for the cheesy phrase, but we just don’t make ’em like we used to.

Today, though, something happened that blows that story out of the water. If you hadn’t heard, there’s an old NASA spacecraft called the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) that’s been reactivated. It’s a 36-year-old probe that was retired back in 1997. It’s so old that NASA no longer has the infrastructure (the right deep space antenna network transmitters) to communicate with it.

Photo (artist’s rendering) from NASA science website: http://science.nasa.gov/media/medialibrary/2010/03/31/isee.gif

A private group called the ISEE-3 Reboot Project recently crowdfunded about $150,000 and got NASA’s permission to reactivate it. They came up with an inexpensive way to resume communications. Today they successfully commanded it to maneuver, and it fired engines for the first time since 1987.

One of the team members that reactivated this spacecraft wasn’t even born yet last time the satellite maneuvered, let alone when it was designed and launched.  And at least one of the instruments onboard is still working.  That’s some seriously good engineering and craftsmanship, people.

You can read more about today’s success in the Scientific American article here, or you can follow the ISEE-3 Project Reboot team at their website, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Rhea Seddon – Astronaut, Doctor, Mom

Dr. Margaret Rhea Seddon was one of six women in the first class of NASA astronauts to include females.  She graduated from medical school in 1973, completed a surgical residency, and worked as an emergency room physician before she was accepted as an astronaut candidate in 1979.  She is an avid pilot and passionate advocate for young women in STEM fields and patient safety training initiatives.

Her first flight into space was on Discovery in 1985, and her second and third flights were on Columbia in 1991 and 1993.  She flew as a mission specialist and as a payload commander for Spacelab, and tallied over 722 hours in space.

After leaving NASA in 1997, she went back into the medical field, working for the Vanderbilt Medical Group in Nashville for eleven years before moving to her current position with LifeWing Partners, LLC.  She is not afraid to stand up for others in her patient safety advocacy work, but she is also not afraid to stand up for herself.  In 2008 she filed a gender-discrimination suit against former employer Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Married to a fellow astronaut, she blazed trials at NASA by becoming not only one of the first women astronauts, but also the first active astronaut to have a baby – in fact, she had three while at NASA.  And she did it all while keeping her medical skills sharp working on the side at the ER and balancing family life with two astronauts in the family.

Rhea Seddon is an impressive STEM female role model, and a good example of how you can work in several fields – medicine, science, safety, advocacy – and tie them all together into a successful career that positively impacts society.



















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We Want YOU to Contribute to the Future of Manned Spaceflight.

The fact that the U.S. currently has no capability to put a human in space breaks my heart.  It’s especially awful because it’s something we had and lost, and something we didn’t care enough to preserve.  In this age of budget cuts and hard times for many, it’s hard to think about things like space travel and exploration, but it’s absolutely necessary if we want a future still filled with amazing new innovations seemingly every day.

When we stop exploring, we stagnate.  We lose our edge, our drive, our ability to find new and creative solutions to problems, even if that’s not even what we set out to do.  NASA’s spinoff technology alone is enough to justify the cost of the manned spaceflight program, in my book.  And I think it really, really sucks that we have to bum rides on a half-century-plus-old Russian rocket at ridiculously inflated prices just to get to our own (really awesome) space station.

So where does this leave us?  NASA’s budget is smaller than ever, so commercial spaceflight is basically the only way to go for our country right now.  It’s up to good old capitalism to get us back into space now, and there are lots of ways to contribute to that.

Contributing your time and efforts:

You can contribute first and foremost by making it your passion – even if it’s too late for you to be an engineer, scientist, or astronaut, it’s not too late to inspire someone else to be.  Participate in a STEM outreach event, encourage your kids to be creative and excel in school, and share info with your friends about the latest advances and innovations.  Let your friends know what you think about spaceflight and all the good things that come of it – satellite imagery to help us locate a missing plane, that GPS system they are so fond of, Tang, Velcro, great Tom Hanks movies, you name it.  Spaceflight has given us a lot of very good things that most people have forgotten about.

If you have a moment, write to your representative and Senator – and even the president – about how important you think space exploration is.  Thankfully we do have a robust unmanned space program going right now, with exciting missions that can capture the human imagination, such as the Mars Rovers.  Not as PR-friendly as an actual astronaut, but pretty cool.  Tell your congressperson that you believe continuing to fund NASA (and fund them better!) is important to you.

Contributing more tangible things:

If you happen to be fortunate enough to have a little in the way of dollars available for donations, you can send them to organizations such as the National Space Society and the The Planetary Society.  These folks do great work in terms of outreach, education, research, and activism.  Also, The Planetary Society has Bill Nye the Science Guy as CEO.  How awesome is that?  The memberships have some pretty neat perks, such as cool magazines and discounted or freebie admission at a lot of space museums and attractions.

