Sunday, January 30, 2011

NASA & Ice Hockey

While in Michigan Fuzz and I had to visit an ice rink. While I am not the biggest Detroit Red Wings fan, I am one big hockey chick! (my team are the San Jose Sharks!). 

So, Fuzz and I put on some hockey gear and some ice skates. Once on the ice we just had a lot of fun. "How does this tie back to NASA?" you might ask. Well, besides the fact that a lot of NASA employees play hockey, there are many other ties. Here are just three examples:

Since its dawning days, NASA has been at the forefront of developing and improving materials for aerospace applications. In particular, NASA requires dramatic advancements in material properties to enhance the performance, robustness, and reliability of its launch vehicles, spacecraft, and the International Space Station. Such advancements over the years include noise-abatement materials, fire-resistant fibers, heat-absorbing insulation, and light-but-strong mold- able composites.  

In 1991, a new carbon fiber called a carbon nanotube was discovered and fully substantiated by a Japanese electron microscopist. Its dramatic strength and low density (20 times the tensile strength and one-sixth the density of steel) were turning the heads of materials scientists and engineers all around the world, including those who developed equipment for NASA. After more research and testing a partnership with Zyvex Corporation developed a carbon nanotube-enhanced composite and later developed the revolutionary Easton Synergy SL composite hockey stick. It increases stick strength while reducing weight. It is lighter (420 grams) and stronger than its predecessor, and has a new blade design that yields unmatched performance.
The manipulation of materials on a molecular scale is leading to lighter-but-stronger hockey sticks. Pictured here is Easton Sports, Inc.’s Synergy SL product, featuring Zyvex Corporation’s NanoSolve technology.

In 2006 technology developed for NASA by Henry Ford Hospital helped determine whether a member of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey team stays on the ice or heads for a hospital. Dr. Dulchavsky is principle investigator and team leader of a group of NASA scientists refining techniques for examining and treating sick or injured astronauts on the International Space Station. His team developed a training program that, in just a few hours, teaches non-medical crew members how to use portable ultrasound equipment to help diagnose an injury. The ultrasound images are transmitted by satellite to radiologists at Henry Ford, who read them and make a diagnosis.

The procedure got a test run with the Detroit Red Wings in 2004. Team trainers were taught how to use the ultrasound device using the NASA training methods. A portable ultrasound device was placed in the team’s locker room and was connected through the Internet to a computer at Henry Ford. While viewing the images online at the hospital, a radiologist guided the trainers as they performed ultrasound tests on players. When a player was injured during a game, a quick diagnosis could be made in the locker room.

Jay Feaster, general manager of the National Hockey League's 2004 Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, stands next to the Stanley Cup, which he brought to KSC while on a tour. The cup sits next to the orbiter Discovery in the Orbiter Processing Facility. The cup was also available for viewing by employees in the KSC Training Auditorium.
And even Lord Stanley, the royal trophy of the National Hockey League has visited NASA. In 2004, when Tampa Bay Lightning won the Playoffs, the Lord Stanley was brought to KSC, the Kennedy Space Center. At the time Lady Discovery was in the Orbiter Processing Facility and Lord Stanley was placed next to Discovery. The more than 100 year old trophy, which weights 35 lbs, looked as glamourous as the space vehicle
The Stanley Cup weighs 35 pounds and is more than 100 years old.
Always wear protective gear!

Fuzz getting his skates on!

Team spirit!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Space Medicine - Why it's important! **not for the skirmish**

I got an invitation to the opening of the brand new science complex at the Eastern Michigan University last week. A beautiful building with a fantastic new Planetarium in it as well. The building truly boosts new technology in its labs and classrooms and is the home of the departments of Geography and Geology, Psychology, Physics and Astronomy, Biology and Chemistry.

The next day Fuzz, my Pilot and Mission Specialist on our BTS-1 Mission to the Edge of Space, and I were invited to visit a hospital in Detroit. We wanted to get a more behind the scene look and learn various aspects of laboratories within a hospital. We spent time with the Lab Techs, who are truly Medical Technologists. They are highly trained technical professionals with a 4 year degree and their work is usually the first piece of the puzzle in helping a physician diagnosis a patient's condition.

Now why is this important when it comes to Space Travel? Let's take a look:

Space exploration places great physiological and behavioral demands on crew members. Humans involved in space flight must remain healthy in hostile environments and perform a myriad of tasks essential to successfully enabling human exploration missions. Furthermore, when space explorers return to Earth they must be capable of healthy and productive lives.

Space Life Sciences is one area at NASA were they develop, provide, and sustain the medical, environmental, and scientific resources that will enable NASA's capability to pursue human space exploration. This organization within NASA supports so many areas of life science. Here are just a few examples to demonstrate the wide range of areas of science they are studying:

- Acoustics and Noise Control Lab ensures safe, healthy and habitable vehicle acoustic environments in which crews can live, communicate and work.

