Our Trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

Author’s note: this article is very picture-heavy. Feel free to click on any of the images to enlarge them, and skip to the bottom for an album of more images.

badgeRecently, the fine people over at the NASA Kennedy Space Center invited me to attend a SpaceX launch as a Social Media attendee. This was pretty awesome news – they only extend this invitation to 50 people per launch.

Unfortunately, we got news the day before the launch that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft launch had been postponed a few weeks due to issues encountered while testing the Falcon rocket. Getting that news was kind of a bummer, but we were promised a special surprise to make up for it, and NASA delivered.

After arriving at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL, we got our media badges, and then boarded a bus with a NASA Social sign in the front window. Some introductions were made, and some of these internet socialites already knew each other. One thing I can say for sure was that everyone who attended this event was amazingly friendly and welcoming.

DSC_0041We were driven around the KSC for a little while, hearing facts about the building of the KSC in the 60s. We heard about how the KSC is home to many species of wildlife, and saw evidence of this – including alligators in the canals lining the road, and an enormous eagle’s nest in a tree just off the road. We chatted with each other, exchanged stories and interests, and heard many anecdotes such as “Of course a bus full of NASA nerds are also Firefly fans!”

DSC_0055Our first destination of the day was a launchpad used for – you guessed it – launching large things into space! On our way, however, we saw a couple of Crawlers. Crawlers are what NASA uses to move large objects across the property. Objects such as spacecrafts, rockets, and mobile launch platforms. The crawlers are gyroscopically stable, meaning that no matter what bumps and turbulence they encounter, their cargo will not be affected.

Once we got to the launchpad, we were brought into the actual launchpad, right were shuttles are loaded, and where the launch fire comes out. The walls were scorched by decades of previous launches. The sound suppression system was enormous. You’ll see it in the pictures below – it’s used to make sure windows don’t get smashed all over Cape Canaveral/Cocoa Beach whenever there’s a launch.

DSC_0073Next, we were taken to check out a couple of mobile launch platforms. When a crawler is used to move this platform, it will be positioned underneath the mobile launch platform, and will then lift it off the pillars it stands on to move it. The scaffolding on the mobile platform to the left here is used to position a shuttle against. It’s ridiculously huge. The pictures don’t really do a great job of showing how huge it is. We also went underneath a mobile platform, and stood where hundreds of thousands of gallons of water would be flushed through to counteract the heat from a shuttle launching. It was pretty awesome.

Then came the really big surprise. We were told we’d be able to see the spacecraft, Orion, but not that we would get to participate in a full press conference for the return of Orion. This particular Orion spacecraft flew 66,000 miles out and around the Earth. It met 85 out of 87 flight objectives, which is extremely high. Orion’s mission was to collect data, and it was considered a success. Orion landed in the Pacific Ocean, and was then transported to the East Coast over about 8 days via roads and highways to get to the Kennedy Space Center. Coming up in February, Orion’s heat shield will be removed for further analysis. Various parts of the space craft will be removed for testing and data analysis, but for the most part, it will remain in tact for display and/or simulations because of how well it held up in space. And of course.. I took a couple selfies with Orion. Wouldn’t you?

After the big Orion reveal, we were given access to the KSC’s Visitor Complex. I’m honestly surprised that NASA’s pretty amazing marketing team hasn’t come up with a better name for the Visitor Complex. It’s not some stuffy building with a desk and pamphlets like you might expect. No.. the KSC Visitor Complex is like Disneyland for space. It’s a lot of fun. There are rides, exhibits, simulations. If you’re ever around Cape Canaveral, I definitely recommend checking it out. You could easily spend a whole day there.

Despite the launch woes, the trip was a lot of fun, and definitely worth it. A huge THANK YOU!! goes to NASA (and especially Jason!) for the opportunity. 
If you’re interested in the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft launch, it is currently scheduled for Saturday, January 10th at 4:47am. More info will be posted on the SpaceX website

RoboGames 2011

I love robots, I mean who doesn’t (a-HEM do you hear that Skynet?). I also love fire and destruction, so I was of course thrilled to discover that RoboGames would be descending not only upon the Bay Area but in my town. I attended two of the three days of fighting, fire, and excitement (did I mention the fire? Because it was really cool). On Saturday I attended with my son Seth who, like his mom loves robots and explosions (I’m pretty sure we are safe, right?). We got there around 11:15 and made our way through to the stands; stopping at a few of the booths, taking photos of robots and chatting up both old and new friends.

All Seth could talk about was whether there would be a robot with a flame thrower. The second or third bout in was up against Texas Heat, who yes, has a flame thrower. After that he looked at me very seriously and declared “when I grow up I want to be a Robotics Engineer”. I was so proud.

