Space Monkeys

Posted February 28, 2000 at 5:31 pm | No Comments

So who are these crazy space monkeys to whom I keep referring?  I think it’s high time you met the team!

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“Southwest sure is a classy airline,” Kate thinks to herself.

Kate Williams is a spunky biomedical engineer with a fiery head of hair and an occasional temper to match.  She is familiar with the NASA atmosphere, having worked at the Johnson Space Center as a co-op last summer. Along with developing our project concept and providing our initial NASA connections, Kate was instrumental in writing our research proposal and acquiring recommendations from Carnegie Mellon department officials and NASA-affiliated professors doing neurovestibular research. Kate will be soon be taking her MCAT exams in preparation for medical school.
You can always count on William Emmer in a pinch — he’s the sort of stand-up guy you’d want your daughter to marry.  A junior majoring in Electrical and Computer Engineering and an active member of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, William (or “Emmer”, as he is affectionately referred to by his friends) demonstrates an admirable blend of responsibility and jocularity; he’s straight-edged enough that Kate gives him a hard time about it, but wild enough that his ROTC friends sometimes call him “Crazy Emmer”.  Emmer constructed our “mission toolkit”, the container of components that we’ll be bringing on our flight, and carried out the stress tests and structural load analyses required for our research proposal.  When he graduates, Emmer will serve as a Lieutenant in the Air Force.

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Emmer gets a kick out of hypoxia.

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Would you trust this yokel to program your VR system?

As the only computer scientist on the team, my task was to program a virtual reality system that simulated the physical conditions that occur on a flight on the KC-135.   This proved somewhat daunting, since I knew nothing about airplanes and my grasp of physics was limited to what I learned in high school.
Peter Yeung might be described as the archetypal fraternity brother.  A member of Delta Tau Delta majoring in Industrial Management, Peter divides his time between heavy beer consumption, recreational belching, and half-hearted efforts not to fail the macroeconomics course that he is cross-registered for at the University of Pittsburgh.  It’s not entirely clear what role Peter plays on the team, but he does do a great job of keeping us sane.   Peter is an incredibly fun guy to be around, and his devil-may-care attitude and complete lack of respect for authority prevent us from taking ourselves too seriously.   Even if Peter isn’t able to graduate this year, I think he’ll do well in business one day — he has the rare sort of up-front honesty that I admire.

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Peter shows off the plaque he won in a keg-standing contest.

Late Night Laundry

Posted February 27, 2000 at 5:30 pm | No Comments

An all-nighter tends to come in three stages:

  1. I’m in the zone!  I’ve never felt better.  I’m ripping though this problem set like a bullet through tissue paper!
  2. Vision… blurring… eyelids… drooping… shoulders… sagging… must… stay… awake…
  3. I’m way too tired to fall asleep now.  I’m tired beyond tired.  My heart is beating like a jackhammer, and I’ve broken into a cold sweat.  I’d feel like I were in the zone, except that my thought patterns are strangely jumbled.

As the sun rose, I stumbled home from Wean Hall, deep into the third stage.  I was sleepy but satisfied: the virtual reality simulator was complete, and six boxes of equipment had been shipped to the Johnson Space Center.  In two hours I would be on my way to the airport.  It was then that I realized that I had no clean clothes to pack.

laundry.jpg (22731 bytes) The laundry counter is closed on Sunday mornings, but luckily I had four old laundry tokens in my wallet.  It would work out perfectly, I figured, since I would have just the right number of tokens for two washer loads and two drier loads.  After filling two washing machines with clothing and detergent, I inserted a token into the first machine and pushed the start button.  Nothing happened.In this situation, the most sensible course of action would have been to switch the load to another machine, but my sleep-deprived brain decided that instead I would put another token into the same machine and push the button again.  Not surprisingly, the machine still didn’t respond.

It was at that point that my I hit upon the idea to switch machines.  I soon had both washers going, but now I was in a tight spot: in 45 minutes I would have two loads of wet laundry on my hands, and I was out of tokens.  Unless I acquired some tokens quickly, I would have to depart for Houston with a suitcase containing 50 pounds of waterlogged clothes.

As I paced back and forth through the laundry room, I noticed an ancient coin-push token dispenser, requiring exact change of three quarters and a nickel.  I checked my pockets and found one quarter and two nickels, and my wallet contained three one-dollar bills.  I gave the token dispenser a bleary-eyed stare.  This is the sort of math that becomes difficult at 7 AM.

There weren’t any change machines around, so I ran to the vending machines at the nearest dorm, where I saw that I could buy a package of gum for 50 cents.  Since that sounded like a good idea, I bought two packs with two of my dollar bills, leaving me with a grand total of five quarters, two nickels, and one dollar bill.  Here’s where it got tricky — I needed another quarter and a nickel, and all of the items in the machine cost either 50 cents or 65 cents.  Buying a 50-cent item would leave me with another two quarters, and a 65-cent item would most likely yield a quarter and a dime.   Holding my breath, I put a dollar into the machine and bought a 65-cent bag of pretzels.  Score!  I heard three clinks as the machine returned a quarter and a pair of nickels.

As I stuffed my suitcase full of unfolded, unsorted, and still somewhat damp laundry, I reflected on the degree to which my packing job resembled our overall preparation for this trip.  Our research proposal had been written in a weekend.  The internal review process, which typically takes a month, had been pushed through in two days.  The stand for our magnetic tracker base was rigged out of twine and PVC piping, and had collapsed during our final test session.

