Friday, December 14, 2018


Things have been a little bit quieter around here lately because we've been finishing the science report for RAM and applying to HASP for RAM3.1 at the same time. We were on the fence about applying to HASP again but ultimately decided to not attempt a gap year and apply with a light experiment to address some of the failings from our project that we discovered while we were writing the science report. We want to test more cameras and do a more quantitative test of the ability for the APRIL tags to be read in extreme conditions. Our application was only 40 pages this year!

Jimmy and Julie were also busy preparing for the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. Jimmy represented his new job at NASA SCAN with a laser demo that he built.

Julie spoke at the Balloon Townhall meeting about the pipeline between scientific ballooning research at colleges and the NASA workforce. It was a brief talk but a great opportunity to meet some of the faces on the other side of the telecons.

Perhaps the biggest thrill if AGU was picking up the BPO calendar from the year and discovering that our project, RAM, was the photo for June! 

The team is excited to have everyone back for the holidays to meet up for a very official meeting full of nothing but work at the QShack. We'll take this brief lapse of work for HASP to recoup for the new year.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

tUr on the radio!

Check out the fun interview we did with WCHL a few weeks ago:

Monday, October 1, 2018

Happy Birthday NASA!!

Happy 60th birthday NASA. Honestly, you don't look a day over 50.

You guys know I'm a huge NASA fangirl but you might not know why. If you know me well, you know that I don't care a whit about astronomy and I've never yearned to be an astronaut. (These are not the opinions of most of my teammates but they have access to the blog and can write their own entries.)

Imagine a ridiculous hypothetical problem. Make it the most egregious math textbook word problem you've ever seen. Cram it with variables. (Make sure it's an odd numbered problem so the answer isn't in the back of the book.) Add so many caveats to it that it doesn't even make logistical sense unless you storyboard the entire thing out and create a manual for it. Limit the amount of academic resources on best practices that exist until it feels personal and vaguely insulting. Frustrated? Think it's too fantastic (in the worst sense of the word) to even bother trying to solve? Congratulations, you've created a NASA problem.

I love NASA because they do the impossible. They take a problem that no one will tackle and work until they conquer it. I've read a bunch about space travel for someone who has no desire to do it, and the sheer volume of considerations involved in plotting a mission to another planet is astounding. You think that you understand the limitations, but once you really dive into the deep end of space travel you'll quickly become overwhelmed. Some of the challenges are laughably mundane and will never be the subject of a Ryan Gosling movie. I mean, they've tackled the worst case scenario for crumbs. But they've also saved lives by figuring out how to keep squishy, soft foam bits from penetrating metal, a problem we didn't know we had until it was too late. Problem solving at NASA sends people to space in one functional piece, fabricates special tools for unworkable tasks, manages precision in hundreds of bitty screws and dangerously massive explosions, and tackles all of these tasks with elegant creativity.

And that's my next's a meld of art and science. As a geek I love that NASA is winging it. They are reinventing the wheel from scratch. They're trying to figure out how to throw a dart from North Carolina at a moving target in California. They're stretching the tolerances of materials science. They're using laser-beams for like, everything. They mash up mundane items like Joy dish soap and coffee cans with sophisticated resources, and everything practical is viewed as an equally viable solution. If you've fixed it, don't break it.

They tackle these problems until they find a solution, and then they test the daylights out of it. NASA testing facilities are the gold standard for everyone and the safety posters are out of this world.

You've heard about the Hubble Space Telescope but have you ever really read about how gloriously, magnificently unbelievable it is? Not only what it does, which is just spectacularly nuts, but how it was made? NASA takes words like "incredible" and "unbelievable" and really makes you appreciate their etymology.

On top of this, NASA is generous. Once they solve a problem they share the answers and move on to the next gratuitously impossible task. Whether you appreciate it or not. NASA created a lot of the tech that you use in your everyday lives. When they come up with useful inventions through the course of their everyday research they release these ideas into industry so that other people can benefit from the knowledge. NASA is making you safer, making energy more efficient, and helping to save the planet. Your tax dollars at work!

And that's the next thing for me. You might not think of NASA as a humanitarian agency but they are! NASA research helps inform public health initiatives, preserve clean water, guide environmental policy, minimize the impact of natural disasters, and literally make the world a better place. NASA data is available globally, and NASA education and outreach initiatives strive to engage all citizens of the Earth. (Especially places where cutting edge data is hard to come by.) Geologically speaking humans are pretty insignificant. Astronomically speaking we're...well...words fail. However, in spite of these facts we humans persist in feeling like the most important thing in the universe, possibly as a coping mechanism. The research that NASA conducts on the role that our delicate bits of sentient biomatter play within this moving lithospheric stage nestled inside of a cavernous energy flecked theater should create, if you take the time to absorb it, an overwhelming sense of kinship with your fellow bits of biomatter. To put it simply; it's harder to be a jerk to other humans when you realize how gorgeous, vast, and dangerous the world is. There's no "I" in team but there's four in "insignificant."

As a true fan, I follow my favorite NASA centers (sorry JPL) and initiatives on social media. I monitor some projects because my students have contributed to them, and I like the chance to spot one of my chickadees in action.

