Ben's Website

Serious musings

NASA Kennedy Space Center

I'm in Florida at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. I'll hope to share a couple of the cool things I'm doing here: Here's a map of the area.

The Drive

Nothing real special here, I arrived in Madison at 17:30 from Germany on Wednesday the 10th and packed till 0:30 Thursday morning, making for a 25.5 hour day. Leaving Madison at 9 I reached Dalton, GA (~30 mins. NW of Atlanta) by 23:00. The Tennessee-Georgia border is quite hilly/mountainous which took me a bit by surprise, since it was already dark when I started going up. I was on the road by 8:00 Friday morning and arrived in Cocoa Beach at 17:15.

I'm staying on the small strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Banana River, due east of Orlando. The Cocoa Beach / Cape Canaveral area is probably 50% tourists and is, as near as I can tell, thoroughly focused on the beach and NASA. I had a brief conversation with my hosts, Frank and Sylvia, before unpacking a bit. Hungry, I headed to Mio's for some Ian's style pizza (a Madison favorite) and walked around the beach while eating. After this I called it a night, quite tired from the three days of travel and to give myself a decent chance of getting up at 3:30 to see Endeavour launch.

Endeavour did not launch (thankfully Frank checked before driving out to the Cape) and I spent Saturday and Sunday unpacking and exploring the area.

First Week — 6/15-21

Kennedy's quite a large center and there's a lot of activity in the area. My daily drive takes me through the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and south of all of the launchers and processing facilities. It's pretty cool seeing Endeavour on my way in.

The drive takes about 30 minutes, half of which is traversing the CCAFS before coming to KSC. I'm working in the O&C building (Operations and Control, I believe) in the industrial area, south of the pads. The building's about 200m long and is where the Apollo Command and Lunar modules were assembled during Apollo.

The Vehicle/Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) before the LRO/LCROSS launch The Vehicle/Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) before the LRO/LCROSS launch

As I've mentioned before, I'm working with the Modeling and Simulation group within the Information Technology and Communications Directorate with two other interns. Our task is to identify and potentially prototype an Augmented Reality (AR) interface for the new space suits. We're basically asking what data can we show an astronaut to make extravehicular activities (EVAs) more productive and safe while reducing error. Some examples of AR: the yellow first-down line added to NFL games, the moving driver/car tags in NASCAR races, and the heads-up-displays in fighter jets. Thinking about an astronaut, we would like to display vital indicators, mission tasks, camera feeds, and other data inside the space suit's helmet. As many of you know, this is not my normal line of work, but I have enjoyed thinking about the obstacles an astronaut faces while doing their mission and creating new approaches to solve these issues.

This week was evenly divided between orientation and some basic research on AR. It was a bit slow starting, but by week's end I was able to log into my computer and knew how to retrieve voicemails. Endeavour suffered the same Hydrogen leak during Wednesday's attempt, so the highlight of the week was the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LRO/LCROSS) launch Thursday evening. This was the first time I saw anything larger than an Estes rocket take off and greatly enjoyed first seeing, then hearing and feeling the launch. We had had some thunderstorms earlier in the afternoon and almost called off the launch, but we made the last opportunity and the Atlas V sent LRO/LCROSS to the Moon. Unfortunately, it was still overcast for the launch, so I saw the Atlas lift off the pad and ascend into some low-flying clouds.


The student football ticket floodgates opened Monday morning and two hours later all 14,000 tickets had been sold. At one point I had four tabs open, reloading every five seconds but could not secure entrance to the ticket sale webpage. Thankfully my friend Lisa was admitted and, after buying her tickets, still had an active session and was able to purchase for friends (this may have been on purpose to keep groups together, but it was not advertised...), so I'll be at the games.