It is LOUD so we made sure to bring ear plugs. And after a while as more and more people showed up Seth got irritated, hot and tired so we went outside to get some air. That is when we ran into R2-D2 and his Droid Security. We spent the rest of our time (another hour and a half) following R2 around and keeping him safe. R2 is like the robo-pied piper, as soon as he was recharged the kids came swarming, and then followed him everywhere.

Sunday I arrived less one Seth plus one Bonnie Burton (who I might add did an excellent job of live tweeting the event on the RoboGames Twitter account, go check it out there is a picture of me tweeting). And while it is quite a lot of fun to attend with the little one, encouraging his future career endeavors, it’s an equal if different kind of fun, to mix robots and beer and grown up time.

To be honest I wasn’t entirely paying attention to the names of these metal gladiators, I was too busy yelling and cheering. Not until the final fight in the heavy weight class. The winner was Sewer Snake, a beast of a machine with a, you guessed it, flame thrower. YES! FIRE!

There were teams from all over the world including the Japanese teams, who were able to attend despite the earthquake. Another thing that was very cool was the number of ladies and young girls in the crowd. There were little girls who were just as excited and cheering just as loudly as Seth was. In the pit I came across quite a few females, operating the bots, on the teams that built them, etc.

There were film crews from the Science Channel there filming a miniseries on the event. It will be aired on Memorial Day, so those of you who couldn’t make it can still see what happened. I made it a point to hide from the cameras if I saw them so you don’t have to worry about seeing my goofy mug on your screens.

Go here to see all 369 photos I took over 2 days.

Reality is Broken: How Games Can Shape The Future

How many hours a week do you spend playing games?  Any games. Yes it includes online casino games like the one 666 Casino offers, Any games that you like to play everyday. From simple little time-wasters on your mobile phone, to completely engrossing RPGs involving putting together missions and raids with fellow gamers.  What if those hours you spend building and changing virtual worlds could actually be applied to the problems in our every day life? This is the basis for Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken.

As a long-time game developer, McGonigal has had the chance to examine, first hand, how gaming can become a very huge part of a person’s every day life. In Reality is Broken, we explore how this is not only a growing trend, but how it can be a very positive one.  While non-gamers have always been critical of gaming, there are very clear perks to the lessons gaming teaches us.  A particularly interesting fact McGonigal expresses through her research is what she calls ‘the four super powers’ that a person develops through gaming regularly.  These include: urgent optimism, social fabric, blissful productivity, and epic meaning. This pretty much means that by being a regular gamer, a person can be their own highly-motivational pep rally, make connections, build trust, and learn team-building skills by working with other gamers, be legitimately happy about putting forth all of this effort, and feel like they’re making a difference. All of these skills are things you just don’t get in the real world very often these days.  You don’t get to level up by taking the trash out or recycling.  There are no one-up mushrooms for helping old ladies cross the street.  Beating your head on a brick definitely does not produce a ride-able miniature dinosaur.  …..okay, so maybe nothing can be done about that last one.

The issue here is that by keeping all of these great developments restricted to virtual worlds, we’re taking all of this potential out of the real world, and keeping it smothered in lands of orcs and fairies. Meanwhile, we have issues that need to be addressed in reality.  McGonigal’s suggestion to counter this is to create games that address real-world problems and offer legitimate solutions. Through this, we can not only train future generations to look at real solutions critically and creatively, but actually generate those answers quicker and more efficiently.  A few games like this already exist.  Consider Chore Wars, which is apparently a game similar to World of Warcraft, but played in real life, using daily, household chores as missions and achievements.  Additionally, McGonigal, herself, has created three – yes, three! – games in which you address large, real-world problems in a fun, gaming setting.  Games like World Without Oil, Superstruct, and Evoke are highly creative ways to brainstorm realistic solutions. Sort of makes you wonder if Left for Dead was actually a way to generate workable zombie plans, huh? To make this idea work, games would need to evolve in the right direction, and we’d all have to step it up on the amount of hours played.

Reality is Broken presents these views in a very thorough and thought-provoking manner. McGonigal offers well-researched scientific fact to back up all of the ideas expressed, and lays out a goal for the future that comes across as realistic and reachable.  While the beginning of Reality is Broken is a little long-winded going over qualifications for making these statements, this does establish a trust between the author and reader. McGonigal offers a radical idea backed up by well-documented facts, and a realistic path to get there.

I would highly recommend taking a look at Jane McGonigal’s bio and qualifications, her speech on this topic presented through , and, of course, the actual book, Reality is Broken, now available on .

What do you guys think? Can games change the world?