-Then there is the Animal Care Facility, which takes care and houses for animals used in ground-based life sciences experiments and in training astronauts for in-flight animal experiments.

- Or the Space Radiation Analysis Group, Space Radiation Dosimetry Lab, which supports the human exploration of space within acceptable levels of risk from space radiation.

- The Anthropometry and Biomechanics Facility plays a vital role in ensuring that crew selection is matched well with the design and verification of the space suits, hardware, and vehicle, while also accounting for the full range of accommodation, fit, access, and performance.

- Human Research Program Advanced Food Technology Project is responsible for providing the crews with a food system that will enable safe, reliable, and productive human space exploration.

- EVA Physiology, Systems, and Performance studies how future missions beyond low Earth orbit will present new challenges to crew health, safety, and performance. Among those challenges, crew members will likely need to perform multiple extravehicular activities (EVAs) per week to conduct mission-critical exploration, science, construction, repair and maintenance tasks.

- Bone Laboratory provides comprehensive bone, muscle, and body composition testing and evaluation.

- Tissue Analogues Laboratory provides NASA with 3D tissue analogue capabilities and the testing of normal and neoplastic human and animal tissues subjected to a variety of biological, physical and environmental stressors. This includes dusts, viruses and bacterial infections and more.

- Medical Operations Branch is responsible for providing medical support for all Shuttle and ISS missions.

- Medical Informatics & Health Care Systems Branch is focused on improving on-orbit clinical capabilities.

As you can see these are just a few areas that fall within NASA's Life Science Organization and is an important part of making and maintaining space exploration.

NASA has conducted research on blood in space for many decades. It was learned that the red blood cells effectively carry oxygen while in space. Studies have also been conducted on the white blood cells, especially how they react to space outside of the body in zero gravity and if they became "disoriented" and lost their ability to provide their immune function over time. Which would have meant that astronauts were very susceptible to infections. The question about platelets (their jobs is to ride around in your blood stream looking for any kind of break or injury where they can patch up and prevent bleeding) had to be figured out too... would they perhaps get confused in zero gravity and loose their function?
Mission X is an international educational challenge, focusing on fitness and nutrition, that teaches students how to "train like an astronaut."

STS-40 Payload Specialist Drew Gaffney
performing a blood draw on Payload Specialist
 Millie Hughes-Fulford. Mission Specialist Jim Bagian
 also appearing in this picture.
As we I have talked about in some previous posts - Astronauts on the ISS draw their own blood and do tests and experiments right on the Space Station. So it was truly a good time for Fuzz and I to visit some of the labs here at this hospital.

And I will continue to visit various places and learn about Space Life Science. Stay tuned.


After looking at the blood a little, Fuzz and Camilla were then introduced to more people as they came back from lunch: This is Luca Visentin, he's one of the lab techs.
We got to meet Dr. Michelle Bonnett who is an Anatomic and Clinical Pathologist - if you are really sick, your specimens may go to her for further examination to determine the type of illness one may have, such as a form of cancer.
And we ran into Dr. Daniel Snower, who like Dr. Bonnett also is an Anatomic and Clinical Pathologist but he also specializes in Pediatric Pathology so he gets really special cases sometimes. He was working in frozens today and he was really busy. Since he likes Space Exploration he just had to say hi to us

Fuzz was curious how the smears were made, when looking under the microscope he noted that the blood smeared on the plate was A LOT less than what was in the tube so the introduced him to some of the chemicals and tools made for making the smears; in the background, all the multi-colored pipettes are various size micro-liters and milliliters in size.
Inside the Histology Lab, which is were tissue slides are prepped and examined, we got to look at a lung. Usually lungs are nice pink, healthy color but this long obviously was not very healthy. This is what a lung looks like after years of smoking. 
Fuzz decided he wanted to take a closer look at these machines... they would also dye some of the tissue here as well.
Our slides were done! Time to check out our work and determine a diagnosis! The lab had nifty training microscopes where we both could look at their work at the same time!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why Pluto was killed... and did he really have it coming?

I was fortunate enough to attend Professor Michael Brown's lecture about the demotion of Pluto. Now, I am not going to spill all the beans here. Because I want to encourage you to try and see Mike's lecture or read his book "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming". But I will give you some of my thoughts on this subject, having heard and learned a lot about the background of this first hand.

Mike, who is a Professor of Astronomy at CalTech (California Institute of Technology), didn't actually "kill" Pluto or even attend that crazy International Astronomical Union Meeting in Prague in 2006 where astronomers with red heads were debating about what to do with this little guy and very last in line! However, he is responsible and takes the blame with pride, that all these astronomers actually debated the subject of Pluto and its planet status. So what happened?