Work-wise, the first couple days were spent recalling various projects & technologies I'd seen elsewhere (HackADay, movies, etc.) and doing some heavy brainstorming on new ideas. With some capabilities in mind, I began researching the current state of AR (augmented reality) and how it might be applied to spacesuits. This quickly spiraled into a full review of augmented reality, spacesuit construction, helmet-mounted displays, human-computer interfaces, and related topics, including Apollo Moonwalk accounts and video. (Watching that footage again was enjoyable, especially when trying to reach a dropped hammer...) After two and a half weeks of research, (today's 7/6) I've saved and annotated close to fifty articles and have probably read & rejected four times as many along the way. I'll spend tomorrow (7/7) and part of Wednesday reviewing and summarizing my research to guide our AR development (if I produce a nice graph or conclusion I'll throw it up here).

During this research period we (my mentor Priscilla and fellow interns Keith and Pan) took a trip to the University of Central Florida in nearby Orlando. There's a corridor of modeling and simulation researchers and companies in central Florida of which UCF plays a large part. With my engineering research background I enjoyed seeing labs where some of the newest ideas are being developed and gained a better picture of the overall M&S field. The take-home lesson of the day was that our goal should not be to make the astronaut more efficient or productive, rather we should be enhancing their ability to perceive and understand their environment. This enables them to make mission-critical choices based on data that cannot be quickly or easily transmitted to the ground for review. Of course, systems that do make the astronaut work more efficiently are useful and sorely needed, but they do not require much conceptual groundwork; once the technology and funding are ready they can be rolled into the relevant suit module and used in-orbit and eventually on the Moon.

GOES-O Launch — 6/27

Looking west in Melbourne, 1:15 before GOES-nowhere. Looking west in Melbourne, 1:15 before GOES-nowhere.

I was down in Melbourne Saturday afternoon and had thought that the drive north to see Oth launching of the Geostationary Observational Environmental Satellites (GOES-O) would take around a half hour. The hour-long launch window began at 18:41 and I planned on grabbing a Hot-'n-Ready pizza (craving since Germany...) on my way to the Cape. After a little searching I found Little Caesars and was headed north by 17:30, by way of the coastal mainland highway (Hwy 1). As those who are familiar with the area, this was a poor choice and I was about even with my apartment (Cocoa Beach) when the launch window opened. Pizza finished, I was still a half hour from the Cape and eagerly peering out the windows, looking for rocket exhaust. I reached the NASA gate and headed out to NASA Causeway (northernmost road spanning the Banana River) and was relieved to see the Delta IV still on the pad and weather to the northeast, moving offshore. My Causeway parking spot was about two miles from the launchpad and a couple minutes later the weather had cleared to start the countdown. For Shuttle launches the 3-4 mile Causeway is full of people and the mission countdown is played over loudspeakers; I was joined by about 6 other cars on the west side of the bridge and the speakers were not carrying the launch. I noticed some of my fellow watchers exit their vehicles and, eyes on the rocket, saw the engines ignite (18:51) and the vehicle slowly lift off. Being two miles away, the low, rumbling explosion was delayed a couple seconds but quite enjoyable once it reached me. The rocket exhaust was quite bright in the evening sun and as the vehicle accelerated I could not see the rocket body, only the plume. About 20s after ignition I could no longer distinguish the flame from the few clouds and I took out the camera for some plume pictures (on Flickr). Quite thrilled that I made the launch and its success, I headed home.

The Fourth — 7/3-5

Saturday was a beautiful day and made for a great, 10 mile bike ride over the Cocoa Beach Causeway which connects Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral with Merritt Island and Florida. After the ride I hung around the apartment till dusk and headed north for the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral fireworks. I parked a couple of blocks from the beach and had a chocolate malt as I walked over. The beach was full of people and the weather made for great firework-watching—clear and comfortable. Two barges held the fireworks ~500' from the shore while a multitude of boats were further out. The fireworks were good, see Flickr.

Family Visit — 7/15-21

My parents flew down on Thursday into Orlando and we had supper at a nearby Fridays. I'd last seen them in mid-May and enjoyed retelling my week in Germany and first month in Florida.

While I worked Friday they walked north and I picked them up on the way home. We headed south to Melbourne for supper at a good Italian/seafood place whose name I can't remember...I'll check the next time I'm down there. We stopped at the store for some necessities and finished out the night watching the Tour.