Heaving a sigh, I zipped up my suitcase and threw it into the trunk of Frollini’s car.   For better or for worse, I was on my way to Texas.

Vomit Comet

Posted February 25, 2000 at 5:29 pm | No Comments

The KC-135 reduced-gravity aircraft in flight.

The KC-135 is a modified Boeing 707 four-engine turbojet that NASA uses to simulate conditions of weightlessness. In a typical flight, it traverses the Gulf of Mexico in a series of large parabolic arcs. Peaking at 32,000 feet, the plane then dives to 24,000 feet, its fuselage pitched down at 40 degrees. At the top of the parabola, passengers lose all sense of gravity and become weightless for a period of roughly 25 seconds. When the airplane comes out of the dive and begins its next ascent, the plane pitches upward at about 50 degrees and passengers on the craft are subjected to forces up to 1.8 times that of gravity. This climbing and diving is repeated thirty times in what might be described as the ultimate roller coaster ride.  Flying on the KC-135 nauseates passengers so frequently, however, that the plane has been nicknamed the “Vomit Comet”.
Although best known for its role in astronaut training, about 80 percent of the plane’s flights are actually conducted in support of research or engineering. Under a program administered by the Texas Space Grant Consortium, the space agency makes the KC-135 available to undergraduate researchers for two weeks each year. This Sunday I’ll be traveling to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where my project team will be conducting a series of microgravity experiments on board the KC-135. Our project involves the use of virtual reality (VR) as a pre-flight adaptation training tool. Our hope is that advance training in VR will reduce feelings of motion sickness and give trainees a more intuitive understanding of the conditions of zero gravity.

Kate trains in the VR simulator.

A screenshot from the simulator showing the
interior of the KC-135 main cabin.

I’ve spent the last few weeks programming a VR trainer that simulates the conditions on board the KC-135. We theorize that after someone has practiced a series of simple tasks in the simulator, they will perform the same tasks more effectively in actual practice.  I’m not too optimistic about the results of the experiment, but whether or not our research is a success, I’m sure that the trip will be a great experience.

I’ll be taking plenty of photos while I’m in Texas, so check back if you’re interested in tracking my progress. I won’t be making a flight until the second week, but the first week should involve some interesting lectures, tours, and training procedures.


Posted February 23, 2000 at 5:29 pm | No Comments

Solitude is like criticism: good for the psyche when experienced in small doses.

Solitude is also like Corn Nuts: not a regular habit, but a craving that I occasionally indulge.

Every so often I drift into one of those melancholy, contemplative moods, the sort of disposition that Melville described as a “damp, drizzly November of the soul.”   Suddenly the best place to be is on the bridge above Panther Hollow at twilight, or on the railroad tracks by the steam factory just before the sun comes up.  You know the mood I mean: it’s a type of listlessness that you don’t want to escape because you’d rather wallow in it for a while, let it wash over you, see where it takes your thoughts.   It’s a fragile sort of mood, however; it can be broken by the friendly honk of a passing motorist or the smile on the face of an early-morning jogger.

I most often experience this emotion in the evening when I’m alone with my thoughts and wading through old memories.  Since I can’t sleep, I head outside for a lackadaisical late-night stroll into solitude.

It happened last summer when I was visiting Cancale, a tiny seaside fishing village in Brittany.  I ended up following a dirt road around the bay and up a hill until it became a small trail meandering along the seaside cliffs.  Cancale was dark at night, and since the moon wasn’t out, the only light came from a string of lamps hung along the length of the dock in the bay behind me.

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As I ventured farther along the narrow trail, the buildings and houses of Cancale shrunk into the distance, and all that I saw was the string of six flickering lights and their six matching reflections glimmering in the tide below them. By the time I had walked another half mile, the lights had converged into one glowing dot. I paused to sit on a boulder and admire the view, and all that I could hear was the rhythmic sound of waves crashing on the rocks. Closing my eyes, I felt the gentle sea breeze on my face.

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That’s the sort of solitude that I can cherish. It’s a cathartic experience, because after the feeling of isolation has saturated me thoroughly I return to my family and friends somehow rejuvenated, with hearty smiles and boisterous laughs that reflect the degree to which I treasure their company.  I may not be able to express my thoughts as elegantly as Thoreau, but I agree with one of his metaphors: every man should have three chairs in his house, “the first for society, the second for friendship, and a third for solitude.”


Posted February 19, 2000 at 5:28 pm | No Comments

The Hamster Dance?  Save it for Richard Gere.Instead, why not visit the brand new

Sound Sleeper

Posted February 14, 2000 at 5:27 pm | No Comments

Ah, I had such wondrous updates planned for the last few weeks.  But the best laid schemes of mice and Monzies gang aft agley, as the esteemed Robert Burns might have said had he watched me attempt to write a 7-figure NSF funding proposal in the midst of three class projects, a job interview, and a nasty case of the flu.

I’m not sure if either of these studies hold much merit, but I do know that a night or two of substituting caffeine for sleep can make my brain and body function in unusual ways.  Suddenly I’m capable of performing extraordinary feats of physiological wizardry, like continuing to sleep as my CD alarm clock blares techno music at 120 decibels.

Adriana attempts to quiet my
snoring by repositioning my head.

I’ve always been a sound sleeper, but the condition is intensified by sleep deprivation.  As you can see in this video, a couple of Long Island Ice Teas don’t help much either, as repeated attempts to revive me prove unsuccessful.

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