Houston Trip.

Let's just get this out of the way right now. I'm NOT going to use the line you're thinking of. It's more over used then the "Were not in Kansas" line.



Ok. Let's begin.

If you want to get to the good stuff, skip this first section:


I've been with my company for 10 years and they gave me a catalog of things to choose from for a present.  There were knives, letter openers, and other various items with which to slash your wrist.  I looked for hemlock but it was conspicuously missing.  Perhaps it's the recession.

Anyway as I flipped through this catalog I spotted what I wanted.  A telescope.

My dad has a telescope and I always looked forward to times I could use it. Well now I could have one of my very own. (Granted its not as nice as his, but it's a start).

So I started using it. I'd go out and just look at the moon for long periods of time.  Look at planets.  Whatever. It was just fun to look up.

I had forgotten that I used to lay out in my backyard as a kid during the summer and just  look at the stars for hours and hours on end. I somehow had forgotten that wonder and enjoyment.  This telescope brought back that wonder to me and I loved every minute I had my hands on it. 

This continued through the winter, spring, and summer.

Near the end of summer I was told that my company does tuition reimbursement, and it doesn't even have to be a class related to your job. 

And they had online classes.

My eyes lit up and I grabbed a catalog and said: "Astronomy/Physics 121 please."

I was a college student again after a 10 year break, and I could do all my reading and homework and tests on my own time without having to sit in a class.


I took the first semester and was hooked. I thought I knew about astronomy, but I was so so wrong. I was so ignorant to so much. My brain was expanding and I was absorbing information like a sponge.

I even listened to an Ohio State Podcast where they actually, for free, released the entire 161 and 162 astronomy series.  I couldn't afford to attend Ohio State, but I was learning right along with the students there as a way to supplement my own learning.

I was hooked and quickly signed up for the second class in the series for Winter term.

It was at this time that my teacher presented a very unique opportunity.

You have no idea what you are getting yourself into.

I was told that NASA was offering an opportunity to qualified/selected students to travel down to Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston.

Yeah, THAT Houston.

Houston as in "Houston, we have a problem" Houston.   (NO! I was forced to use the line!  Ok, you get that one, but no more).

 All we had to do to sign up was to write a letter about why we wanted to attend. We also needed to have our teacher write a letter of recommendation as well.

I agonized over my letter, feeling deep down that it'd never really do any good but I was willing to do my best anyway.  (More on this subject to come) 

My teacher also wrote an amazing letter of recommendation, and between the two letters I figured I had as good of a shot as anybody.

Time passed, I kept rocking at my class and then one day got an email.

It said that I was one of about 300 people to be chosen to partake in the next selection process.

The selection process was far more difficult then I had expected.

Mind you, I'm working a full time job, raising kids, taking an astronomy class, and on top of it had the brilliant notion of challenging myself by taking a pre-calculus class. I hadn't taken math in 10 years and got a D last time I did.

Now I essentially had a 3rd class added to it.

Our job was to design a Mars rover.  We had to come up with a mission proposal (What do you want to do?), a full budget (How much will it cost and where will the funding come from), a line drawing of the rover, and put it all together into a massive mission proposal package.

I was in over my head for sure.

But with the support and encouragement of friends and family I somehow got all the pieces completed in time. This required many late nights and hours and hours of research.

Essentially my proposal was to use the currently existing rovers with a few less features. The difference is that I decided to setup a network so that control of the rover could be handled remotely by qualified college/high school classes. This way kids could get excited about space exploration by actually partaking in the mission.

They were to plan how to move the rover from its current location to a specified destination. It'd have to perform some kind of action, and at the end would take a picture that would be sent back to the class.

Well, I submitted my final proposal but felt that there was no way it was worthy of making it. I knew that there were people much more qualified than I that would be applying as well.

I wrote it off and went about my normal studies.
 Near the end of the semester I got an email. It stated that out of 300 students I was one of about 50 chosen to travel down to JSC to partake in the NCAS (National Community College Aerospace Schollars) activity. 

I was in.

They paid for my flight, my hotel, and my food. They even offered a special vegetarian menu!

You REALLY have no idea what you're getting yourself into!!!

So the first day of the event came and we all sat in a conference room around these round tables. We were in teams of 10 students.

We were told what the weekend would entail. We were to, as a team, do what we did to get here.

Design a rover, plan a mission, and devise a budget.

Only this time we had to actually build a mini rover out of a robotics kit.

We were also going to have to present our proposal to some NASA employees to have our work judged.

The intro lasted for about 40 minutes and laid out the rules. Then they said:  "Go."

We all came back to our table and sat around looking at each other, blankly.

This is our team:

Someone spoke up and said: "Um.....   what is everyone's major?"

We quickly found out we had some engineers so they dove right in and dumped out the robotics kit and got to work building something functional.

They had to keep close track of what parts they used because each part cost money.  We had to plan our budget around what we wanted to do, what parts we could afford, and what bonuses we would get depending on how the rover operated.

We came up with this initially, but eventually changed the way the steering worked. We used the back wheels on a swivel which worked far better than most other rovers.

