Tag Archives: NASA

GDC 2013 – NASA Saves The Day

It’s Expo Hall Day! YAY SWAG! Ok, I guess I didn’t have much time to gather too much swag today. Odd given that I only went to a couple of sessions, one of which was a let-down. After breakfast, we headed back over to the Video Game History Museum and got our old-school game fix on. I played better today than I did yesterday and set the high score on Asteroids, although I’m sure it didn’t survive the morning. Russ Hanna kicked my butt at Centipede and Richard Fleming bested me at the driving game Turbo. ARG! How do I lose to Fleming at a driving game??? Trip wire to activate the coin switch on the back side of a coin-op arcade game. If there were dragons in the game, sure I could see it, but driving? …ugh. I suck. I bit of geek pride was that I had to show the others how to trip the microswitch on the back of the coin acceptor to register credits instead of actually having to put a quarter in the slot. Seriously, did you guys not grow up in the 80s? How do you not know how to do this?

In past years, the first event on Wednesday was a keynote address by a legend in the game industry such as Shiguri Miyamoto or Hideo Kojima. Last year, they opted for a different format in which select presenters are given a brief amount of time to pitch their talks. It’s an interesting format, and it did get me to check out some sessions that I wouldn’t have otherwise, but on the whole, it was an hour of pointless idleness. This year I chose to be idle somewhere else, like the upstairs in the museum playing Asteroids. The Expo Hall opened at 10am, and we started in our systematic way, start at one end and leave no area unexplored. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the expo hall, only an hour, but I did need a supplementary bag! Going back for more today. The t-shirt count is up to seven, and sure to climb by the end of the conference on Friday. I haven’t run across anything especially interesting yet, mainly just the standard pens, pads, and other such trinkets.

The first session I attended after our lunch break was a talk on the lessons learned about the role of code, data, and tools during the development of Assassin’s Creed III – Homestead. While I thought that would be interesting, it really wasn’t. The presenter spent more time on fancifying his slides rather than crafting an intelligently organized presentation. JeffNorris Oh, well. The next session, and last of the day, was by Jeff Norris and Victor Luo from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with the cheesy title, “We Are The Space Invaders”. I had fully expected the talk to simply be “We have 3D models of spacecraft, and you should use them in your game.” This has been NASA’s standard MO in the past, but this talk was amazing. Jeff and Victor demonstrated how NASA was using the Unity game engine to create interactive tools and games for the public, including a downloadable game for the XBox 360, and it actually looked good! Unfortunately, I don’t have a 360 so I can’t check it out, but if you do, search for Mars Curiosity. There should be a Kinetic game that you can download for FREE. Cool. The other point they made was that the game industry understands user interfaces and controls to a much greater extent that many rocket scientists. (duh) Given that, they’ve been working on ways to utilize more game-like controls into their spacecraft and rover control systems. One impressive demonstration was a video showing a group of 5th grade kids playing a motion recognition game on the Xbox, then taking those skills they learned in less than a minute in a game and using them to control a $5M robonaut. Mind you, they didn’t control a simulation of the robot, they were in actual control of the real multi-million dollar piece of hardware after 45 seconds of training, and they were controlling it with skill and dexterity! NASA took those lessons and started applying them to other less humanoid applications. The next demonstration they showed was super impressive. Using motion-capture technology on an operator’s hand, they are able to expertly control the All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE). Best of all, they did the demonstration, not with an animation, but remotely with the actual two-story tall robot! Jeff Norris applied the controls live during the GDC talk and those commands were sent to and obeyed by the ATHLETE robot at JPL. It was brilliant!!

TimeForAPint_smThe last GDC event of the day was the Awards Show. This comes in two parts, the Independent Games Festival and the Game Developer’s Choice Awards. It’s always a good time and it’s neat to see what new things people are exploring in games. Two games that I plan on checking out when I get back are FTL: Faster Than Light, and the Game of the Year Journey. Journey is visually interesting, but I’m not clear as to why it was so much better than every other game. I guess I’ll have to play it to find out. Well, that’s it for a long day. Guess it’s time for a pint!

