Category: Space Exploration


Like many of my generation, life changed a bit when Sputnik was launched in October, 1957. While many of my classmates were interested in rocketry, my own interest was more in the field of electronics – the instruments needed to make measurements of temperature, pressure, and other data that was then sent back to Earth by radio. Because I was an amateur radio operator at the time (K9SRW) who built all my own equipment, this was a natural extension of then-current interests. I remember walking part way home from high school just so I could stop at a local Army surplus store packed with boxes of resistors, capacitors, and other components including the transistors needed to build amplifiers, oscillators, and other circuits one might need.

Since, as I said, rocketry was not my goal, I looked for any way to get a project off the earth, even if it didn’t go into orbit. As a result, in 1961, the method I chose (helium-filled weather balloons) was not only inexpensive, it could be used to carry a pretty heavy payload (two kg or so). With my focus on the electronics, I built the transmitter, and the attachments needed to measure altitude, temperature, air pressure, luminosity, and to send the legally required Identification signal. All of these circuits were modular, and a lot of time was spent making sure everything worked. My father provided a photographic plate to see if I could detect cosmic rays (assuming I would get the plate back from the experiment so it could be developed.)

The finished payload was a cube about 30 cm on a side, and I built two of them – one in Styrofoam for launch, and one in clear plastic for testing and display for a science fair at my high school. I called the experiment Project HiBall (for high balloon, of course) and on launch day I just hoped everything worked.

Fortunately, the experiment was a success. The balloon headed west, and landed a day later on a farm in Iowa where a kind farmer found it and sent it to me. The data was not earth-shattering, but the experiments mostly worked as planned and the resulting science fair project was well-received, taking me to the State finals. While my interest in STEM subjects had already been formed, there is little question that this project strengthened these interests, setting the trajectory for my continued education.

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The reason I shared this experience with you is because, today, even more amazing options are available. The first technology to mention is the CubeSat- small (10 cm/side, about 1 kg)) satellites for student projects that stay in low-earth orbits for about a year (www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cubesats/). While most of the projects are done by college students, there is a special opportunity to expand this access to high school students. This project (ArduSat – http://www.ardusat.com) is based on the popular Arduino board used to send and receive data from all kinds of sensors and actuators. While most Arduino projects reside here on Earth, the Ardusat system lets students design and test experiments in their classroom that can then be sent to an Arduino-based CubeSat for testing in space. From my historical perspective, this is staggering!ardusat

The Arduino board connects to a computer and has numerous inputs and outputs for both digital and analog data. The Ardusat student kit includes some special sensors for luminosity, temperature, an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, barometer, UV sensor, infrared thermopile and other data sources. The whole kit is only $150 which is a bargain considering the specialized sensors it contains. While experiments can be designed and tested here on Earth, finished Arduino programs can be sent 450 km up to the Ardusat where experiments can be done and the data sent to Earth.

This goes way beyond what I was doing in 1961 in two very important ways. First, the experiments are done on an orbiting satellite. Second, the projects can be done by students without them having to design all the sensors and other equipment themselves. This has the effect of democratizing the endeavor, bringing an amazing opportunity for STEM education to students everywhere.

In addition to the hardware kits, Ardusat also has a lot of activities and experiments that can be downloaded and explored – including tutorials on the hardware itself. This material is generally released under a Creative Commons copyright, making it perfect for free classroom use.

In addition to the tutorials and other resources, the activities are keyed to both the Next Generation Science and the Common Core Standards. This adds value in that teachers can see how Ardusat projects tie into the standards they are expected to support without having to wade through the massive standards documents themselves.

There is no question in my mind that the project I did ages ago helped guide me into the sciences. What excites me more is that projects like Ardusat will achieve this result for thousands of kids who well then go on to invent our future.

Made in Space created the 3D printer installed on the International Space Station that works in a microgravity mediumenvironment.  NASA has decided to open the design process for some parts for the Station to the public.  For example, people are encouraged to submit designs for a handrail clamp to hold various objects (https://grabcad.com/challenges/nasa-handrail-clamp-assembly-challenge).  This competition (which ends in February) has cash awards, but I think no award could be greater than having something you designed installed on the ISS!

Check it out!

Well, this is my current attempt to distill some of the core ideas in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in the form of an infographic.  Let me know if you find it interesting or useful.

I used Inkscape to create the graphic over a period of a few weeks as we were preparing for one of our NGSS workshops.

ngss infographic

I was engaged in conversation last night with one of my best friends in the world, Roger Wagner – the inventor of Hyperstudio (http://www.hyperstudio.com).  One of the things we talked about was the shift in educational technology use from computers as tools of creation to computers as tools of consumption.  Programs from technology in education conferences used to be filled with sessions on everything from Logo programming to how to help students create interactive multimedia.

Since the onset of NCLB, all that has changed.  Our knee-jerk reaction to high-stakes testing has stripped creativity and curiosity from the the curriculum, and replaced it with just enough of the right content to get students to pass tests.  Because it is not blindingly obvious how students knowing the intricacies of programming, or the ability to create multimedia projects, will improve test scores, these topics have fallen by the wayside, leaving the beautiful minds of our youth in tatters.

As for (currently) non-tested subjects (e.g., engineering,) classroom exploration is non-existent, providing no incentive for students to learn something about areas of study that can lead to very exciting careers!

Next week I speak at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) and the International Space Society has just released the new roadmap for space exploration (http://www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap/).  This is an amazingly bold document that anticipates a time when there might be more humans living in space than currently live on Earth.

Of course, without a large number of scientists and engineers, none of the proposed milestones will be reached.  It took 400,000 people working full time to make the Apollo missions a success – and that was just to allow short trips to the moon.  Any of the new space objectives will require even more than that – yet students entering college today have known nothing but NCLB’s test-driven mandates, and they arrive at college bereft of curiosity and creativity.

One of the handouts for my session at ISDC is an “incomplete” manual for an interplanetary spacecraft that has about 50 topics for students to explore in finishing the document.  (I will post the document online for all to have very soon.)  My purpose in creating this document is that it represents a standalone activity that can lead to an interest in students in topics ranging from life sciences, to physics and engineering.

We have a tremendous amount to do as we repair the damage of NCLB and prepare ourselves, and our students, for a delightful and exciting future.