While they were busy with legos, I got to work on the presentation.

Essentially, I sat at the arts and crafts table and worked on our presentation board. I also helped to frame the speech we would use to present the rover.

We started around 3:00 on Friday. 

There was a break for dinner and an astronaut came and talked to us and showed us a slide show. He talked about what it was like working with NASA. It was really interesting.

As soon as he was done, it was right back to work and we went officially, until 9:30 pm.

But after we got back to the hotel our team kept working until around midnight.  Planning how we'd present the next morning.  I worked on the logo and had to color it in so it'd look good.

The alarm clock went off at 6:00am and I was not happy.

By 8:00 we were back in the room and dove in feet first.  No "good mornings" by the NASA staff.  No, it was straight to work.

We had our initial presentation and it went well. We got additional funding which allowed us to add more features to our rover.

About noon that day we had a special guest come and visit us.

Gene Krantz.

Gene was the head of mission control for the Apollo program.

Including Apollo 11 which landed on the moon, and Apollo 13 which was truly NASA's finest hour.

To help put this in context, Gene Krantz was played by Ed Harris in the movie Apollo 13.

They don't make them like this anymore.

It was truly an inspirational message.

He coined the phrase "Failure is not an option" which is essentially NASAs slogan now.

This is the same spirit that helped me get there in the first place.  With the support of my friends and family, I didn't allow failure to be an option. There were times I wanted to drop out but with their encouragement I kept going.

This same spirit was alive during our experience as well.

This was no vacation. This was 99% work and only 1% play. 

I've never worked with a team of people so dedicated and driven to succeed like I did there. It was very inspirational and very exhausting.

Well, after Gene's presentation we worked for a bit, and then it was tour time.

Finally, what we had all been waiting for.

Only the tour was very rushed and on a time crunch, like everything else.

I wish we could have had more time, but they really wanted us to keep going on the projects.  I'd expect nothing less from NASA.

Regardless, here's a few of the pictures I took.

This was to be the Apollo 19 rocket. It was never used due to the program ending.  It's hard to explain how huge this thing is. 

After that we went to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab.

This is a 200 foot long, 40 foot deep pool.

They put the astronauts in suits and send them to the bottom.

There they work on underwater models of whatever the mission is to be.  In this case, it was International Space Station (ISS) components.

This way they get used to working with strange tools and heavy suits in very low gravity situations.

After that it was on to mission control.

This is it. The brains of NASA.

Cape Canaveral is where they launch from, but Houston control is where they monitor, communicate, command, and oversee the entire mission.

I think one of the shirts had the best slogan.

"It's no rocket science.  Oh wait, yes it is."

Currently they were working with the NASA astronaut crew onboard the ISS.

The best part was still to come, though.

We were given access to a part of JSC that the normal tour doesn't get to go through.

I thought we were going to have to just look from behind glass, but I was totally wrong.

We were able to go into the original mission control room and sit at the very desks that the entire Apollo program was run from. They also ran shuttle missions from here up into the mid 90's.

This was it!  Ground Zero!

This is where Apollo 11 was controlled from.

This is where Apollo 13 was controlled from.

Many of the shuttle missions were run from here too, including the Challenger.

This was beyond a one in a lifetime opportunity because most people never get to even go into this room.

This made all the work worthwhile, and let me tell you, there was a lot of work. That's how cool this was.

I love vintage computers. I love all the buttons and dials.

And yes, I even pushed some of the buttons.  I was so stoked.

 Well, like I said, the tour was too short.

It was like going to Disneyland and having the tour guide go: "This is tomorrow land. Over there is Space Mountain."

"Cool! Can we go on it?!"

"Nope. No time. Next is adventure land where you get to walk past another amazing ride..."

So, it was short, but it was still fantastic.

The day ended around 10:00pm and we all went back and just collapsed.

The next day we took our rovers for a spin and demonstrated their capabilities.  We performed really well.

We gave our presentation and had our group pictures with Gene Krantz.

Awards were given out (our team didn't win), including the standard: "Great job, you were one of the 50 that made it" awards.

After it was done around 1:30, all the other students flew out.  I had booked the trip so I'd go home a day late and so Jaqui could go with me as well.

I sat there in the pool around 6pm just totally stunned.

"Jaqui.... did.....   did that just happen?"

I was totally shell shocked.

I worked harder than I've worked in my life. I was mentally exhausted and thrilled at all that I had seen.

I floated in the pool just trying to process it all.

We flew home and that was it.

That was the trip.

Oh, fine, I'll get to the part that you all actually came to hear about.

Yes, the Lee and Joe Jamail skatepark was INCREDIBLE.

It was right on the edge of the city and had an amazing view.

It was humid so skating was weird, almost like going through water.

There was a kidney bowl with granite coping that I tore up for a little while. It was so rad.

Ok fine. Here's the video I took while I was down there.

It repeats a lot of the stuff I talked about, but it's still fun to watch.

Posted by jason | at Wednesday, June 02, 2010


mm said...

I'm glad to see you enjoyed your trip... however hurried it may have been.

Brian Janssen said...

This is all awesome, Jason! Way cool!