Guest Post: Tired of being a Pioneer

So, this guest post is part of an ongoing series of posts that will be bouncing back and forth between Nerds in Babeland and Tia-Marie. The impetus behind this series can be found at Tia Marie’s blog (I’m Sick of the ‘Women in Tech’ debate).

In high school I was one of the top students in almost all of my math classes, but I also had serious confidence issues. Sadly, I gave up on those pursuits in math and science because it wasn’t “popular” to be smart in those areas (at least not at my school) and it was much “cooler” to be in drama club and do well in English. Yes, I know. I am ashamed. I’ve always regretted those decisions and that is why bullying stories like Katie’s story particularly affect me.

This post isn’t about me though. When I saw Tia Marie’s discussion about women in technology and her idea of hearing from ACTUAL women in the fields of science and engineering, I immediately contacted her about setting up these series of posts. We put out a call to women in these fields via twitter (I know, super professional, right?) and we were lucky enough to hear from these two amazing women, Jenn and Holly.

As a good intro to this series, I thought the first post should be entirely written by one of the women themselves (future posts may resemble more of a Q&A format).  A solid THANK YOU to these two women is necessary and if you also have stories you’d like to share on either of these blogs, please contact us!  The below is from Jenn’s personal blog.

For those who don’t know me, I have worked in aviation and aerospace for the past decade. In October, I volunteered for a layoff from my job as a technician on the Space Shuttle Program, as it is coming to an end soon. I am very much a space advocate, and have been using Twitter to share my enthusiasm for space for over two years. I am also the founder of the Space Tweep Society, a growing group of space enthusiasts on Twitter. Due to that role, I am often asked to participate in interviews or space outreach activities, many with the goal of encouraging girls to pursue careers in science or technology. This leaves me feeling quite conflicted because I’d love to have more women in aviation and aerospace, but in my experience breaking into these fields was really rough. I almost feel guilty for encouraging them, knowing what kind of obstacles they may face.

Of course I say “obstacles they may face” because there is a chance they won’t have any issues. A certain author who was once an engineer for a contractor on NASA’s Apollo program said in a recent interview, “All of the guys were great. No problems. I was just ‘one of the team.’ I have worked for many companies for 25+ years in technical jobs. I was the only woman in many. I was treated with respect and courtesy… There is no conflict in any job if you don’t act like a jackass.” She also tweeted, “Get rid of [the] idea that guys [are] mean to gals in Space Exp[loration]. Guys [are] great friends. I worked with men in all jobs for years. Some gals [are] idiots.” While I’m very happy to hear that she had only positive experiences, for many of us this was not the case- and I don’t think it was because we are “idiots” or “act like jackasses.” My own entry into the career field of aviation was definitely rocky, and I blogged about it a few years ago. The following is an updated version of that post:


Talk about Nerdy Babes!

Did you see this today on i09?? Gooooooo Science!   ~Prof. Jenn

Poi Geekery

When you hear the words ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’, often the image of the socially awkward, glasses taped in the middle, brainiac comes to mind. Maybe you think of math lovers, D&D gamers, Trekkies, or technophiles, But really, that’s just the gateway stereotype to a whole huge spectrum of people out there. My current favorite ‘definition’ of nerds or geeks comes from our Nerdist inspirational dude Chris Hardwick who says we geeks and nerds are ‘people who are unabashedly obsessive and creative.’ Amen and yea verily. I love this for one big reason: it’s so inclusive.

Geekdom ain’t what it used to be. The terms geek and nerd used to be bad things. Being called a geek was a slam and something you avoided. These days it’s a kind of badge of honor. Like anything that goes mainstream the terms are often misused, but we are talking about inclusiveness here so we’ll ignore that aspect for the time being. Seems being a geek is the new black. It’s everywhere. And lo, this is a goodness. But it can feel like a game of who is the bigger nerd at times. Ironically, the ubiquitousness of geekdom can leave one feeling EXcluded.

I’m a geek from waaaaay back. I saw Star Wars in a theater seven times in ’77 and stood in line with Darth Vaders and Boba Fetts playing with Master Replica sabers before seeing ‘Revenge of the Sith’ a couple of decades later. I wear glasses and have a Mario mushroom candy tin on my desktop case. But even I sometimes don’t feel I have enough anti-cool cred to be one of the cool geeks. I don’t have an iphone and I couldn’t care less about Playstations or Wii’s.

There are lots of things I am unabashedly obsessive about. Things that on the surface might not seem to fit in to the geek jello mold. Cue Hardwick’s defintion. Huzzah! I can once again lay claim to the label ‘geek’ just by virtue of the thing I am happily allowing to eat my life right now: Poi.