Saturday morning my dad and I went for a brief beach run while mom gathered some shells. After a brief respite, we headed back to Orlando to pick up my brother, then headed south to check out Bok tower. Built on the highest point in the peninsula, Bok is a carillon (bell tower) inspired by those in the Netherlands. The carillon itself is closed to the public and surrounded by a small moat, containing large, orange fish. Around the hill top is a well-cultivated garden which transitions into orchards. We headed back to Cocoa Beach around five and planned out our Sunday activities.

Sunday morning we headed to church then spent the rest of the day as tourists. Quizno's for lunch, we walked through the Ron Jon mecca then changed for the beach. The waves were cresting at 3-5' and made for a good couple hours in the sun. Around three we cleaned up and went through the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center. I was unable to get us all on-base and we arrived too late to see the Saturn V center (featuring a Saturn V, Apollo replicas, spacesuits, etc.). After heading through the gift shop we saw the new Star Trek on the KSC's IMAX. The movie ended around 9:30, about five minutes ahead of a good storm.

I left Dan and parents to another day in Cocoa Beach as I worked. That evening we went to a real good pizza place, A N.Y. Pizza House, and is the closest I've come to Sam's in Wausau. We took a drive south and a brief beach walk near Melbourne Beach before heading home. Some chocolate malts finished out the day.

I rode into work with Frank (my host) while my parents took Dan back to the airport, then continued westward for a day in St. Petersburg. They returned to Cocoa Beach Wednesday afternoon and we had supper at Carrabba's, a good Italian chain (apparently there's one in Milwaukee).

We got up early Thursday morning to drive to Orlando for my parents' 8am flight, then I headed into work. All told a good couple days with the family and, I'm told, enough sun and relaxation.

STS-127 Endeavour

I had rushed down Florida to see Endeavour's 6/13 attempt canceled 7 hrs after my arrival in Cocoa Beach. Weather and a gaseous hydrogen leak repeatedly delayed launch to 7/15, six attempts and a full month after the planned launch. The astronauts suit up in my building (Operations and Checkout, O&C) and I caught the walkout (the astronauts' last, up-close appearance to the media) three times, leaving the photographers many shots to choose from. In the intervening period my co-worker Bec tried taking us out to the pad, but some schedule confusion stopped us just outside the access gates.

The launch was quite enjoyable. I'd previously seen a Delta IV (GOES-O) and Atlas V (LRO/LCROSS) launch, but neither approached the raw power of Endeavour's launch. I was about two miles from pad 39A, just behind the press site and to the south of the VAB and large countdown clock you'll recall from Apollo 13. Here's a brief montage:

I was standing right behind a fence onto which my camera was mounted and continuously taking pictures, so I have ∼50 more of the plume after Endeavour had moved out of the picture; needless to say I was enjoying the experience.

I followed STS-127/ISS Assembly Flight 2J/A on NASA TV during its 17 day mission and was fortunate to get out to the Shuttle Landing Facility for landing (thanks, Frank). I was at the midpoint of the runway and surrounded by reporters and other, credentialed employees. The first physical sign that Endeavour was on approach were the double sonic booms, and I didn't see Endeavour until it was midway through the final banking turn (since the shuttles are brick-covered gliders hauling tons of trash on return). The scrub brush surrounding the SLF prevented me from seeing the main gear touchdown, but I caught both the nose gear and parachute deployment. The orbiter was still going at a good clip and quickly disappeared behind more scrub, eventually stoping at the southeast end of runway 15. We had followed the orbiter servicing caravan in and watched as the trucks drove out to stabilize Endeavour's systems and prepare for crew exit.

Two hours after returning from the runway the Crew Transport Vehicle 'docked' (probably the best word, click through) with the O&C building to transfer the 127 crew. This struck me as a bit excessive, but considering Koichi Wakata's return from 4.5 months on the ISS, think it was done to avoid taxing his immune system. Anyway, I greatly enjoyed seeing STS-127 to completion and have a much greater appreciation for all the work that goes into every shuttle launch. I'm thrilled that I was able to see a launch and landing and count myself very fortunate, considering the impending transition from shuttle and the questions on its replacement.

