The Scoop On Orion


Orion is the state of the art spacecraft that NASA will employ to launch astronauts on their deep space mission to Mars. The gringa wants to know the most important bits about this vehicle and how it will keep astronauts safe and healthy on such an amazing journey. The most important things necessary for survival and comfort will be a propulsion system, heat and radiation shielding, re-entry braking system, clean water, breathable air, climate control and, as unglamorous as it is to mention such a thing, a toilet.

The first thing the crew will have to do is get off the ground and out of Earth’s atmosphere. The propulsion system that achieves this will also be responsible for a safe return trip home as well as any course corrections in the midst of traversing back and forth. NASA is collaborating with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop such a service model for the Orion spacecraft.  It will contain the propulsion system, solar arrays and batteries. It will be the power generator and also contain the reservoirs of air, water and nitrogen that will be used by the crew.

Deep space travel as well as re-entry is when Orion will encounter deadly radiation and overwhelming heat. During periods of most intense heat and radiation exposure, there is an area in the aft bay of Orion that is used temporarily during these critical periods. This section of the spaceship is nearest the heat shield. The ship is configured in such a way that while sheltering in this spot, there is a maximum amount of other material and equipment between astronauts and the outside elements. The most important components of this area are the supplies and equipment needed for launch and re-entry as well as food and water provisions. This design configuration helps to maximize protection with what is already on board rather than increase the mass of the ship.

In 2014 the heat shield was put to the test on Orion on a test flight. The spacecraft successfully held up under temperatures in excess of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat shield surrounds a skeleton constructed of titanium with a supportive skin of carbon fiber. A honeycomb type structure is fitted over the skin. The cells of the honeycomb are filled with “Avcoat” up to a thickness of almost two inches. This protective coating gradually erodes as it blasts back home through Earth’s atmosphere. Avcoat, developed in partnership with Textron Defense Systems that is based in Massachusetts, is a silica fiber and epoxy-novalic resin substance. It has proved its true grit on multiple NASA missions like the robotic exploration of a comet on the automated NASA exploration vessel Stardust as well as being used successfully on the Apollo mission. There was stiff competition to be selected as the product NASA would use in the construction of the heat shield. Avcoat proved its mettle time and again.

Once the crew has successfully and safely broken free of Earth’s atmosphere, it’s time to settle in for the long haul. The environmental life support and control system currently used on the International Space Station (ISS) is the model Orion’s support system is based on. On Orion carbon dioxide, the waste product from the astronauts respiration, will be recycled and converted into useable air. As NASA continues work on Orion’s life support system, they are using amine and the natural vacuum of space to filter and recycle the air.  Amine is a derivative of ammonia, which is present in urine. Not only will the astronaut’s urine be recycled to produce clean, drinkable water, but the ammonia can also be filtered out, separated and then used to help produce breathable air. The gringa can only think, “Waste not, want not, right?”

When the crew completes their mission and returns to Earth, they will need one more thing to help them in the final splashdown, a parachute braking system. Now, parachutes seem to be such a common piece of equipment that have been around for a long time, what could possibly be left to discover or upgrade?  Well, considering re-entry can reach speeds in the thousands of miles per hour range and, to splashdown safely needs to slow down to the low hundreds of miles per hour, NASA’s parachutes are definitely in a class by themselves. Orion will pack away eleven parachutes in all that will deploy in a precisely choreographed parachute dance. Three will be located on top of the ship, two will be located in critical areas for stabilization, and then three pilot parachutes will pull out the three primary braking chutes. These “brakes” are so big, that, when bundled together above the capsule, they cover an area almost the size of a football field.

The gringa can’t wait for the day when the world’s most powerful rocket blasts off into outer space with what I consider to be a crew of the bravest souls ever. It is unbelievable to see how far exploration has come since the days of Leif Erikson or Lewis and Clark.

Source and Photo Credit: http://www.nasa.gov

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The “REAL” Martian Story


The recent film, “The Martian”, was a big hit at theatres. One reason it turned out to be one fabulous work of cinematic science fiction was because NASA actually collaborated with the filmmakers. With such expert technical advisement, how could it fail to succeed? The gringa would like to know just how similar the technologies featured in the film parallel actual technologies NASA is developing for the future Mars mission.

One of the technologies in development is a habitation module so astronauts can slip out of their dusty spacesuits and put their feet up for a well deserved break at the end of a long day exploring the Red Planet. The Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) is just the place where this happens. This artificial living habitat is a self-contained environment used for training at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. It simulates what will be the primary living quarters in deep space. Included in the two-story floor plan are workspaces, a bathroom, technically called a “hygiene module”, and an airlock.

