Thursday, September 11, 2014

Space Inspired Goodies - Problem Solving, That Moment, and One Heck of a Good View

A few Space related stories I've stumbled upon of late...

Problem Solving, Astronaut Style

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Apollo 13 is when a team of engineers has to figure out how to solve a CO2 crisis threatening to kill the crew:

As Apollo 13 sped toward Earth, mission control was beginning to worry about a new problem. While the lunar module had enough spare oxygen to accommodate Swigert as well as the intended lunar module crew of Lovell and Haise, carbon dioxide was beginning to build up. Normally lithium hydroxide (LiOH) canisters absorbed the gas from the air and prevented it from reaching dangerous levels, but the canisters onboard the Aquarius were being overwhelmed. The Odyssey had more than enough spare LiOH canisters onboard, but these canisters were square and couldn't fit into the holes intended for the lunar modules' round canisters.

Mission control needed a way to put a square peg into a round hole. Fortunately, as with the lunar module activation sequence, somebody was ahead of the game.

As reported in Lost Moon, Lovell's book about the Apollo 13 mission (cowritten by Jeffery Kluger; republished as Apollo 13), Ed Smylie, one of the engineers who developed and tested life support systems for NASA, had recognized that carbon dioxide was going to be a problem as soon as he heard the lunar module was being pressed into service after the explosion.

For two days straight since then, his team had worked on how to jury-rig the Odyssey's canisters to the Aquarius's life support system. Now, using materials known to be available onboard the spacecraft--a sock, a plastic bag, the cover of a flight manual, lots of duct tape, and so on--the crew assembled Smylie's strange contraption and taped it into place. [See photo, Breathing Easy]. Carbon dioxide levels immediately began to fall into the safe range. Mission control had served up another miracle.

Best of all, the story is true. Now that's problem solving.

Recently, I caught Michael Massimino telling a Moth Story about his own problem solving in space. It's not quite as life and death as the C02 crisis with Apollo 13, but it still shows all the great hallmarks of a good space hack: there's a team working feverishly at home, lots of improvisation, and at the end of the day, a couple of fearless astronauts need to pull it all off. A great listen.

That Moment When Impossible Stops Being Impossible

My Brother passed me this video: How do we measure the distance of stars?. It's a well done and includes a great explanation to a tricky problem. But what I truly love about the video takes places 2 minutes and 39 seconds in. Seriously, hit play on the video below, skip to 1 minute 40 seconds or so and sit back and watch:

Did you catch that? That's the moment when the questioner goes from thinking something is impossible (measuring the distance to a star) to realizing it's totally possible. I adore that feeling. For me, it frequently happens when I'm debugging. The software's doing something it absolutely, positively can not do. And then it all clicks, and in an instant I realize that I was wrong.

If you don't have a pursuit that gives you this opportunity to be so wrong, and then so right, then you're missing out. It's a rush.

The Earth, Live and on TV

Curious what an astronaut sees when he looks out the window? Sure you are. Just head over to NASA's HDEV page.

Here's the feed now:

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

If you visit this page, you can get audio to accompany the video. The audio is apparently chit-chat between the crew and mission control. I caught a random conversation about dumping urine. Hey, gotta pee in space, too. Definitely a great resource.

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