A couple weeks ago I — along with the rest of the world — was glued to my computer for the Mars Curiosity Rover’s “7 Minutes of Terror” culminating in a tweet that was Curiosity’s version of “one small step for man”:
I was a Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye kid growing up and although much of the science goes over my head, I still nerd out over things like this or Bill Nye’s recent interview on the Nerdist podcast (have to love his enthusiasm for science and exploration!).
Fortunately, we have one of the nation’s greatest scientific research centers in our own backyard — NASA’s Glenn Research Center. One of only ten NASA centers, Glenn has been designing technology for spaceflight and revolutionizing air travel with cutting-edge aeronautical technology since 1941.
So you can imagine how excited I was to finally visit NASA Glenn for Cleveland Plus‘ Social Media Advisory meetup last week.
Because the last couple of NASA Social events have conflicted with work, even the sinus infection I’ve been battling couldn’t stop me from attending with CLE+ SMAC.
Along with CLE+, the meetup was presented by NASA Glenn’s Developing Professionals Club (@dpcnasa on Twitter) which engages with NASA’s young professionals through development, social, and philanthropic activities.
After NASA Glenn’s Director Ramon Lugo welcomed everyone and shared a bit about what they do at their 350-acre facility, Astronaut Greg Johnson took the floor.
Johnson (whose nickname is aptly reflected in his Twitter handle @Astro_Box) is on a rotation at NASA Glenn, traveling throughout Ohio and our neighboring states to talk about NASA’s mission and what their new focus is with the retirement of the shuttle program.
Before we took a look at some of NASA Glenn’s projects, though, we enjoyed a video showcasing the last flight of Shuttle Endeavour which Johnson piloted. The crew, including Johnson and 4 Mission Specialists, was notably led by Commander Mark Kelly – Congresswoman Giffords’ husband.
While I’ve watched my share of shuttle liftoffs and have seen snapshots and short greeting videos from space, this video was a comprehensive 12 minute reel of the flight.
I laughed as the astronauts goofed off and practiced weightless dives through the International Space Station and was on the edge of my seat as Johnson directed the crew through the installation of a part on the ISS. It was an exciting behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like living in orbit.
As Johnson wrapped up the video, we all grabbed our tour passes and headed off to see firsthand what NASA Glenn is working on.
My first stop was the Icing Research Tunnel, NASA’s busiest facility. Since the end of World War II, the IRT has helped develop and test deicing and anti-icing technology that is used on the ground and in military and commercial aircraft. The Mythbusters have even used the facility to test the “blue ice myth.”
As would strike me in the next two facilities, I was impressed by the massive size of the tools used in the IRT. Inside of the tunnel, NASA Glenn tests full-size aircraft components as well as models of airplanes and helicopters.
The size of the IRT facility did nothing to prepare me for NASA Glenn’s Zero Gravity Research Facility, NASA’s premier facility for ground based microgravity research and the largest of its kind in the world. Scientists at NASA Glenn design a range of experiments – from the effects of Zero-Gs on certain physical phenomena (like combustion or plant pollination) or new technology they’re planning on using in future space missions.
The experiments are placed in huge containers which are then dropped into the Zero Gravity chamber. The one chamber we looked at was called the 5.18 facility because an item is weightless for almost 5.2 seconds as it drops to the bottom.
While you wouldn’t think 5 seconds is a long time, when you look down a hole that’s as deep as the Washington Monument is tall, you realize just how much force is needed to replicate Zero Gravity. Whew!
Out of the 3 facilities we toured, though, I think the SLOPE Lab was my favorite. NASA Glenn’s Simulated Lunar Operations Lab has re-created the terrain that we would encounter on the surface of the moon and Mars. They then test vehicles, tires and robotics technology that would be employed in an on-the-surface trip to those destinations.
I may have tweeted to Scott that I want that rover — especially after I saw the nifty “inchworm” manuever they’ve designed into it. The rover’s ability to squeeze itself upward, then spread itself downward allows it to navigate in unique environments … and looks pretty damn cool.
The genius and creativity that goes into designing tires for the moon also impressed. We got to see a selection of three models they’ve tried out – each employs different materials with a different outcome.
I will admit that by the end of the evening, I was a little intimidated by the sheer amount of brainpower housed at NASA Glenn. It was fun to learn how different minds work in different ways and the level of patience some fields demand.
While I knew that NASA did more than just send people into space to explore what lies beyond our orbit, seeing firsthand some of the very practical applications of their work made me a fan all over again.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or score a coveted NASA Social ticket to experience NASA’s Glenn Research Center. The Great Lakes Science Center in downtown Cleveland is NASA Glenn’s official Visitor Center with a number of behind-the-scenes attractions year-round, while the GRC offers traveling exhibits and a speakers bureau.
However, best of all, NASA Glenn still hosts facility tours once a month from April through October. Information on these events (there’s 2 more left in 2012) can be found at nasa.gov/centers/glenn/events/tours.html.
Thanks again to Cleveland Plus, NASA Glenn Research Center and NASA’s Developing Professionals Club for organizing this event!