Unlike the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), Mars mission astronauts will not enjoy food delivery from Earth on a regular basis. Even a hotshot rocket pilot would need at least nine months for an express delivery service. So, if astronauts want to bite into a delicious red apple or sip a glass of fresh orange juice or munch on a salad of crispy fresh leafy greens, they are going to have to grow their own.

So far, astronauts have proven successful farmers where lettuce is concerned but it’s going to take more than arugula to keep them from getting a case of scurvy.  What is being experimented with on the ISS is a vegetable growing system called “Veggie”. This system grows plants in pillow like structure and small bags that use a wicking material that contains the growing media and fertilizer. After the success of growing “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce, the farming operation has been expanded to include other crops that are important nutrition resources for future astronauts.

Not only will the astronauts need water to drink and use for personal hygiene, but the plants will also need fresh, clean water in order to grow. Although water has been discovered on Mars, there is still as yet no way to access this precious resource. When astronauts arrive, they will need to be supplied with their own water recovery system. Such a system is used on ISS. For years, this system has been tweaked and perfected to the point that not even a teardrop is wasted on ISS. Every drop of water produced in any way is recovered by the Environmental Control and Life Support system and recycled.

Reclaiming and purifying water for re-use sounds pretty simple. I mean, after all, we do it all the time all over the place on Earth. The major difference is gravity. Gases and liquids don’t separate the same way in micro-gravity so rather than use something like a steam distillation purification system or a process that requires gravity to pull unclean water through a filter, a centrifuge is required in space.

Since free-flowing saltwater exists seasonally on Mars, one thought is to construct new technologies for brine water recovery and purification. Water recovery from urine is already successful at separating salts and minerals from pure water on ISS. This technology simply has to be experimented and perfected for use on Mars.

And NASA is not stingy with their technology. Their work extends to vulnerable people all over the world in order to help provide them with clean drinking water. The gringa is proud that NASA considers humanitarian efforts as part of their mission.

Now, in the Mars movie the astronauts carried their oxygen supplies around wherever they went on Mars. Their oxygen supply was created by using carbon dioxide from the fuel generator in the ascent vehicle. In real life, how will astronauts have a regenerative supply of oxygen? We can again look to the ISS to see this technology already successfully in use. Breathable air is continuously made by splitting water molecules. After all H2O is a blend of hydrogen and oxygen. Work is underway to advance the existing technology to recover oxygen from any byproduct that may exist in the atmosphere and collected not only on Mars but also along the journey to Mars.

Now what about Matt Damon’s fashionable spacesuit in sporty orange? How real is that? Well, any astronaut is going to have to wear a protective suit to explore Mars. There is not enough breathable air for them to survive in and the cold would definitely wipe them out pretty quickly. After looking at photos of the Z-2 prototype spacesuit NASA is developing, the gringa is a bit disappointed after the high bar that Hollywood set with the sexy, Matt Damon spacesuit. NASA’s focus is not on a brilliant fashion statement. They are more concerned with creating a functional survival outfit that will remain comfortable to wear even after six or eight hours trekking about the remote wasteland of Mars. The trick is to design a spacesuit from a flexible material that is highly durable. Oh, well, if NASA decides to let the gringa tag along, I will just have to smuggle in my BeDazzler.

And just like the spacesuit let down, the gringa is a bit miffed that the real Mars rover design is not as sporty as depicted by Hollywood. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised. Noone in Hollywood has any grip on reality, after all. It’s like living on another planet in that city! Maybe astronauts could spend some time there to practice what first contact will be like when they encounter their first alien species in outer space.

To go where their feet can’t take them, astronauts are going to have to have a vehicle that is sturdy and filled with all sorts of gadgets. The name of such a craft is the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). The first real space mission this vehicle will be used on will be the upcoming asteroid mission that will precede the actual Mars mission. This little baby is still under development so the gringa doesn’t really have any specifics other than the design has to be extremely versatile in order to be prepared for just about anything that could happen on the Martian landscape.

The Mars journey will be one of the most dangerous undertakings NASA has tackled yet. Because safety is the primary concern, there is no big rush to get there. Zero margin of error is the mission standard. We have accomplished much on ISS that has helped get closer to accomplishing the ultimate goal of landing a crew on the surface of the Red Planet. The next stage of the game is to lasso that damn asteroid and start staging Mars rehearsals. The gringa just can’t believe that this may all happen within her lifetime!