I keep track of remote sensing and GIS research so that I can stay current in my industry. I keep tabs on balloon missions because I feel a camaraderie with the scientific ballooning community. I add other research when I stumble on something new that makes my skirt fly up. But even as a super fan I can tell you that I'm only keeping track of the tip of the iceberg (somewhat literally because I follow a lot of dreamy Arctic projects) and I am overwhelmed by it all sometimes. NASA is doing so much incredible work that I doubt anyone can keep it straight.

NASA has also changed my life on a personal level. I owe my free graduate degree to the Mississippi Space Commerce Initiative at Stennis Space Center. My career would have veered in a wildly different direction if I hadn't earned my degree in remote sensing. (And thus, ironically, hundreds of students would have learned more about astronomy by avoiding my geology lecture.) The projects that I've done with NC Space Grant have been paradigm altering. My perspective on living life and my place in the world radically shifted the first time we sent a payload to space. And that word, "we." The people that I've met on this journey have been inspirational. As Ryan Theurer once quipped, "Maybe the real payload was friendship."

Some people worship sports idols, others obsess over celebrities or amass all the Disney memorabilia they can find. For me it always has been and always will be NASA.

Happy 60th birthday and many more!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Launch 2018

It's been over a month since my last blog! We've had back to school, big moves, social events, a hurricane and launch!

Dan was excited to make sure that RAM was still working after being shipped to the Fort.

And it kinda wasn't. They'd wrapped one of the cables on the back of the arm in Mylar tape and it wasn't acting right. Once they stripped the tape off the error vanished and we integrated. 

This time, because we had such a long trip planned, and so much time before launch, we stayed in Santa Rosa, NM. There they have at least a couple of hotels and more food variety; most places were diners that served Mexican food. We also ate at an Indian (as in "sub-Asian continent") restaurant in a gas station.

Another good thing about this trip was that we had time to be tourists. We took in the scenery, drove to Blue Hole, Lake Sumner, and other local attractions. 

Jimmy ate three slices of pie in one sitting!

We met acolytes of Space Cat at the La Quinta.

And visited Meow Wolf...which is basically the coolest thing that ever happened to me.

But we also enjoyed the space tourism of being at CSBF and working with the other HASP teams again. This year was a much more unified experience and we felt more kinship with the other teams. 

And we had a lot of time to chat with Dr. Guzik.

Jimichael came out towards the end of the week and we were hopeful that he had come just in time for the hang test and launch. 

The weather briefings were grim. The outgoing meteorologist gave his predictions with glee: we had a few marginal shots at a launch but the odds were not in our favor. However, we had a small window very early on Saturday morning.

When we rolled up to CSBF it was overcast and windy but the show was on. Everything was put on hold for nearby storms to clear and we all waited in the hangar. At one point we heard this tremendous rush of noise: rain. Everyone sprung up from their tables and ran to the edge of the building to watch it pour. We did some anti-rain and -wind dances with some of the other schools.

The rain cleared up with the dawn, and we still had a chance to launch, but the wind remained high and operations stalled.

Dan was fed up.

But the clouds were spectacularly otherworldly! We saw the most amazing clouds on this trip.

Unfortunately, they had to scrub the launch; there were no opportunities until Wednesday, the day after we were slated to fly out. We were told to leave our shipping boxes and warned that with the torrential rain coming in that the roads might flood and we should get out of town. Changing our flights but it was too expensive. We decided to switch locations, be tourists for a bit, and fly out as scheduled on Tuesday. Everyone was disappointed to miss launch.

On Monday we were 2.5 hours away in Santa Fe, making plans to see a movie and kill our last night in town, when we got an email that said we had a sliver of a chance at a launch early Tuesday and they were going to 'show' in case it proved fair. The email welcomed back any teams that were still in the area. We went to Meow Wolf to have dinner and take the team's pulse. Dan was back in Colorado and ready to run a command center out of his house. James, James, and I didn't even really need to discuss it. It was wild, we'd be knackered, the drive to the base would be terrible, the drive to the airport even worse...we were universally, totally, and completely in.

I had a migraine the night before and didn't sleep a wink. We got in the car at 3:30 AM and skidded into CSBF before they locked the gate.

The wind was a little bit active so the morning ticked by slowly. James and I talked a lot about frozen pizza, which is a weird thing to be craving at 7:30 in the morning. 

But then, miraculously, we launched.

This creation that we'd been plotting and scheming over for a year went zooming into the sky. I hope I never get used to it. It's marvelous and disorienting. It doesn't help that I'm always approaching it on no sleep, but it always feels very dreamlike and surreal to see the project finally GO.

Once the arm made it to space we were nervous to see if it would work. Jimmy and Dan were itching to start commands but we wanted to make sure we were truly at float, like we had said in our documentation, before getting started. We had a couple of hiccups at first but then the arm worked like a charm! 

We were lucky to have the HD camera on it with crisp and gorgeous live streaming video so we could see every ripple of the sun and bubble in the tape. Our moms and other fans were keeping the YouTube comments lit, and it was gratifying to see words of support from the student's other mentors.

