Saturday, November 1, 2014

Media Event at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (Part 1)

1st stop - the U.S. Space & Rocket Ctr.
Yay - my 2nd NASA Social! Except it wasn't a Social. But I'll call it that and we'll move on. A few weeks ago, there was a post on the 'NASATweetup Alumni' Facebook page announcing a limited number of social media slots for a pretty large event at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, AL. If you've never been to Huntsville, I highly recommend it - it's a wonderful city, nestled in the foothills of northern Alabama. Being from the South, I'm well aware of the many stereotypes often associated with southern states...and while some of those descriptions are well-earned, Huntsville is a true jewel. Do yourself the favor and make the trip.

Look, ma - I'm on TV! Kind-of.
Anyway, back to the media event. The day was to be filled - literally - with nonstop activities and information. A quick introduction with the MSFC media staff started the day, followed by a LIVE, one-hour panel discussion broadcast on NASA TV...featuring engineers that are responsible for projects covering communications, 3D printing, life support systems, and more. Though I was unable to secure a mic to ask a question (it was a genius question, I assure you - trust me), all that were asked were interesting and lead to a greater understanding of the topic.

Did you know that a great majority of the water on ISS is recycled? But not all of it. Some of the non-recyclable water is in a sludge that the current technology has a difficult, if not impossible, time reclaiming. Even if that sludge only represents 5% of the overall total, NASA's engineers are trying to come up with efficient methods to squeeze every last ounce of water out of it that they can. Tech like that will be critical to the success of any long-term mission since water is heavy and is a finite resource in deep-space (unless we're able to produce it in-situ).

Cutaway of a 3D-printed injector nozzle assembly.
By far the most popular topic was 3D printing, known in the industry as 'additive manufacturing' (AM). Though I've been aware of AM for several years, I was not aware how much it has progressed. The types of hardware that can be printed is astonishing. I can definitely see this as being a real-world analog of Star Trek's matter replicator. Two of the biggest benefits of AM are significant cost reductions and much shorter production time. For instance, injector nozzles for rocket engines are a complicated affair that can take several months and six figures to produce. And it gets 'discarded' when the engine is destroyed (either through testing...or splashing down...or in re-entry). No wonder rocket engines are so expensive. But what if you could produce the same item in two weeks and at a fraction of the cost? That's what AM promises...and it's delivering, at least in limited tests.

Virtual trainer
After leaving the USSRC, the group was off to MSFC to get the low-down on some ISS operations. We split off into two groups - one of legitimate journalists and one comprised primarily of social media representatives. If you know me, you know which group I was in. We were first taken to the ISS payload training area. Though not a wholly accurate representation of ISS (microgravity lends itself to the astronauts storing stuff wherever they can - "overhead"...on the "floor"...etc. - but terrestrial trainers leave the walkways clear), it's a close enough approximation for training to be useful. One of the modern additions is called a 'glass rack trainer'. Think of these trainers as huge touchscreen displays that mimic the layout of the hardware and allow the trainee to "flip" switches. This can speed-up training and reduce costs.

We then traveled upstairs to the ISS Payload Operation Center - one of 4(?)...I think (I really should take better notes) in the world that cover 24/7 operation and monitoring. From what I recall, the Russians take care of their own stuff...but many of the other partner nations will make use of our services for this. And it's an important job - they have their own independent power supply in the event of general failure (as occurred a couple years ago when Huntsville experienced some significant storms).

That's all for now - but there's so much more to come in 'Part 2'.