Source & Photo Credit:  www.nasa.gov

NASA And Its Continuing Contribution To Medicine


Often, an off-world mission lasts about six months for an astronaut. The gringa wants to know just what happens to their body out there in micro-gravity. The thought of floating around weightless in space often sounds wonderful to me when I’m tossing and turning in bed trying to get comfortable because, being a side-sleeper, my darn hips are killing me. Also, are these effects just physical or is there any mental side effects, like gravity-mania or something like that?

When astronauts return to Earth after a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS), they often have balance problems associated with muscle weakness, neurological responses to returning to gravity, and cardiovascular issues. Being epileptic, the gringa finds the neurological issues especially interesting. It seems the brain has a bit of a problem readapting to the concept of gravity. When I go up into areas of high altitude, my brain has problems readapting to the effects of atmospheric pressure when I return to the lowlands.

The last trip the caveman and I took up in the Andes, the day we returned to sea level my poor little brain went bananas and the neighborhood doctor had to come give me an anticonvulsant injection in the patootie with a humongous needle. The gringa says to herself, “Thank God doctors in third world countries make housecalls cuz there ain’t no ambulance and there ain’t no ER!” I can only imagine how my brain would react after six months in outer space. I would probably just decide it would be best to never come home. But, I digress, enough of me. I want to know about the other stuff.

Mars has enough gravity that, after traveling for six months to get there in micro-gravity, the crew is going to be in pretty bad shape when they arrive. What’s NASA doing about this problem? When astronauts return home, they often can’t even stand on their own two feet. Just take a look at the above photo. That is Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti needing assistance exiting the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft after her return to Earth June 11, 2015. How, then, are physically disabled astronauts going to land a spacecraft then emerge and get down to the hard, dirty work of survival on another planet?

The Functional Task Test (FTT) is being used to determine what mission critical tasks will be affected by the balance problems and impaired eye-hand control coordination that astronauts will be experiencing as they approach the Red Planet. The effects of long-term exposure to micro-gravity can create vision and perception changes that can contribute to things such as motion sickness. Pass the barf bag, please!

What the FTT studies have resulted in is a development of countermeasures that will be practiced before the astronauts even leave Earth and will also be performed while en-route to Mars. These measures are designed to “train the brain to become more adaptable”. I don’t know about you but the gringa knows lots of people who could benefit from a retrained brain!

All sarcasm aside, there actually are civilians who can benefit from what will help the astronauts arrive on Mars with their brain re-trained. People such as the elderly who are bedfast for periods of time after surgical procedures have difficulty getting up and around again. Stints of bedrest for the elderly often result in a loss of stability. Folks like this could use these same procedures to help them regain their mobility.

The gringa wonders if I could benefit from these same measures? Could I possibly retrain my brain so that I could enjoy Himalayan heights without fear of a seizure when ready to resume my beach-blanket bingo festivities at sea-level? It could happen! Just one more reason NASA needs to let me be the first gringa in outer space! So they can study my warped little brain for the benefit of epileptics all over the world!

Robot Real Estate Developers


The gringa, most definitely a product of the eighties, has mental images of R2D2 rolling around beeping and twittering happily as he constructs a space hut, anticipating the imminent arrival of Mars colonists from Earth. Well, it could happen! Seriously. Well, maybe not the R2D2 part, but something very nearly like it.

As NASA explores creative, imaginative ideas and new technologies, 3D printing is at the forefront of their plan to robotically construct habitations that will await the arrival of new Earthling residents on the Red Planet. By doing so, they can save critical cargo space. If they don’t have to pack tools, parts, and building supplies that can instead be contrived on a 3D printer sent ahead to Mars, the astronauts can arrive with other critical cargo to further enable a long-term mission’s success.

The engineers and scientists hard at work at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama are making this a reality. The envisioned plan is to have mobile machines that work like a 3D printer delivered to Mars by robotic space delivery. These machines could then be remotely controlled from Earth. These state of the art contraptions could be designed to work with the raw materials found on Mars. They could be designed to exude natural resources and “print” the building materials to create structures. Astronauts could arrive on Mars to find robot erected, 3D printed shelters already in place with a welcome mat outside to scrape off the space dust of their long journey.

This technology is already being tested at the International Space Station (ISS). Crews on board ISS have been creating all sorts of projects like building wrenches from layered plastic filament. Such items then undergo durability testing to see if they will even work. Advances in the technology will eventually, hopefully, make it possible to upgrade from plastic wrenches to wrenches manufactured from metals like titanium, nickel and other alloys.