Of Rockets, Alligators, and Baby Sea Turtles

I recently had the amazing opportunity to go to the Kennedy Space Center as an invited guest to see the launch of a pair of spacecraft, the Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP). This opportunity came to be through my position as a researcher at Fundamental Technologies, a small research firm in Lawrence, KS that will be the Science Operation Center (SOC) for the Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE). This was my first, and likely only, chance to see a launch as an invited guest, and my wife and I were over-the-moon excited, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Unfortunately, the launch was delayed 24 hours from its originally scheduled launch time of Thursday, 08/23 at 0407 EDT because of a concern over the RD-180 engine on the Atlas V that RBSP was atop. There had been a problem with another RD-180 engine that was being fitted to another Atlas V in Alabama, and the engineers wanted to make sure that the same defect wasn’t present in RBSP’s engine. No worries from us, though, since we had reservations through Saturday. Plus, we didn’t mind the fact that we’d get to have a full-night’s sleep after travelling all day long. That evening we did get to attend a reception hosted by United Launch Alliance, the group responsible for providing the launch vehicle. It was your typical cocktail party with everyone standing around awkwardly having awkward conversations, awkwardly introducing people they’d just met to other people they’d just met, while trying to juggle silverware, plate, and drink in one hand to shake hands with the other.

Our hotel was right on the beach, so being a wannabe photographer, I had to go out early in the morning and see if I could get a good photo of the ocean sunrise. When I got out to the beach in the predawn, I was met with a surprise. The spotlights illuminating RBSP’s Atlas V on Space Launch Complex 41 at Kennedy Space Center were clearly visible from our hotel in Cocoa Beach. It was pretty darn cool to be able to see that our spacecraft was there and waiting from so far away. While waiting for sunrise, I also got another surprise photo opportunity. Apparently, August is sea turtle hatching season, and my wife and I got to witness one young, lucky turtle make it from the beach to the sea without becoming breakfast for the lurking sea gulls.

Finally, the day of the launch was at hand! We had tried to go to bed early since our alarms were set for 0030 so that we could get ready and be at KSC to catch the shuttles to the viewing bleachers by 0130. Our plans for an early respite were ruined first by phone calls at 2100, and then by a fire alarm at 2330! Someone had pulled the fire alarm as a prank and woke up the entire hotel sending us all out to the parking lot to escape the ear-splitting alarms in our rooms. So with minimal shut-eye, we headed out to KSC and were at the Banana Creek/Saturn V Viewing Location by about 0200, ready to see RBSP leave the planet. The location was close enough to afford a very cool view of the launch vehicle, but far enough away that we wouldn’t be roasted by the exhaust.

Being right next to a swamp, however, the mosquitoes were vicious! The countdown was approaching the T-4m mark at which there was a scheduled 25-minute hold in preparation for the Readiness Poll for Launch. Once everyone gives the Flight Director a “Go”, then the countdown resumes. We never made it that far. As the various systems were polled for a go/no-go, everyone was good except for down-range tracking. The tracking beacon on the launch vehicle wasn’t holding frequency and the down-range radar couldn’t maintain a definite lock. The launch was scrubbed and scheduled for a second attempt on Saturday morning.

After a couple fitful hours of sleep, it was time to get up again and head back out to Kennedy and the Visitors’ Complex! I volunteered at the RBSP exhibit booth there next to the IMAX theater answering questions about the radiation belts and the RBSP mission, as well as leading youngsters through a variety of short activities we had set up to demonstrate the effects of magnetic and electric fields. It was also a good time to reconnect with some great educators I met at the RBSP Teachers’ Workshop held at APL earlier in the month. My complimentary ticket to the KSC Visitors’ Complex didn’t include access to the bus tour, so no up-close tour of the VAB for me, but they do have a pretty cool Rocket Garden where they have several launch vehicles on static display.