Allow me to share with you my current pron: Costa Rica Flow

Know how long it takes to be that good? The Gladwell formula of 10,000 hours comes to mind. If that isn’t obsessive and creative I dunno what is. Even so, it still feels a little ‘non-geekish’ until you see these:

The Geometry of Poi


When Circles Dream (Remix)


Many people aren’t familiar with poi, a dance that, at its bare essentials, involves creating patterns in space by swinging a ball on a rope in each hand (replace the balls with Kevlar, add kerosene and you have fire poi). Much of it is surprisingly scientific, incorporating concepts like centrifugal force.

Aha!  Geometry! Centrifugal Force! You Tube! So it IS geeky! Not that I needed proof, but validation never hurts. But, if you’re still not convinced I’d challenge anyone to not see the connection in The Duel of the Fates choreography and this.

The world just got a whole lot smaller and expanded all at the same time. I love it when that happens.


Kink In Motion

Neil deGrasse Tyson On My Television

Neil deGrasse Tyson, noted astrophysicist and always deemed my favorite, has once again invaded our television screens as an actor on a beloved television series. Fans may know Tyson from his work on Nova ScienceNow or his numerous books that bring astrophysics to the masses. Casual viewers or readers may know him better as ‘The Man Who Demoted Pluto.’ Yes, third graders everywhere are cursing his name because they have to relearn the planetary jingle.

Despite the fact that it’s been four years since the IAU agreed with Tyson and demoted Pluto to dwarf planet status, the entertainment industry is still using it to their advantage. Tyson first took a turn as an actor on the Stargate: Atlantis episode “Brain Storm” where he played…Neil deGrasse Tyson. He became the subject of taunting by Dr. Rodney McKay over his role in the planet’s demotion, but managed to get a few good jibes in himself.

Rodney McKay: Hey, at least I didn’t declassify Pluto from planet status. Way to make all the little kids cry, Neil. That make you feel like a big man? (SGA, Episode 5.16, “Brain Storm”)

And now, two years later, he’s back again. This time, he’s on the hit comedy Big Bang Theory, favorite of nerds everywhere, and he’s playing…Neil deGrasse Tyson. Hey, when you’re iconic, you can be your own character! He is still defending himself as not being the sole person responsible for Pluto’s demotion, but Dr. Sheldon Cooper will have none of that.

Sheldon Cooper: I’m quite familiar with Dr. Tyson. He’s responsible for the demotion of Pluto from planetary status. I liked Pluto. Ergo, I do not like you. (BBT, Episode 4.7, “The Apology Insufficiency”)

Poor Dr. Tyson, he just can’t win. But if the television writers want to ride this joke out for however long they deem it funny, I’m happy to see Tyson return time and again. Until then, I’ll be over here geeking out over my favorite astrophysicist.

Photo Credit: Chris Cassidy, NOVA science NOW

Martin Aircraft’s commercial jetpack looks to take flight

Although it may sound more sci-fi than sci-fact, a commercially developed jetpack is actually being eyed for mass production, with plans to eventually release it to the public. Let that sink in for a second. Jetpacks are real, and you might be able to buy one someday soon. Or at least see them among the skies.

You can read the full article here.

That’s what I’m talking about! What fan of “The Jetsons” hasn’t dreamed of flying with a jetpack?!! Thoughts?


Astrology’s Dirty Little Secret

I do not believe in astrology, but that is irrelevant to this conversation. This isn’t about the accuracy of astrology itself but about the inaccuracy of the zodiac being used for horoscopes and astrological signs, the forms most people think of when referring to astrology.

There are twelve astrological signs, each corresponding to a constellation from the zodiac. The word zodiac is roughly translated to mean ‘circle of animals’ which is a very accurate description. Each constellation of the zodiac falls into a ring around the earth known as the ecliptic; the paths of the Sun, Moon and planets around the earth also roughly fall in the ecliptic. People’s astrological signs are assigned by the position of the constellations when that person was born. Whatever zodiac is in the sky is that person’s sign.

The zodiac has been around, unchanging, since the Romans; and this is the heart of the problem. That is a long time; so long in fact the earth’s axis itself has shifted. Earth’s axis wobbles slightly, this means that in the 2,000 plus years since the zodiac was first created the earth has shifted its position in space ever so slightly. The stars are around 30 degrees westward in our night’s sky than they were for ancient astronomers.

This means that the constellations no longer correspond to the signs. A chart provided by Wikipedia helpfully shows when each zodiac constellations is present in the sky and when the zodiac sign is considered present. In every instance the constellation rises as the sign sets. A person who is an Aries was actually born under the constellation of Pisces and is therefore actually a Pisces.

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