Friday, November 13, 2015

Planetary Science with Beach Sand and Reduced Gravity Adventures

Beach sand is a decent approximation for other-worldly regolith. I learned this while in grad school conducting an experiment with a team at Kennedy Space Center. Specially made regolith simulants are best, of course. But for simple mechanics, any granular material will do. We live on the Space Coast of Florida. Why not beach sand as a rough analog for the Moon, Mars, or asteroids? Properly sieved to remove seashells and debris and baked to remove excess moisture.

Collecting sand for science at Cape Canaveral - November 12, 2015

A simple instrument for coarse sieving, but it works - November 12, 2015

Larger, commercial-sized jets aren't the only option for flying reduced gravity parabolas. Smaller planes, such as this Piper Seminole at Florida Institute of Technology's School of Aviation in the Melbourne Airport, are also capable of maneuvering the dives and climbs of a parabolic trajectory. Of course, in a plane that small, passengers can't unbuckle their seat belts and do somersaults.

The hanger at FIT Aviation, Melbourne Airport - November 13, 2015

Getting ready for takeoff - November 13, 2015

It was a lovely morning at way-too-early-o'clock today for a quick reduced gravity flight. Although there was room for me in the tiny aircraft and the thrill lover in me was ready to go, my 7.5 month pregnant self decided to remain on terra firma. To become a spacefaring species, we will someday need to conduct studies on fetal development in variable gravity conditions. But not with my baby. If nothing else, I wanted to avoid a repeat of my first trimester's morning sickness.

Waving goodbye to my team before take-off. - November 13, 2015

Being the scientist-on-the-ground has its perks. I set up a beach chair beside the hanger and enjoyed the morning with 40-some planes in front of me: parked, taking off, taxiing, and landing.

Enjoying the warm Florida November morning - November 13, 2015

I won't go into the details about the experiment at this time. This is a very preliminary experiment to hopefully kick off a larger, higher fidelity experiment in the future. The data we collected is a good start and the planetary scientist in me is excited. Also, I got to play with beach sand.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Space Shuttles: Launching my Love of Human Spaceflight

I was a relative late-comer to space shuttle launches. I grew up in Pennsylvania, so I didn't see my first launch until I moved to Florida for college. I attended Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne for undergraduate, nearly an hour south of Kennedy Space Center, but still offering clear views of launches.

My first was STS-112. I drove up to KSC with two friends, only to be turned away of course because we weren't badged. We tried a nearby viewing site, but it was full. We ended up on the side of the road by the water, staring up in awe as a car radio blasted the countdown. I remember thinking that someday I wanted to see a launch from inside the space shuttle.

STS-112, October 7, 2002

My second was a month later, STS-113. I was thrilled to be allowed to cover that launch for the university student newspaper from the KSC press site! It was a night launch, my favorite, and the night seemed perfect. Unfortunately, the first attempt was scrubbed, so we returned the next evening. Unlike this year's record breaking hot November, it was cold, see our breath cold. I was surprised at how bright the launch was and how much the world shook. The bright ball of light faded away into a star-like point. I thought that it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

STS-113, November 23, 2002

Space Shuttle Columbia's last flight, STS-107, was the day before my birthday. Unfortunately, a new school semester kept me preoccupied. I figured that since I had seen my first two launches up close, I could watch this one from campus farther away. I was in my car when it launches and I didn't take any photos, though I did take a picture of the Columbia flag at a Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex birthday visit.

STS-107 Columbia Flag, January 2003

I was still sleeping in my dorm room on the morning of Saturday, February 1, 2003 when I was awoken to the sad news. Our entire university body took the incident hard. We held a vigil for the astronauts that evening. Later that year, as a sophomore, the brand new dorm complex where I lived was named Columbia Village in dedication. As a Student Ambassador and the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper, I was a student representative at the dedication ceremony, sitting at a lunch table with Laurel Clark’s sister-in-law and son. It was a very emotional experience.

Columbia Village dedication, Florida Institute of Technology, October 28, 2003 

There was a large gap in shuttle launches until the STS-114 Return to Flight mission. I was fortunate to be attending a NASA internship in Huntsville that summer and I arranged for our internship program to take a trip to Florida in part to see that launch. Thanks to the generosity of astronaut Winston Scott (now of Florida Institute of Technology) who ran the Florida Space Authority, the precursor organization to Space Florida, our student group received bleacher tickets at the Kennedy Space Center Saturn V Center right next to the VIP section. I remember lots of secret service agents in the area watching over First Lady Laura Bush who was accompanying Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The view from Banana Creek was one of my favorite launch viewing locations for its beauty.

STS-114 Discovery on launch pad , July 2005

STS-114, July 26, 2005

Circumstances prevented more launches until a second Return to Flight mission, STS-121, a year later on Independence Day. I had graduated from undergraduate and moved to Huntsville, and that year I was helping to run the NASA internship program. I arranged for another trip to Florida for the student group. A friend of mine who worked on base advised us to park near the Vehicle Assembly Building and climb 100 feet up to watch the launch on top of a mobile launch platform. Because of our height, it was the closest and clearest launch I had ever seen.

STS-121, July 4, 2006

Unfortunately, my move to Huntsville for my master's degree led me to miss seeing in person many launches to come. It wasn't until I moved back to Florida for my doctoral education that I was able to witness the beauty in person once again. STS-130 was my next, another night launch. I watched this one with new friends at Space View Park in Titusville. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my camera in the car and I didn't have a smartphone back then.

