18 October, 2002
Research Visit Part II
The second major part of my research trip has brought me to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, TX. This part started with a dinner where I was able to meet several members of my research team including Dr. Carlton Allen, the curator of meteorites at JSC, Dr. Dean Eppler who designs and tests spacesuits and materials for NASA, and Dr. Catherine "Cady" Coleman, an astronaut who has been on two previous shuttle missions. Others attending the dinner were Jaclyn Allen, Carl's wife who works for the education division of NASA, and Andrew Chaikin, an author of several books about the space program. It was great to meet and talk with such an exciting diverse group of people.
The first thing I got to see at JSC was the lab where the meteorites are stored. When meteorites are found in Antarctica, they are bagged and shipped frozen to California. From there, they are sent to the Johnson Space Center where they are stored, cold, and in a nitrogen environment to prevent oxidation. The Johnson Space Center crew doesn't completely classify the meteorites, but can visually sort them into some basic categories. From here, they are bagged and identified in separate chambers and a fragment is sent to the Smithsonian.
Lots of science dealing with meteorites and astromaterials is conducted at the JSC. One woman was studying magnetite crystals in ALH84001 while another gentleman studies impact features produced at different temperatures and pressures with rocks. He fires a variety of projectiles at rocks to see how they react to impacts. This mimics the conditions found primarily on the Moon and Mars where there are numerous impacts from micro and small meteorites. They do not have the thick atmospheric blanket that Earth does to prevent or slow such collisions. This research will be valuable if people are ever sent to Mars.
One of the highlights of my visit was my chance to sit with Cady at the CapCom (Capsule Communications) desk at Mission Control. I got to witness firsthand what takes place during a shuttle mission. I was struck when Cady pointed out the diversity of people working in Mission Control in terms of age, gender, and race. It looks very different today than it did during the Apollo era. The technology was advanced, but I had to laugh when I saw the Weather Channel on one of the monitors and that some of the computers ran Windows 2000 operating system. It just shows that the best technology is available to anyone, not just rocket scientists.
The flight director handed me the official patch of the STS-112 mission, and I felt like I was 10 years old again. Then, Cady turned me over to the Flight Director of the International Space Station. He showed me the ISS mission control room and the historic Mission Control room that was used from the early days of the space program through the first years of the shuttle program. It seemed so antiquated with its vacuum tube technology, but also seemed like a page out of history. It was really a treat for me to experience this as a space enthusiast and astronomy teacher. It was a day that I will never forget.
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