STS-128 Discovery

I got to see Discovery twice during its preparation for STS-128, which launched (video) this past Friday (9/29). First up was a visit to the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where the external tank (ET) and solid rocket boosters (SRBs) waited for the orbiter. Each shuttle launch is the culmination of multiple production lines, scheduled years in advance, and the VAB is a flurry of activity as the United Space Alliance launch crews prepare elements two, three missions in advance.

We began at platform C, the highest of the removable platforms, which services the ET oxygen vent. We moved downward, stopping for pictures, joining the SRBs and past the upper and lower Shuttle attach points. The shuttles are readied in one of three Orbiter Processing Facilities then rolled over to th VAB for mating to the ET & SRBs. Once in the VAB, the shuttle is lifted vertically, inserted into shuttle-shaped cutouts in the access platforms, and attached to the ET & SRBs. The completed stack rests on the Mobile Launcher Platform until launch.

While in the VAB, we stopped to see the assembly of the first test flight of the new Ares rocket, Ares I-X. This process is now complete and Ares I-X is the tallest vehicle to inhabit the VAB since the Saturn V. As some of you may know, the future of this program is in flux (along with the future of American spaceflight), but I enjoyed seeing what the future may be. I hope that President Obama continues Constellation and proceeds with the Halloween Ares I-X test flight.

NASA Summary

Describing my work at Kennedy Space Center was a bit involved this past summer, though now that I've returned to Madison I hope to give you a decent idea of my task. The Moon is an extremely attractive destination for future manned space missions, primarily because of its proximity to Earth and potential to answer many questions on Earth's geologic history, the formation of the solar system, meteor and asteroid bombardment phases, human adaptability to low gravity, among others. While there is uncertainty in our near- to mid-term plans for human exploration, I fundamentally believe that we will extend beyond the planet by way of lessons learned on the Moon.

This past summer I worked with the Modeling and Simulation group at KSC, mentored by Dr. Priscilla Elfrey, with two other interns. Our task was, broadly, to create an interface for use by lunar astronauts, whereby pertinent information (vital signs, current task, path to habitat, seismometer status, etc.) is displayed in the astronaut’s helmet. The highest conception would allow the astronaut to simply look around his/her environment, and as their gaze progress their line of sight is tracked and any information on objects of interest is displayed on request. The astronaut will be able to display, manipulate, and annotate any object, location, or procedure; the overriding goal is to enable the astronaut to understand their environment and then communicate that understanding to the habitat/Earth. This will require many technologies to be integrated but this approach may be broadly called augmented reality (AR) – the real time addition of information to the world, as perceived by the user. As I began this project last June, the multidisciplinarity (word?) of AR struck me as I began remembering projects covered on Hack a Day, among other places. Recalling these provided an informal indicator for the current status of the required fields while highlighting capabilities shared or unique to lunar extravehicular activities (EVAs). I spent most of July in academic research, searching, reading, annotating, drawing conclusions from the literature, leading to seventy articles-of-merit. I made a significant effort to form conclusions between articles and disciplines to identify the most significant improvements to lunar EVAs, given probable mission profiles and expected technology advances.

The overriding conclusion from this research is that the function, role, and purpose of the astronaut will change from one of manual labor to a perceiver of systems, once continuous human presence is established and as equipment continues to arrive. To enable this function, the astronaut must be able to naturally and comfortably interact with physical and electronic systems, manipulating information with the same (or better) ease as physical tools.

The final product is a thirty-plus page report that evaluates seventeen applications of AR to lunar EVAs in the context of the literature, first-hand interviews with astronauts, and expected lunar missions. This report is still in draft, but I produced a summary poster featuring six of the more interesting ideas. I'm working to finish the full report and will post here asap.

Study Results:

A concept of how information can be added to an astronaut's view of the lunar surface.

