Saturday, June 30, 2018

Team Spotlight: James Cowell

One day, early this summer, James Cowell meandered into DSBF to consult Julie about his academics and it was at that moment she decided he would be an asset to the team. Since being invited to join the Unacceptable Risks, James has been spending much of his free time in the lab acting as a jack-of-all trades, he describes himself as a 'helpful grunt', stepping in and completing any task that may pop up. When asked what the biggest challenge is that he's faced, he said he's had to spend a lot of extra time reading up on the project and looking at specs to make sure he's as knowledgeable as possible.

James is currently pursuing an Associate's of Science at DTCC and plans on transferring to a 4-year school to study computer science with a focus on data science. When he's not helping to build robotic arms or send things to space, he spends a lot of time reading. He jokes, "If I didn't have a monthly book budget I'd probably be broke living in a cardboard box somewhere." And if that isn't enough, he also keeps himself occupied with his side-gig as a handyman.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Houston, we have an intern.

Howdy, y'all. Murr here, reporting in from the NASA's Johnson Space Center, the home of human Space Flight. You'd think that after two and a half weeks of this internship I'd be used to the fact I work at NASA, but I swear to Space Cat, I have to pinch myself everyday.

I am working in the Communications Office for the International Space Station Program. The team I'm on handles a ton of different things: editing footage downlinked from Station, putting together media packages and videos for crew members to take on speaking tours when they return from space, coordinating guests for launches at Wallops Island and Kennedy Space Center, as well as planning the pre- and post-launch events and communications plans. They liaise with the international partners (ESA, CSA, JAXA, and Roscosmos), order promotional materials for outreach events, travel internationally for launches and to promote ISS abroad. There's even a guy who's job it is to wine and dine outside media companies- like, Hollywood companies. This group has worked with National Geographic, Discover Channel, and Time magazine to create movies and miniseries and so much more. And that doesn't even touch a lot of the internal comms they do, taking all the science and engineer speak and making it digestible for others, putting together newletters, filming crew messages or other videos for NASA or space camp or whatever. It's like drinking from a fire hose trying to take it all in.

ISS Communications is housed on the 5th floor of building 4S, one floor below the astronauts. (Astronaut Candidates, those who are in training, are called AsCans, a shortening I find to be truly unfortunate.) It's not uncommon to run into a cosmonaut in the elevator or an astronaut in the lobby. On my first day, Don Pettit held the door open for me and chatted with my boss. Two days ago I nearly walked straight into Mark Hopkins, he was wearing his flight suit an and I got a little star struck. Yesterday I got called into a video shoot and was introduced to Kate Rubins who is amazing, gracious, funny, and nailed her shoot in 3 takes. THEN, it turns out Scott Tingle is working on his video package with one of the guys on my team and he's been wandering in and out of our office all week. It might sound as if I'm bragging, but its just so surreal- these people were in SPACE. space. In the sky.

My mentor is a wonderful, laid back guy who has basically given me carte blanche to get involved in as many projects as I want and I've made it my mission this summer to say yes to everything. I was off to a slow start early on since my computer was brand new and missing all the vital software, but its finally all there and now I can really dig deep. I've taken over the compiling and design of the 2019 International Space Station calendar. December 2018 will be the 20th anniversary of the first  elements of the station being launched into orbit, so I've gotten to do a write up on that as well as dig up photos of ISS in its infancy. I also get to decide what the photos will be for each month which means I am getting paid to sift through thousands of photos in the JSC archive everyday. Its truly astonishing. There are photos from the early space program, like Apollo and Gemini, to AsCan training photos to photos from the previous day on ISS. One of my favorite things to do every day is to log in and see what the crew has been up to while on orbit. Last week Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold performed a 6 hr 45 minute space walk and the photos that came down the next day were absolutely incredible. This also means I get awesome pics for my desktop wall paper.

I'm also working on creating the Pre-Launch Communications Plan for next week's SpaceX resupply launch. It highlights what's going up to station (food and other supplies and a whole lot of science) and what's coming down (some finished experiments) and makes sure everybody representing NASA has the same info and is sharing the same message. This project is a bit daunting because its a quick turn around, is being distributed to a lot of important folks, and requires me to condense a ton of huge documents into one medium sized one with the most relevant info. But it's very cool.

The last thing I'm working on is really neat, and very big picture comms strategy. My mentor and another guy in our office have been tasked with developing a Center-wide communications plan to train supervisors how to create an inclusive and diverse work force. This an issue that I'm very passionate about, as a woman worker, and especially as the only woman on my team, so I'm very excited I've been asked to contribute. Right now we're still working with the senior management to craft the message  but soon this will be implemented and will start having an impact on the work force. I am really very fortunate to be able to work on this project, partially because it's a huge challenge to create a message and then work it through all the bureaucratic channels, but also because its something that will have a lasting impact on Johnson, and hopefully NASA as a whole.