To make a long story short (because you've got to see his lecture! It is entertaining, it is fascinating and it makes sense... which by definition is an oxymoron when it comes to astronomy!). There is a bet (well, more than one) involved between Mike and one of his good friends about him discovering a 10th planet, further out than Pluto. And all of that within the next 5 years! Fast forward 5 years and 5 days - Mike did discover something "big" moving way out there in our solar system. It was bright, it was pretty fast, it was amazing. Could this be the 10th planet of our solar system? Did he just discover what no man or woman had seen before? Well, yes and no. Turns out, that body is more or less the size of Pluto. Which in comparison is half the size of our moon. But that alone was enough to start the "execution process" of Pluto. How so?

What Mike discovered was 2003 UB 313 (nicknamed Xena), which later was renamed to 136199 Eris (nickname Eris). As of this year, Eris is about three times the distance away from the Sun than Pluto is. Eris appears to be bigger than Pluto too. What's even more stunning is that Eris has a moon, which formerly was called Gabrielle and then got changed to Dysnomia. So, if it's larger than Pluto AND it has a moon too, it just got to be a planet! "Not so fast!", did the good guys at that 2006 meeting in Prague say. "Pluto is no longer a planet because we now have defined what a planet is!".
Eris and its moon Dysnomia

Ok, once you bring definitions into the mix it becomes "layer talk" and I have to agree with Mike. You shouldn't just go by a definition, but rather by what reality is. Let's look at what reality is in regards to Pluto:

  • Pluto is small, even smaller than our moon
  • It's dense and rocky, like the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars). However, its nearest neighbors are the gaseous Jovian planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune). It's like a mouse living with elephants. How did Pluto get there? 
  • Pluto's orbit is erratic. The planets in our solar system all orbit the Sun in a relatively flat plane. Pluto, however, orbits the sun at a 17-degree angle to this plane. In addition, its orbit is exceptionally elliptical and crosses Neptune's orbit. 
 Up until Dr. Brown discovered Eris, all of the above was well known but nobody wanted to deal with the issue of "the different one" in the solar system. Now Eris comes along and suddenly astronomers have to review the current situation and make a decision.  Either Eris becomes our 10th planet, which means that future discoveries will increase the amount of "weird" planets in our solar system, or we will accept the fact that we have eight planets and some many other "bodies" around. So the decision was made: Pluto lost its Planet status but got to be classified as a Dwarf Planet. And so did Eris, which now holds the record of largest Dwarf Planet. (don't get me started on the choice of Dwarf Planet! I still think it is misleading and they should have just called this new category Gumba).

Why does this make so much sense though? Let's not look back to the past because that's where our sentimental feelings kick in and how we learned all the nine planets, how beloved Pluto was, and how we handed our kids a launch box with nine planets on it! Let's look forward! Doing astronomy according to this concept moves the entire field more to science because it moves it away from mythology. Furthermore, there will be more discoveries beyond Pluto and Eris and these bodies will most likely be similar to Pluto and Eris in composition, perhaps size and probably in elliptical orbit.

And sure enough - we discovered Sedna. Another one of those "way-out-there" object in the Kuiper Belt. Sedna takes 12,000 years to make an elliptical loop around the Sun. In fact, there is only a very short period of time (approx. 200 years) where we on Earth can actually "discover" an object that far out with such an orbit. Doesn't that mean that there could be plenty more of those Eris, Sednas and Plutos out there? And if we hadn't adjusted our thinking, would they all be planets in our solar system?
Discovery image of Sedna (identified by the yellow arrow)
The orbit of Sedna (red) set against the orbits of Jupiter (orange), Saturn (yellow), Uranus (green), Neptune (blue), and Pluto (purple)

The public opinion is pretty split on this subject. And that is ok. Hang on to your Pluto-Planet idea or embrace the Pluto-Dwarf-Planet approach. Reality is that we have many more discoveries to make, we will find lots more bodies orbiting our Sun and we are running out of Greek names...

Catch Dr. Mike Brown's lecture or read his book. You won't regret it. Besides, in 2006 he was named Sexiest Geek (Alive). So much for being a Pluto Killer!


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Man Conquers Space

For a moment - let's imagine the following:

It is 2011 today. 40 years ago we landed on the Moon, 30 years ago we started to build a lunar base on the Moon and permanently occupied it. Then 20 years ago we did the same research as we currently do on the ISS.  And 10 years ago we started our journey to Mars and actually set foot on Mars already. 

For a moment, imagine we had a much better understanding of space travel, medicine and health in space. Imagine our advanced knowledge of propulsion, the very different hardware we already invented. Imagine Eileen Collins to have been the first human to set foot on Mars. 

Now how different would our life be here on Earth? How different would your job be? Maybe because you chose a different career path due to all the different options available, because of the additional knowledge we already have?

The movie "Man Conquers Space" is based on an alternative timeline to the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo era of reality. It is based on the premise that all that had been proposed in the early 1950's in Collier's actually came to pass - and sooner than they expected. 

Watch the trailers, think about it, join our conversation here or on my Facebook site.

For more information check out: Man Conquers Space.