There are also some great places to invest your money that will help support space exploration.  Companies competing in the commercial crew program such as Orbital Sciences and Sierra Nevada.  Smaller, niche companies such as Ball Aerospace.  Big-name satellite builders such as Space Systems Loral.  Defense contractors who do launch vehicles and big space jobs such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  And the companies that build a lot of their key components, such as Honeywell and L-3 Communications.    Many of the bigger companies offer their own STEM outreach programs, too.

I wish I could buy stock in SpaceX, but alas, Elon Musk’s space brainchild cannot yet be bought – but his other company Tesla can, and that might also be an interesting (and possibly lucrative) place to invest some money towards new technology.  Scaled Composites, maker of x-prize winner Spaceship One, is also sadly not for sale, but you can buy a ticket on Virgin Galactic if you’re completely loaded and have that kind of money to spare (which I would totally do first if I were ever filthy rich).

The space industry has a lot of ups and downs and may not always be the safest investment, but it could also be incredibly lucrative if you are lucky.  If not, at least you contributed something that might allow for some engineer in a cubicle somewhere to figure out the next crucial thing for spaceflight.

We need commercial spaceflight to be  resounding success.  We lack the national drive of the space race era to get ourselves ahead.  Nowadays, a new country launches a human and we just shrug.  At least money might be enough to make it happen when prestige and even curiosity are not nearly enough.

What are some other ways you can think of to support efforts to get the U.S. back into space?

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Number of Known Planets Practically Doubles in One Week, and the Response is… Yawns?

We are so ridiculously jaded, people.  Two days ago, NASA announced that the Kepler Mission had found 715 new planets.  Seven hundred fifteen entire planets that we previously didn’t know existed.  It’s been about twenty years since we found the first exoplanet (planet outside our solar system), and in the intervening time 961 confirmed exoplanets were found.  So in a single announcement, the number of known planets in the universe increased almost twofold, and while the major news outlets picked up the story, it was pretty much no big deal.  Ho hum.  Move on, there’s stuff going on with Justin Bieber and the Oscars.

Check out the graph:

From NASA’s Digital Press Kit: “The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for roughly the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous planet discoveries, the red bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the gold bar displays the 715 new planets verified by multiplicity.” Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI/J Rowe

This is really huge!  It’s exciting.  It’s a step towards finding out if there are other habitable planets out there.  It’s proof that the Kepler mission is worth every penny and then some.  It’s amazing technology and tremendous discovery.  For a society that’s totally dependent on – and centered around, and often obsessed with – science and technology, we are awfully nonchalant about this grand new advancement in knowledge.

I encourage you to check it out, and watch the video if you have a few minutes.  More importantly, step outside and stare up at the stars with a little bit of wonder tonight.  Think about just how big the discovery of 715 whole planets really is.  We don’t even know that much yet about the one planet we live on.  There is so unbelievably much more out there to discover and learn about.  Our entire solar system, which we just recently managed to even send something outside of, only has eight qualifying planets.  We just found nearly a hundred times that in one fell swoop.  There’s a big, impressive, amazing universe full of mystery out there and it’s only going to get more exciting the more we learn about it.

What do you think about the discovery and our exploration efforts?  What else do you hope we will find out there?  Why do you think this got so little attention and what does it say about us?

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Encouraging a Budding Architecht

My daughter loves to build.  I mean really loves to build.  It started with tower-building, where she would build these precariously stacked towers taller than she was – and I still have no idea how she ever managed to get them to stay up.  Even built four feet high, tilted on the edge of a rug and slanting sideways all the way up, she could get the darned things to stand.  At least until the dog came by and knocked them down, after which there would be a brief period of outraged wailing, followed shortly by a new tower.

Gradually her repertoire expanded from towers to castles, castles to cities.  Mega Bloks gave way to my old set of Duplos, and the colorful small set of Melissa & Doug wood blocks was supplemented by a set of Mad Scientist alphabet blocks and a bigger, plain wood set of Melissa & Doug blocks.  We’re just about ready to move on to regular legos, so watch out world.

Almost anything can be added to a block city - even old berry baskets and hippos!

Almost anything can be added to a block city – even old berry baskets and hippos!

It warms my heart that she loves to build so much.  She has this amazing single-minded intensity when she is building things.  So with her fourth birthday coming up, I’m very excited to see what she makes of the latest additions she’s going to get to unwrap: Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys.  These were some of my childhood favorites that I was very pleased to discover have made a comeback.