STS-131 was an early morning launch, and again, I forgot my camera. I remember it being beautiful in the dark pre-daen sky.

I saw STS-132 again with friends at Space View Park, this time with camera!

STS-132, May 14, 2010

STS-133 was a long time coming. I watched with a classmate at the now-relocated Astronaut Hall of Fame right outside of Kennedy Space Center. We had fun checking out the exhibits while we waited. Astronaut Bob Springer was the guest speaker. It was a beautiful day for a launch.

Unfortunately, the third-to-last space shuttle launch was the last that I saw. I was flying off to Huntsville for a conference when the delayed STS-134 soared. The last launch, STS-135, was pushed back such that I was still in Pennsylvania for family gatherings and a family reunion over the Independence Day holiday when it launched.

By that point, the space shuttle program had become part of who I was. Although I never worked the program, I feel just as connected to the shuttles as those who did. I cried the first three times I witnessed the KSC Visitor Complex's Atlantis Exhibit. I understand and agree with the decision to end the program to move forward, but I still fondly remember the past glories.

Kennedy Space Center's Atlantis Exhibit, June 22, 2013

Monday, November 2, 2015

How to Find an Awesome Space Internship

A student contacted me today asking for advice about finding internships. I previously wrote advice to companies seeking interns, but hadn't yet written advice for students seeking internships. Now's the time. Please keep in mind that I'm writing from my own experience and that this may not encompass every opportunity for students.

With the internet as mature as it is now, it's easy to find internship websites. This wasn't the case when I was a freshman in college looking for my first summer internship. I wrote to the head of educational programs at Kennedy Space Center who responded that there were no non-engineering internships for scientists at KSC and that I would need to change my major to apply (which is completely untrue, but I didn't know that back then). I resorted to “cold calling” to get my first internship that summer, which worked well for me.

Now, every formal opportunity has a website. Whether those websites are kept updated and organized is another story. Don't be fooled into thinking that what's published are the only opportunities out there. Just as networking leads to success in job searches, leverage contacts to find informal or unpublished internships that have little or no competition.

The internet is your friend. Search terms such as “NASA internships,” “space internships,” “aerospace internships,” “astronomy internships,” “engineering internships,” etc. produce a lot of results. You can stay broad in your search or look for a very specific opportunity. Don't forget to browse social media sites as well.

Check out company websites. Almost all of them will post job opportunities. Remember that there are more newspace companies out there than just SpaceX! Be open-minded. Smaller companies or companies that don't post internships specifically usually have a HR contact. It never hurts to ask. If you know anyone in the company, feel free to contact them as well – this is called using your network. Published internships at larger companies or entities tend to be more competitive, so be prepared to see strict deadlines with application requirements such as transcripts and letters of recommendation. Some internships come with scholarships and will be even more competitive.

NASA internship organization has gotten better is still rather disorganized. They've been trying to centralize and standardize the process for years, but opportunities are still spread out over many NASA websites. To add to the confusion, many NASA internships change their names over the years and some are discontinued while new ones pop up. Don't just visit one NASA internship page; keep looking. I highly encourage applying to any NASA internships that you're interesting in, but note that dealing with disorganization and inefficiency is part of the process of dealing with a bureaucracy.

Check out the websites of your state's NASA Space Grant and any student or professional societies/organizations that you're involved in or want to become involved in. These organizations are there to connect students and young professionals with opportunities in the field. Many of these organizations offer internship or scholarship opportunities themselves, but if not, most will offer suggestions of relevant internship opportunities. They may have compiled an up-to-date list for you.

University departments similarly may have compiled lists of opportunities for their students, including local and internal internships. Don't discount the possibility of working for one of your professors over the summer. University career service centers may also have lists based on major, but because they must search for opportunities for all majors, their list may lack content for your particular major. Professors themselves may know of opportunities at the university or with colleagues elsewhere. Again, use your network.

There are no hard rules for obtaining an informal internship. It's a combination of using connections to find opportunities (networking) and luck. Be prepared for these opportunities to be unpaid/volunteer. If fortune really works for you, you may find that funding is available for you even for an informal internship. Student interns are very inexpensive in the grand scheme of things. Talk to your professors, your connections in your field, anyone who you've met or even professionals who you have not met who may know of a short-term work opportunity that fits you.

Although most formal internships are paid, some are not. It's up to you to determine whether accepting an unpaid internship works for you. Most internships are on-site and may require you to temporarily move, and not all internships will assist you in finding temporary lodging. Some internships allow for remote work from your home, school, or a satellite office. Some internships are highly structured and some are much looser. Keep in mind the requirements, especially if you're an international student.

If you wish to get university credit for your internship experience, speak with your university about the requirements. Each university is different. Keep in mind that the experience gained during an internship is vastly more important and beneficial than any university credit that you may receive, so don't let university rules or tuition fees stop you from accepting an internship that you really want.

As I stressed in my advice to companies, interns are students but also professionals, regardless of age. Expect to be treated as a professional even as an intern. Insist on it. Act like it. You may not have the experience, clearance, or authority of a full-time employee, but you are an employee-in-training and a potential star employee for the company. Internships are test drives for the students as well as the companies. Make your test drive count.