All too soon we had to flee to the airport (3 hours away) and Dan Koris manned the helm until cut down.

The Sheffield team went on the chase and we appreciate that they took time out to send us some photos of our payload. It looked pretty fantastic all things considered!

RAM is in Colorado, safe and sound. We had a meeting tonight to discuss the future of tUR and the science report. More on that later.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Integration 2018

It's difficult to believe that Integration was a week ago! We have been preparing for that week since December and it all feels a bit like a blur right now. 

This year we still had to get all the gear and all the people from across the East coast all the way to Houston, Texas at about the same time. We left in the evening instead of the early morning but because of storms in the area it still ended up being a long trek.

When we pack for Integration we try to bring everything we think we might need. All of that gear PLUS enough clothes for a week makes for a lot of luggage. 

Setherton and I left NC around 2 pm and made it to Houston around 11 pm. Then we waited for Dan and Jimmy who were also delayed by storms.

Then the entire crew loaded into a Nissan Armada and I drove us to Palestine, Texas where we arrived at around 3:30 am. 

We slept for a minute or two and then headed to CSBF at about 9 am. 

The whole first day and much of the first night was spent getting RAM in ship shape. 

This year all of the teams were in the hangar together...about 80 space was tight. The cool thing was that we got to know a lot of the other teams. Groups socialized more in general and we soon gained a reputation for having bits and pieces of gear that folks could borrow. We appreciated the chance to return the favor to the teams that we borrowed parts from last year.

After giving RAM a haircut, and cutting out some...ok most...of our cameras, we were ready to integrate. This year that went a lot more smoothly!

Everyone was interested to meet Lil Vince and even Dr. Guzik seemed thrilled by our project. 

We took a quick celebratory selfie with the CSBF launch pad behind us. (MEELIONS OF FIRE ANTS.)

After we integrated it was time for some food and sleep! We  took naps and went to one of the BBQ places that the guys loved last year and it was NOT GOOD. They were incredibly disappointed. We also went to Lowes and while Jimmy looked for parts we took advantage of the comfy seats and free wifi.

We were back at it bright and early on Friday morning for the thermal vacuum test.

One of the other people on center had an HD camera that needed to be tested and it was decided (squee!!) that the camera would be focused on RAM for the entirety of the test. It looked phenomenal AND it gave us instant eyes on the progress of our payload as it ran through the paces during the thermal/vac cycle. Normally we'd be mostly blind during the test or relying on our on-board cameras. It sounds like we might even get the star treatment during the flight too!

Down time during the testing meant that we could catch up on paperwork, applications, intern posters, smaller tasks and harassing Dan by putting sweetened corn snacks in his precious trail mix.

The problem with having a camera watching your every move is that everyone gets to see (live and in color!) when your robotic arm makes a swan dive and grinds itself to a halt...with fifteen minutes left in the test. Our low stress mood also ground to a halt.

As soon as the arm came out of the chamber the guys got to work on it to try to figure out what the problem was. Jimmy's done a better job writing up the issue in the previous entry, but the basic idea is that we killed a servo somehow. We scrambled to order another one at 4:30 pm on a Friday and were promised that we'd have a new servo in hand by noon on Saturday.

At about noon on Saturday I checked the tracking on our package and it said that we could expect delivery to be on time by the end of the day on Monday. At the end of the day on Monday we'd be past our testing window and back on a plane to home. Suffice it to say we were pretty upset.

But Saturday was also the day that the other part of the team landed in Texas and drove out to CSBF. Murr and Jimichael certainly boosted morale. 

They got the extra treat of seeing a man walking down the road pick up a snake and throw it. Welcome to Texas.

After dinner we did two things that Seth had wanted to do all week long.

We went out to the launch pad at CSBF at night to see the stars. The long trek through the dark was magical and we were all the right sort of slap happy and silly. We were joined by the ghost of an old prospector!

And then the guys all met in the hotel conference room to play Star Craft. They had two nights of am inter-generational grudge match tournament and I don't know who won or if anyone won or whatever...but I know that the Olds cheated a little bit.

Sunday we started out a little bit bummed because we knew that we weren't going to be participating in the T/V test but we showed up to work on site and keep track of what the other teams were doing. 

In the middle of the day we found out that we'd passed the first test and we were approved for flight! 

And we even had a visit from Space Pup and Son of Space Pup!

Sunday night we left CSBF in Palestine, Texas for what might be the last time. I didn't think about that while it was happening. At the time we were just excited to go to Houston and visit Johnson on Monday.* I hope that at some point in the not too distant future that at least one of us gets to go back to CSBF. The ballooning community is pretty tight knit so it's not too far fetched to think that one of the members of tUR will be back. And who knows...there's always a third year of HASP to think about. We've joked that we'll field a consortium from UMD, UC Boulder and Houston (All schools that already have HASP teams and all schools that tUR could realistically have students matriculating at.)

But that's all in the distant future. On the Close Horizon (inside joke) we have RAM3 launching from Fort Sumner at the end of the month to look forward to! A new school year! Possible new jobs for team members!

Stay tuned. Same Space Cat time. Same Space Cat channel.

*I'll let someone else post about Best NASA since I can't take credit for any of the photos.