Playing with building toys is a great way to encourage valuable skills in kids that are applicable in so many areas.  While my relatives and I joke that my daughter’s current building obsession must mean she will grow up to be an architect or construction worker someday, I’m really just happy that there’s an activity she likes so much that has many long-term benefits.  Building is great for spacial orientation, balance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and planning skills.  And blocks can even be dual-hatted and used for teaching counting, ordering by size, shapes, pattern-making, and geometry.

I remember building massive lego cities as a kid, and can’t wait to do that again with my daughter (yes, I may have some ulterior motives here… there could perhaps be eventual purchases of lego sets that are things I always wanted as a kid!).  It never even occurred to me as a kid, playing with my sisters and brother and friends, that legos weren’t anything but a unisex toy.  I’ll save the new “girl” legos for another post, maybe sometime when I have had a good day and a couple glasses of wine and can talk about it calmly and rationally instead of ranting.

I also like that building toys are one of the better types of toys for playing across a span of ages.  Older kids and younger kids, parents and children, crazy uncles and grandparents – everyone can play together with these toys.   Well, when you can get the kids to share, at least.  And they are definitely a more grownup-friendly form of play for me.  I can only do so much pretending to eat plastic-food meals my kid has prepared, but I’m happy to build with her for a good long while.

And a lot of adults still play with these toys – just look at Lego conventions and competitions.  But professionals use them as work tools, too.  I remember being stunned when, as an undergraduate working a summer internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, I discovered a drawerful of legos, k’nex, and Tinkertoys.  I needed something to demonstrate how an attachment mechanism on the space station moves, in order for someone to make a computer animation of it.  I had been attempting to make a moving model out of paper clips, erasers, and rolled up notebook paper.

Instead, my supervisor took me over to a nondescript cabinet, pulled it open, and showed me the toys inside.  He said it was common for engineers to use these things to demonstrate moving parts and play with new ideas.  That was the first time I realized that engineering was so very much more than the academic side I was so immersed in.  Engineering was about creatively making things work.  It’s also a job where no one will bat an eyelash if you play with legos at work.  I was sold – I had definitely picked the right major.

So I encourage you to encourage your kids to play with these types of toys.  They are sturdy, and can last through several generations of kids.  My parents kept our wooden blocks and Duplos and now the grandkids use them.  They are fun, simple, and good for group play across ages and generations.  And you never know when getting down on the floor to build a block tower or create a lego battle scene will give just the right spark to a budding young architect, engineer, astronaut, artist, or construction foreman.

What were your favorite building toys as a kid?  Have any recommendations on the latest and greatest, or fond memories of great building-toy achievements?

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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: COL Eileen Collins, NASA’s First Female Space Shuttle Commander

COL Eileen Collins is a retired Air Force Test Pilot and was the first woman to pilot the space shuttle, as well as the first woman to command a space shuttle.  When she first entered the Air Force, women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft, a ban that stood until 1993.  But that did not stop Eileen Collins from flying every aircraft she was allowed to and blazing a trail for female pilots in the Air Force and at NASA.

She has logged over 6751 flight hours.  She is highly educated, holding a B.A. in mathematics & economics, an M.S. in operations research, and an M.A. in space systems management, as well as honorary degrees.  She has been a pilot, a mathematics instructor, and flight instructor, and went through the prestigious Air Force Test Pilot School.  Married to a fellow pilot, she is also a mother of two.  Her awards would take several paragraphs to list.

COL Collins was selected for astronaut training in 1990 and in her sixteen years at NASA she worked a variety of jobs and flew four STS missions, for a total of 872 hours in space.  She made two trips to the Mir space station, twice executing one of the most difficult space piloting tasks there is: docking with a space station.  She also had one of the toughest missions imaginable on her final flight, STS-114, when she commanded the first mission back to space following the Columbia tragedy.

I like her perspective on genders on the job, which reflects my own similar experience in the military:

“Within the job itself, the male-female commander, the male-female astronaut, it’s really the same,” Collins said. “What really matters is how the person does their job.”

And I especially love her life advice for young people aspiring to a similar career:

“My advice to young people is this. Focus on three major areas: academics, activities, and your physical health. I encourage you, especially when you get into high school and you can choose some of the courses you take, to take the tough courses. Don’t just avoid a course because you think you might not get an “A.” Take the tough courses like math, science, and engineering. Learn a variety of things while you have the opportunity.”

COL Collins is an inspiring female role model in not just STEM fields, but also for kids who want to be pilots, astronauts, serve in the military, or really to excel in any chosen field.  











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