NASA continues to search for talent throughout the civilian sector to help the dream come true of landing a manned space mission on Mars. One way this is done is by creating challenges and competitions in the fields of science and technology. In their 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge Design competition, Team Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office walked away with the grand prize depicted in the above picture of their design “Icehouse”.

By partnering with talent NASA is accelerating its own capabilities in advancing technology and manufacturing. 3-D technology is now in the proving ground to see if it can be used to create many things that humans will need in order to survive a long term stay on Mars. Being able to arrive at the Red Planet and survive in this galactic wilderness, create their own tools, survival and building materials with the natural resources at hand and a 3-D printer is beyond the gringa’s comprehension and that’s hard to believe considering my vast and somewhat quirky imagination.

Source: http://www.nasa.gov

How To Get A Job With NASA As A Research Assistant


If you have dreams of outer space like the gringa, just what opportunity is there at NASA? Who are they looking for? What qualifications should upcoming NASA employees plan to pad their resumes with? How much does such an interesting and dynamic job pay?

Over half of the jobs available with NASA are at the professional levels for engineers and scientists. If you plan to have a top notch job application for one of these positions, be sure to take as many classes as possible in mathematics, computer and aerospace engineering, meteorology, and even accounting.

About twenty-five percent of opportunities are for administrative staff. This kind of NASA role involves analytical skills, top notch researching abilities, specialization with information technology, and budgeting experience. These are college graduate level careers and critical for project management.

There is high level competition to get coveted aerospace industry jobs. One of the things to do to secure your best chance of getting hired at NASA is to find a mentor. Many universities have agreements with NASA for research assistants. Check this avenue out to help get a foot in the door for a shot at a job that has earning potential from $11,000 – $30,000 annually.

An example of a NASA research assistant job with a college is one that was recently advertised by the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State University. They announced an opening for a Research Assistant in the “Science Planner on the Science Operations Team of the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst” program. This is an ongoing NASA mission that has been operating since 2004.  Such a position requires a college degree in Physics or Astronomy.

Need scientists only apply? Well, not according to Angela Beaman who has a degree in Fine Arts. She got a research assistant position with NASA through the Horticulture Department at Iowa State University. The first thing she did was let a childhood curiosity about plants encourage an adult decision to pursue more knowledge. She showed up at the university’s horticultural center and simply started asking questions. That eventually led to a NASA fellowship studying the cultivation of basil through hydroponics. She explains that the most important trait to have in pursuing career dreams at NASA is determination which will see a person through a lifetime of continuing education.

As the gringa tends to her humble little patio garden, I consider how important these things are that we often take for granted. For space exploration to be possible at the “next level”, it’s not enough to know how to keep humans alive. We also have to know how to keep alive organisms that are life sustaining. Astronauts have to be able to provide some green stuff for long-term missions. This not only feeds their stomachs, but also their lungs as technology advances to create a self-contained biosphere that can sustain life through a long-duration mission. If you want to be a part, take some classes, ask questions, and get involved on any level.

Sources:

www.nasa.gov

https://www.quora.com/How-hard-is-it-to-get-a-research-assistant-position-at-NASA

http://www.careerbliss.com/nasa/salaries/graduate-research-assistant/

http://jobregister.aas.org/node/47927

Photo credit:

http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/plantgrowth/careercorner/Angela_Beaman_Profile.html

Swimsuits On Mars


NASA’s big news this week: Water On Mars!!! The surface of Mars is streaked with brine! This means water existed at some point in the past on the Red Planet in order for this salty substance to be created and still exists today! Should the gringa be prepared to pack a beach umbrella if added to the list of future Martian colonists? How about a bikini and fishing pole? Ummm, well, nope. Well, then, if not, what’s the big, darn deal? I mean, I have salty streaks down my face after a big cry. What’s it all good for other than skin irritation?

Well, wide-spread “perchlorate” salts are what the NASA scientists are actually so excited about. Well, what the heck are they? The gringa read the report that these salts were present because humidity and temperatures were just right on Mars. Mmm hmm. And? Because these salts are so absorbent, the freezing point of water is further lowered so it can remain liquid in colder than “normal” temperatures. Yes, I see. And your point is? This could theoretically “almost” prove… WHAT?! WHAT?! Proof of liquid on Mars. Aaaaargh! But the gringa wants to know WHY IS THAT IMPORTANT?!

