About Me

I'm an Explorer, Engineer, Writer, Public Speaker, and Entrepreneur. I write about exploration, travel, and science. 

Any views expressed on this site are my own.  

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Wednesday
May302012

India... We Have a Problem

I like to think I’m an explorer. My parents can attest. It probably started when I was about three and they gave me a Big Wheel—the little bikes kids get before they graduate to the tricycle (see below).

My Big Wheel explorations were mostly just me trying to escape the clutches of my (very patient and loving) parents. I wasn’t very fast at first, especially before my legs could reach the pedals and my dad had to attach wood blocks to them so I could reach. But they humored me, let me escape just far enough before reigning me in and I got to explore the neighborhood.

Somewhere, that grew into a love of space. I was the kid who went to space camp and thought it was cool, I read every Star Wars book I could growing up and majored in Engineering Mechanics and Astronautics in college. During my sophomore year, I was lucky enough to be selected into the co-op program at the NASA Johnson Space Center—the home of the American astronaut corps and the world’s leading center for human spaceflight. I got the call just a week after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident and was told to report for duty during the next fall semester, starting in August of 2003.

A co-op program messes up all college plans. It usually sends a young innocent college student somewhere to a new part of the country to work for a semester instead of taking classes, as he or she may have first planned to do. For many, the thought of working for a semester instead of taking classes is crazy and foreign. It was to me. I had no idea how I could even re-arrange classes so I’d get all the requirements in the right semesters, how I’d get out of my apartment lease, all the fun I’d be missing with my friends who weren’t leaving. That fall of 2003 was the first fall I’d had since before preschool in my Big Wheel days that I wouldn’t be in school. Aside from maybe my first interception on my freshman high school football team and the second place ribbon I got in 3rd grade creative writing for the epic story Timmy and Squirt, it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

I started working in the Shuttle Crew Escape Team with the people responsible for the orange launch and entry pressure suits (sometimes called pumpkin suits) and survival equipment used by Space Shuttle astronauts. Being on the heels of the Columbia accident, the team was still in the middle of the investigation and a complete re-evaluation of the culture and safety processes was well underway. We weren’t flying Shuttles but it was still extremely exciting stuff—there are only a handful of people who deal with these suits that serve as the last line of defense for saving an astronaut’s life on that very bad day when all else has failed. And here I was, barely 20 years old, part of the team.

The suits didn’t save the crew of Columbia—investigation teams would later rule that the craft was flying too fast and too high for the crew escape system to do much good. But still, it was the last thing they had to go on. And I was proud to be a part of giving explorers a final lifeline.

My project was to design a cooling system that could keep astronauts cool under their ~90 pounds of suit and survival equipment while they waited in the astrovan to be taken to the launch pad or while they sat outside the Shuttle mockups during ground training. Not exactly life-saving stuff, but important enough that the crew had formally requested it (later I’d learn that the crew formally requests a lot of things—not all of which are realistic, though we sure try). As a result, I came up with the Multiple User Cooling Unit, or MUCU, and also christened my first official NASA acronym.

MUCU!!!!! YEAH BABY!!! Check her out here during some, err-- highly scientific-- metabolic load testing:

Not only did I make my mark on NASA’s 8,000+ language of acronym-speak, but I was given a chance to learn what real engineering was like way ahead of graduating. The experience was priceless.

Any thoughts of going back to school became washed away by the spirit of adventure and exploration that captured me in that first semester in Houston. I couldn’t go back, not yet. 

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