Towards Perceiving the Lunar Environment [.pdf, 1.5MB] Accompanying Poster [.pdf, 1.0MB]

Keys to improving Extravehicular Information Interaction [.pdf, .7MB]

Great Smokey Mountains — 8/22-3/09

Friday, 8/21, was my last day at KSC. After a good lunch and wrap-up talk with Priscilla, I headed to the Astronaut Hall of Fame while my badge was still valid. Filled with relics from the each era of the the space program, the hall of fame presents the stories of the astronauts as they prepared, conducted, and returned from their missions. See a couple additional pictures on Flickr.

I hiked into 65 on Saturday, then Noland Creek / Springhouse Branch / Forney Ridge / Clingman's Dome / Forney Creek on Sunday, stopping at 70. I exited Monday via the Whiteoak Branch trail and was at Pizza Hut by 11:30 for lunch. I hiked into 65 on Saturday, then Noland Creek / Springhouse Branch / Forney Ridge / Clingman's Dome / Forney Creek on Sunday, stopping at 70. I exited Monday via the Whiteoak Branch trail and was at Pizza Hut by 11:30 for lunch.

All spring and summer I'd wanted to go camping but didn't find the time. So, I left Cocoa Beach around 6 Saturday morning to reach the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Bryson City, NC, by 5pm. My plan was to hike to site 64 for Saturday evening, then climb up Clingman's Dome and down to spend Sunday evening at site 69, before returning to the van Monday afternoon. Heading north on Saturday, I had an hour delay traveling through South Carolina and some difficulty finding the ranger station to register my plan; it was dusk by the time I parked the van at the Noland Creek trailhead. With flashlight in hand, I began hiking along Noland Creek towards site 64 with the hope of reaching it by 10 (~4mi on an improved surface in 1.5 hrs...). My pace was pretty quick as I was a bit on edge from not being able to hear (the roaring creek) or see (confined to the flashlight beam) in any detail. Given my delays and absolute darkness, around 9:15 I revised my plan to put in at site 65 which I expected to be just around the next corner. Near 9:30 I happened upon a sign which indicated site 65 was .1 miles further down up Noland Creek. Approaching 10, it was pretty clear that I'd missed site 65, but having gone this far I decided to continue my original plan to 64, which, according to my dark-afflicted distance estimation, I expected to reach in 15 minutes. You'll notice that the map is quite basic and I had difficulty determining where the trail crossed the creek. Continuing on, I came upon a straighter section and, scanning my flashlight into the distance, saw a pair of eyes about 1.5' off the ground 100' ahead of me. Stopping immediately with flashlight trained on the animal, it moved like a prowling cat, leading me to conclude that it was a Bobcat. So, with the Bobcat in front of me and no guarantee as to when I'd find site 64, I retreated down the trail a bit and had my tent pitched by 10:45.

I was up with the Sun Sunday morning, but since I was in a mountain valley this was around 7. After packing up the tent, I began northward and found site 64 forty minutes further up the trail. At site 64 I took the Springhouse Branch trail to get out of the Noland Creek valley and onto Forney Ridge. Climbing up Forney Ridge was a bit of work and, since I was on the west slope of the ridge, my right leg was doing 20% more work than my left... The tree foliage was pretty thick and I was never able to see my destination in the distance, though the decrease in stream size was a good measure of my progress. Two miles from the top I came through Andrew's Bald, a region of small trees and mountain grass which afforded me my first views of the valleys and ridges leading up to Clingman's. As I entered the bald I heard and saw some rustling in a berried tree and, as a family approached from the Clingman's parking area, saw two little black bears and presumably their mother jump out of the tree and head for the woods. I was 50 m away so they paid me no notice, but mentioned them to the family as I continued towards the top. Trail improvements and passersby increased as I neared the summit parking lot, and I was relieved to find a water fountain at the trailhead. After walking the last half mile from the parking lot to the summit observation area, I sat and had peanut butter and crackers, jerky, and a Dew for lunch. I'd made good time on the way up, finishing lunch at 1:30, and giving me time to look around and rest.

Just finished lunch on Clingman's dome. They're called the Great Smokey Mountains for a reason. Just finished lunch on Clingman's dome. They're called the Great Smokey Mountains for a reason.