Saturday morning at 0030, it was time to repeat the Friday morning’s routine, thankfully minus the interrupting fire alarm. This time, we made a stop at the doughnut shop for coffee and breakfast. Friday was a struggle without caffeine! The process was pretty much the same as before, show up at KSC and get shuttled to the bleachers and wait. Things were looking sketchy right from the start as we could see lightening off to our south and radar (which everyone had up on their phones) showed a pretty potent cell approaching. It was far enough away that we still had hope that it wouldn’t hinder the launch. At the T-4m hold, though, weather forced a no-go, and it even rained on us for a bit. As the storm cell approached the Cape, the weather conditions became less and less favorable for a launch and once again at 0425, they scrubbed. No launch for us. The night wasn’t a total loss, though. We did get to see an alligator swimming by in Banana Creek right in front of us, and thankfully on the other side of the fence.

On our way back to the airport, we decided to make one last stop at a museum we learned about through a tip on Foursquare, the U.S. Space Walk of Fame. You’d never know it by looking at the front of the museum as it look more likely to house a barber shop than artifacts from the space program, but they have the best and coolest collection of artifacts and memorabilia I think you’ll find anywhere. Many of the folk involved in the space program as engineers, technicians, scientists, and astronauts have donated a variety of gear and equipment including some of the old launch control panels. The coolest thing about the control panels is that they were powered and kids (or space geeks like me) would enjoy throwing the toggles and watching the different systems come to life.

All in all, it was a good experience. I met a lot of neat people, got to talk a lot of space science and geek out, and I at least got to see our spacecraft on the pad and ready to leave the planet even if it never did launch. Of course there was also all the frolicking in the ocean and enjoying mass quantities of awesome seafood and Cuban cuisine. The next launch window for RBSP is on Thursday, August 30th, at 0305, and you can see the launch streamed live on NASA TV. I’ll certainly be awake and crossing my fingers for a fully green board! GO ATLAS, GO CENTAUR, GO RBSP!

The Radio Beacon That Started the Space Age

On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union became the first nation to successfully place an object into orbit around the Earth. That object was Sputnik-1 and it scared the crap out of us. At the time, most people felt very secure in the technological superiority of our country, a belief that still persists with many, but hearing that the Soviets had beat us to orbit, and then SEEING the small little basketball-sized satellite as it passed overhead stripped away the arrogant confidence that many had that we would prevail against our Cold War enemy in every single endeavor, including being the first to Space. This spawned a movement within the Western World, including the US, to “step up to the plate” and push science and engineering hard in the classroom. Teachers, students, and industry were strongly motivated to bring young, bright minds into the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Seeing where STEM enrollment and participation is today, perhaps we need another Sputnik. While I wouldn’t normally suggest a fictional movie as a reference, especially one from Hollywood, the movie, October Sky does an excellent job of capturing the attitudes and emotions of the time.

Related to all this is story that was relayed to be my by long-time mentor, Dr. Thomas Armstrong, a space science researcher and educator who has been involved in the space science business since it was a business, and studied at the University of Iowa under the great James Van Allen. Sputnik’s successful orbits, and the Soviets’ great achievement, wasn’t really the wasn’t the signal of our technological inferiority as many had feared. President Eisenhower had played a very shrewd and clever game. We had a launch vehicle and a payload quite capable of reaching low-Earth orbit before the Soviets. The Vanguard project was an effort designed to launch a civilian satellite into orbit, which it eventually succeeded in doing, but there was a military effort in place before Vanguard. That effort quite possibly could have succeeded, but the political costs of that success would far outweight any strategic or propaganda-based benefit. Eisenhower had ordered that the test launch absolutely, under no circumstances, be allowed to achieve orbit. In response to that order, the third-stage fuel tank was drained, and the planned flight to orbit failed as planned.

The reaction by the American public to Sputnik, driving students and industry to STEM education, lead to a flood of young, bright, eager, and highly motivated scientists, technicians, and engineers, and America surged forward. Not even a year after the launch of Sputnik, Eisenhower formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). From that moment forward, NASA was the unrivaled leader of space exploration and rocket engineering. In a very real way, not launching a satellite when we could have and allowing the Soviets to be the first into space, allowed for an environment that would see the US surge forward by leaps and bounds with scientists and engineers being seen as rock stars! We can have those days back again, all we need is to value science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the same way now as we did in the 50s and 60s.