Curiosly enough, one of the main uses of perchlorates on Earth is the production of propellants in rockets! Crazy, huh? It’s as if Mars is inviting us to come and is offering to pay for the gas!

It is also used to create “oxygen candles”. These items are used on spacecrafts, submarines and airplanes as an emergency oxygen supply. When these “candles” are burned, they produce oxygen. Is this not amazing to find an abundant supply of such a thing on a planet we would like to set up camp on and two things preventing this from happening are fuel and oxygen supplies! THIS IS AMAZING!

In order for perchlorates to be created, there had to be bacteria. This means that at one time life could be supported on Mars. This discovery is so significant not just for what it tells us of the history of the Red Planet but of its potential future!

If liquid water was once abundant on the surface of Mars, it is then possible that there is still frozen water underground and… this is important because… this could become a resource to assist the survival of long-duration space missions to Mars. Hurrah!

NASA reported earlier in 2015 that the northern hemisphere had probably been an ocean with a maximum depth of over one mile but that most of this precious resource had been lost to the effects of deep space. That discouraging news has now been overshadowed by this new revelation of the possibility of underground frozen water resources. And, that is not all!

The different colors of the striations in the satellite images indicate that salty water is only frozen some of the time. It is possible that Mars experiences a warm season that would thaw this frozen brine and salt water would then be flowing freely down the mountainsides of Mars. This would occur when temperatures would rise to a “toasty” range just above 10 degrees Fahrenheit. So, the gringa won’t pack the fishing pole and beach umbrella, but, rather, a ski bunny outfit and river raft!

Source & Photo Credit: http://www.nasa.gov

Pass The Galaxy Greens, Please


Truly, the gringa enjoys a fresh salad of spinach, arugula, romaine lettuce, with some walnuts tossed in, crumbled feta on top, and any assortment of chunky raw vegetables like zucchini, red bell pepper, asparagus, and onion. As a space gringa could I get my salad fix satisfied? Well, that’s exactly what the NASA engineers and scientists based in Huntsville, Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center have been working on for decades.

These galactic gardeners have created a space agricultural system for the International Space Station (ISS). The astronauts on ISS have been testing this technology which will ultimately find its way to Mars where it will create the food of the future. The ISS system is called the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS). It features a water recovery system and an oxygen generation system, the two basic necessities not only for human life, but also for plant life.

In order to sustain a long duration mission such as a Mars mission, astronauts will need to be able to supplement the food supplies they transport with them. One experiment called “Lada Validating Vegetable Production Unit” (boy is that a mouthful!) involves using a small greenhouse type contraption that has automated water and light controls. Lada’s goals are: to determine if space greens are safely edible; will space microorganisms grow on the space greens and if so, how can this risk be minimized; how can space greens be safely sanitized after harvest; discover methods for optimal production.

The most recent space greens to be harvested are a Japanese lettuce variety called “Mizuna”. The shuttle Discovery made a salad delivery to Earth in April. Along with the salad delivery was a report on findings based on the cultivation of the lettuce by two different methods, the “old” method versus the “new improved” method. The funny thing is that a sensor malfunction that went undetected resulted in a higher yield of lettuce. A mistake produced more. So much for the painstaking methods of a science experiment!

What happened after the sensor went on the blink was that the “root” module (no pot of dirt!) received much more water than it was supposed to. When cultivation “on the ground” determined that it would be better to minimize water and salt accumulations on the roots, this was the plan up on ISS. They’ve discovered the “actual” growing of the plant compared to the “land based” simulation did not result in identical scenarios.

It seems by overwatering the roots nutrients moved faster throughout the plant which resulted in faster fertilization release. Considering the plants are moving water and nutrients in micro-gravity, it makes sense to the gringa that more water would then be better. Water is kind of like a “vehicle” which facilitates the transport of the nutrition.

The gringa asks, “What does all this mean? I know that this will help Martian colonists get their fiber, but how does this help the rest of mankind that gets left behind?” Well, as climate change progresses, agriculture will become more of a challenge. We simply cannot continue producing crops according to the same old tried and true methods. Climate controlled greenhouses will need to be advanced to the point of sustaining a world population on the produce and vegetables it produces. The data from these experiments is critical to develop the type of technology that will save the Earth’s population from hunger.

These agricultural experiments have been taking place cooperatively between the United States and Russia for twenty years. Together, the scientists of two nations who have had an often hostile, cold, cantankerous relationship have ignored politics to quietly work together to solve the world’s problems. The gringa really likes that, even more than the space lettuce.

Source & Photo Credit: http://www.nasa.gov