The Great Smokey Mountains are so named because of their all-encompassing fog, which prevented any long-distance (>200m) views. It was cool to watch the fog rolling over the peak and into the valleys; it apparently gets clearer during winter and many years ago one could see hundreds of miles. Near two o'clock I began to descend towards site 69, along the Forney Creek trail. Over the summer I was not able to run or bike nearly as much as I'd wanted and I felt it on the way down, the legs got real tired of negotiating wet rocks and switchbacks. The map mileage did not include these switchbacks and, despite being downhill, my 6 mile guesstimate to site 69 seemed closer to 8. Despite this, I enjoyed watching Forney Creek form, beginning as a trickle near the summit and growing to a raging mountain creek 3m across. I reached the campsite around 5:30 and spent some time pitching the tent and making a small fire. I greatly miss having regular campfires (as we do at home), but windfall surrounding my campsite was uniformly damp from the ever-present fog. I'm ashamed to say that it took a couple tries to get going, but it did last long enough for me to have supper by the fire and to burn my garbage. Around 7:30 I called it a night (as it was pretty close to dark in the valley) and turned in after hanging my pack. Situated just above the juncture of two streams, the roaring of water dominated all other forest noise and I was quickly asleep.

I slept well and was up around 8 Monday morning, though pretty sore from Sunday's climbing. With eight miles to the car (from 69 to the White Oak Branch Trail to the car at Noland Creek and Lakeview Dr.), I expected to leave the woods around one then drive to a hotel in Knoxville. The hike got interesting real quick, as I was faced with four unimproved (no bridge) creek crossings. This part of the Forney Creek Trail clearly used to be an access road and each crossing had a stone ramp leading to where a bridge would have been. The bridges had long been removed and I had to search for the best combination of rocks and fallen trees to make my way across; I hadn't done this sort of stream crossing since Philmont and enjoyed the challenge and occasional wet foot. Unfortunately my pictures of these crossings are fairly blurry; the terrain and width of Wausau's kayak course is good for comparison, though the volumetric flow rate was less.

Done, now let's get some lunch. Done, now let's get some lunch.

As I made my way down and across ridges, I was struck by the forest's variety: one valley would be deciduous, then hardwoods, then lots of underbrush and a variety of trees. Though my legs were pretty tired, I greatly enjoyed walking through the forest and absolutely perfect hiking weather (mid 60s & sun, filtered by the canopy). Site 71 was quite expansive and would have been a nice place for day trips; one tent was up but I didn't see anyone the entire way out. My hike ended with a walk through the quarter-mile long, two-lane Lakeview Drive tunnel. This tunnel has no destination; the road comes up from Bryson City, N.C. and ends at the Lakeview trailhead without any turn-offs.

I reached the car at 10:45 and, after getting a wrap-up shot with the trailhead, took the hiking boots off and drove into Bryson City for some lunch. It felt real good to sit in the car and at Pizza Hut; I was quite sore from all the hiking and the poor pack fit (my tnf backpack had waist and chest straps but was not long enough for a proper backpacking fit), but quite pleased with how well the trip went.

After a leisurely lunch I began the two hour drive to Knoxville, heading west along edge of the Great Smokey Mountains then north to Knoxville. This area is quite rugged and beautiful, I passed by Fontana Lake and stopped at Fontana Dam (part of the Tennessee Valley Authority's chain of hydroelectric dams) for a little bit. Continuing, I began to notice lots of motorcyclers on the two lane highway (SR-28) traversing the mountains. Despite it being a state highway, the road had an incredible number of turns and a posted speed limit between 20 and 40 mph. The motorcyclists were having a great time, shooting around me at twice to three times my speed, despite completely blind corners. Photographers were camped out in a couple of the turns, capturing the cyclist's form as they came around (they also took some pictures of me, but I can't see how exciting a champagne van going 20 on a mountain road is...they were likely practicing focusing on moving targets). It was not until I saw a Knoxville area guidebook that I learned that the 318 curves I drove through " America's number one motorcycle and sports car road."

I reached Knoxville around three, and after cleaning up went found supper on the University of Tennessee campus. Tuesday brought me back to Madison to begin my senior year. I had a great summer, thanks to everyone who helped make it possible.