I've been hearing for two and a half weeks straight that NASA is the best branch of the federal government to work for, and at this point I definitely believe it. It is exciting to be surrounded by such passionate, intelligent people, and to be working on the cutting edge of human exploration. Every single person I've met at JSC has been incredibly friendly and so excited that the interns are here, which makes me feel good. Every time someone gets on the elevator with me they strike up a conversation and I've even had a couple women introduce themselves and ask me about myself while we're in the ladies room. Networking is networking though, so I'll take it.

Signing off for now, I'll update later this week with some of the ridiculously cool photos I took while touring the Neutral Buoyancy Lab and crew training simulators. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Things Overheard in the Lab

"Sapient toast. That's a good band name."

"What we need is a right angle Sharpie."

"It's in my bag of sh!t."
"It's all sh!t until you need it."

"Good job Bud. You didn't actually need me to tell you that but just...good job."
"That's ok. I didn't actually need to show you this. I just wanted a compliment."

Friday, June 8, 2018


It was important to the team to make our own arm from scratch even though prefab robotic arms are available on many websites. We purchased 3 arms at the start of the project so we could learn about what we liked and disliked about the different features. It's safe to say that we all know a lot more about robot arms than we did in December. Most of it was learned the hard way.

A big thing that we've learned is that your arm is only as good as your design. After some trial and error we discovered that it was a good idea to 3D print the arm to prototype it before you went through all of the work of making it out of metal. Our machinist, The Gunshow, made our first arm and gripper over the course of several late nights.

The Gunshow is so good at machining, thanks to the skills that he learned at Durham Tech, that he earned a big promotion at his day job and soon became too busy to handle the work we were throwing at him. That left us with a problem. We don't have a bunch of options for cutting metal with any kind of precision at the DSBF.

Jimmy using a literal rock as an old fashioned power sander. 

Dan using whatever he had for lunch as a power saw.

This project requires a lot more fiddly metal work than we can achieve with a hand saw and a rock so it became very important that we find a machinist. Most local companies were too pricey, too backed up, or unwilling to do a small job like ours. We redesigned around the problem in a few ways but what we needed was a hero. 

Mr. Stallings at the Durham Tech machine shop has swooped in a quietly made a bunch of essential parts for us. These were things that we couldn't manage any other way. This freed up time for The Gunshow to do some smaller items for us and moved us past a gnarly block in production that was causing work to become stagnant. HUGE THANKS to Mr. Stallings! If you live in the area and you've thought about learning machining you should take his courses. (And then let us know so we can put you to work.)

We had a big build day on Thursday because The Charm brought in a saw.

Spencer Lee, nickname Smooth, did a ton of fantastic work for us in a short amount of time. We wish that he'd joined us earlier but it took us a while to poach him from a rival school.

After a flurry of activity we finally started getting done the things we we've been agonizing over for the last month. 

Smooth was so good that we challenged him to make the B-brackets. He is called Smooth because he wants every part that he makes to be totally deburred and neat.

And the stud frame.

Suddenly all of these critical bits are coming together!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Summer at the DSBF

As you can see on the board, our task list for the summer is pretty extensive. So much has happened in the last few weeks that I don't even know where to begin.  May was all about materials testing in the DSBF.

We got all of the pieces together in the payload and checked to make sure that the arm could physically complete all of the tasks that we want it to accomplish programmatically. 

Jimmy graduated!

And his family came to visit the lab and see where he spends so much time.

We've been testing our components with our janky T/V set up and making sure that everything can keep working without overheating. Setting up tests creates more work and that can be frustrating and feel like a waste of time, but I believe that testing is one of the most important things that we do. I'm really a pessimist when it comes to materials testing.

A sad thing that has happened is that Brohams has had to resign due to an increase in family obligations. We miss him in the lab. 

A happy thing that happened was that Jimmy was offered an internship at NASA Goddard for the summer. He had to decide if he was going to take it in a really short amount of time, and I know it was a tough decision for him, but ultimately I think he made the right choice. 

DanKMemes graduated too! I made him an extra special commemorative mortar board. 

We even test to make sure things stay sticky in space.

Murr tested the cameras and made plans for the mounting points before she bounced for the summer.

Someone donated a ton of giant coolers to us and we had fun stacking the and moving them around. (And making forts.)

We used magic to put Dan's water bottle on the ceiling.

Seth tested our lights!

Somehow my tutu ended up on the ceiling.

James came by for advising at exactly the wrong time and got hired on for the summer.

He keeps his work station very tidy.

Not enough hours in the day and we're short staffed but everything is humming along.