It's a little more than a year later and I'm back in Houston for another series of experiments in microgravity. No more dusty plasmas, this time we're looking at convection in a varying gravitational field. Instead of undergraduate students, I'm here with a group of teachers from around the country. Here's some background about how we got here.
Last year, in between the training and flight, I talked to the NASA education folks about the possibility of doing something similar with teachers. This is something NASA already does, teachers design a microgravity experiment with their students and then bring it back to the classroom. PPPL has a variety of programs for teachers, including a summer research internship. Combining the two seemed like a natural fit, the only question was how. Fast forward from last summer to this spring and NASA contacts me to let me know that they have openings for two teams of six flyers in their teacher program. It doesn't leave us much time but that's an opportunity that is too good to pass up. So I contact a colleague of mine that has a grant to fund research with teachers from Jersey City (that's one team), and I put together a second team with teachers already in our research program and we're off.
The problem with the PPPL team is that they don't get to PPPL until the first week of July, leaving us just four weeks to design and build our experiment. With such little time, I decide that it is prudent to use the same setup that the undergraduate team used. It's already approved by the NASA safety group and all we have to do is remove the dusty plasma portion of the rig and replace it with something else. That something else turned out to be a plasma ball. We use them all the time in our workshops to teach about plasma, and the plasma streamers rise due, in part, to the fact that they heat the gas in the ball which then rises. So the question becomes how would changes in gravity effect the rise of the plasma streamers? Then, just to add something extra to the experiment, we decided to add a Glitter Lamp, which also shows how shiny pieces of glitter rise as a light bulb at the bottom of the lamp heats the fluid within. The final piece of our experiment was to add a way that to control the brightness of the glitter lamp and the plasma ball. With that in place, things were still a scramble but we got everything together and shipped it out here in time.
(video of me singing), Satisfaction (Stones), Friends in Low Places (Garth Brooks), and Live Like You're Dying (Tim McGraw). Have to say that while it's painfully clear that I can't sing a lick, it was a lot of fun.
Today we made the final preparations and then had the safety walkthrough which we passed with flying colors. Loading the plane took a while but also was straight-forward. Then we had a chance to ask a teacher-astronaut questions (What does the Earth look like when it rises? (beautiful) What does space smell like? (metallic) , Etc.) It was inspiring to hear him speak, as it is whenever you hear about someone's experiences in space.