Inside the Box

or, What I’m Doing for Summer Vacation. Contrary to popular opinion, my summer employment is not Classified, Top Secret, Need to Know (right now, I have mental pictures of these words stamped in red ink) or anything else that prohibitive and therefore enthralling. There are parts that involve export-restricted and proprietary stuff, though, so for those I’m not going to write anything that isn’t published or publicly available.

Here’s the scoop. There are several companies that are taking on the challenge of commercial spaceflight; among them are Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites of Ansari X-Prize fame, SpaceX, and Armadillo Aerospace. Also included is Blue Origin, owned and funded by the founder of In addition to having headquarters near Seattle and a launch site in West Texas, I’ve heard that they also have in their lobby a model of Jules Verne’s projectile-vehicle from his novel From the Earth to the Moon, as well as a door from the set of Battlestar Galactica. Cool.

Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket

Blue Origin’s focus is its New Shepard VTOL (Vertical TakeOff and Landing) suborbital rocket and spacecraft, named in honor of Alan Shepard. As part of the development program, it will carry scientific experiments (but no people) in the crew capsule during demonstration flights. It’s a pretty sweet idea, as they get both science and publicity out of it. One of the selected proposals was from the professor I’m working for, so the upshot of this long explanation is that I get to build equipment that will actually be in space for about three minutes. It’s completely my professor’s intellectual product, but I get the fun of building the physical apparatus.

The experiment itself is a study of fluid capillary action in microgravity. My professor was involved with experiments that went to the International Space Station, but those were two-dimensional studies; this one is three-dimensional. Besides the experiment hardware, there are also computers, lights, instruments, and mounts which all need to fit inside the space that Blue Origin is letting us use. This means that another part of my job is arranging everything to go into that box, and then making sure that they won’t move around.

This whole experience also highlights a niche that commercial spaceflight providers might fill in the research world. Currently, the options for obtaining a microgravity environment are drop towers, which provide a few seconds of weightlessness; parabolic flight path aircraft like the “Vomit Comet“, which give a few more seconds; and NASA flights aboard the space shuttle and station, which are long duration and highly selective. (The Air Force also has rockets, but I’m not sure what the use of those for research is.) Companies like Blue Origin and Armadillo Aerospace are seeking to offer longer duration (minutes, not seconds) periods of microgravity at reasonable cost.

So that’s what I’m doing this summer. This next week I will probably be annealing acrylic – basically baking it to relieve small stresses  – and it probably won’t be as exciting as it may sound, but it will certainly be hands-on. Which is good, because I’ve spend most of last semester and the summer so far drawing things on computers.

Also, a quick note on the sports awesomeness going down this summer: Tour of California already happened, one of the best Giro d’Italias in awhile is wrapping up this weekend, World Cup 2010 starts in a mere two weeks, Tour de France is in July, and somewhere in all of that Rice baseball will be working its way up to the College World Series. Yup. Good summer.

My end quote for today is from the VeloNews live update for the Giro’s stage 15:

5:17 – Evans is leading the chase in the peloton
5:18 – 4.8km to go and the gap is 20 seconds.
5:19 – Ho ho…. Evans is hitting a Lampre rider in the peloton. Tempers are hot.
5:19 – That will slow the chase down, because the sight of two skinny dudes on bikes beating on each other is much more entertaining than chasing the break.
5:20 – Man, I hope we get a photo of that little flare up.

-C.F. Pelkey


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