Works and Days

Wyle Labs, NASA Ames, Ali Cox, Winter Shadows 2016

Two students and a mentor in the lab.

The first day at Nasa Ames Research Center, Arwen showed us her office, where she keeps samples of Mars and Moon dirt analogs (formulated on Earth to resemble as closely as possible the real thing). Apparently these samples are used to test rover instruments to try to determine as best as possible how they would interact with the foreign environment. Arwen also kept pictures of all the previous groups she has worked with on various projects. Among them were a collaboration with the Japanese space agency to build a giant, human-sized centrifuge to simulate the gravity on the moon and on mars, and the construction of the solar panels of the ISS. Arwen showed us a piece of these panels. They were made of an incredibly thin material with intricate circuitry. Apparently when folded the basketball court long panel becomes only 3 inches thick, which I thought was amazing.

After this inspiring first impression of Arwen's job, we attended a meeting on a space station bio-lab Arwen's team is working on. Though there was a lot of technical talk that I didn't understand, I felt the vibe of teamwork and enthusiasm.

Many of Arwen's colleagues work on side projects with a different group of people out of their own interests. One of Arwen's side projects is a new Mars lander whose main goal is to directly search for life using a big drill, unlike previous rovers, which were apparently more concerned with geology. We got to see the life-sized wooden model of this lander built by Dave, a spacecraft expert. Dave was also nice enough to give us a tour of an ancient Titan 1 rocket. He even gave hand-outs about rocket engine principles and the many different types of rocket engines!

The second day we met with Emmett, the mechanic at the machine shop at Ames. Emmett was one of the most fascinating people we met and perhaps has the coolest job (the most hands-on, for sure). Basically, engineers or scientists at Ames ask him to modify or create a part, and he does it, no matter how hard the job. After a lot of Q and A about the various machines in the shop, Emmett talked about how he came to be a a mechanic there and his adventures as one. He clearly loves what he does and wants others to do so too. He gave us his card and told us we could contact him for help for future internships at Ames.

It seemed like everybody we met was exploding to share their knowledge and be as friendly as possible. Ella, a chemist we saw just for a second in Emmett's shop, saw us later in the day and offered to give us a tour of her research facility and talk about what she is up to. James, another one of Arwen's colleagues, had the ability to sense even our slightest idleness and thus ended up taking us by the hand and giving us a tour of the EEL—the place where every craft is tested to the limit for space-worthiness (extreme cold, extreme heat, vibration, vacuum...). James also told us all about a lunar atmosphere getting to know mission he worked on and gave his opinions on the cost and worth of scientific discovery.

After Emmett, we went to the fluidics lab to meet Kurt, a fluid mechanics expert who is in charge of many of the wind tunnels at Ames. Kurt's philosophy on giving tours is less pointing and more demos, so we got to see a dyed water channel flow across a space shuttle model to see how air would bend around it as it flies. Kurt was hands-down the most enthusiastic person we met. After everything he showed or talked about he would say "Isn't that freakin' cool?"

Later, we got to have lunch with Alphonso, the biologist who is responsible for the life identification instrument on Arwen's life search mission. This was perhaps our longest conversation. Not only did we go into the details of how the instrument works and what counts as life, but we also talked about school and what it means to be a scientist. Apparently Alphonso's PhD was on the super interesting topic of how magnetic fields interact with life, like how some animals have an internal compass they use to navigate.

Overall, this was an amazing two days. Besides getting familiar with the process of proposing a project and how and what research is done at NASA, I learned how rewarding of an experience it can be to get people talking about whatever they are passionate about, and got inspired to follow my own passions, perhaps get involved in NASA. I think all of this realization happened after the trip though, because when I was there I was so much into what people were doing that I didn't have much time for self reflection.

An old Titan 1 rocket with two students and a mentor standing in front of it.

Tags: nasa, space, research, moon, mars, winter shadow, rockets, Titan 1, spacecraft, chemistry, biology