AI in Space, #CSforALL and the Inspirational Power of Exploration
Everyone needs to see this. That was the thought running through my mind throughout my visit to the Kennedy Space Center for the SpaceX CRS-15 launch. Everyone, especially students, need to grasp the incredible technical feats we as a people have undertaken to make space exploration possible.
Sitting in the NASA briefing room, I was transported back to age 10 gathered in the cafeteria watching the shuttle launch together with my entire elementary school. This is something we used to do together as a nation. We need to do that again. As I shared last Fall in CSforALL: Our Modern Day Space Race;
“I’m suggesting we pause, come together, and train our sights on a similarly ambitious and defining goal that will shape advances affecting all of us for decades to come.”
No longer a space race, today the US collaborates with 16 other nations to operate the International Space Station (ISS), an orbiting science lab informing research from cancer to climate change. It is the ultimate in global friendship and collaboration, not for the interests of one nation, but to further knowledge and understanding. If we can achieve something this monumental, #CSforALL is certainly within our reach.
The drive to explore is powerful and the promise of space exploration inspired a generation of engineers. Now the space community has set their sights on Mars and deep space exploration — the grandest of grand challenges. I’m looking forward to the #CSforALL students of today becoming the designers, engineers, and programmers solving the big challenges humanity faces on this planet and beyond. Could (re)turning our eyes to the skies be the inspiration that gets us there?
What?! How Did This Happen?
June 28–29th, 2018 I attended the SpaceX CRS-15 Dragon launch, a resupply mission for the International Space Station as part of the NASA Social Program to engage the public. We got an insider’s look at the Kennedy Space Center and special viewing of the Friday morning launch. The #NASAsocial participants — influencers whose social media presence could help NASA spread their message — were a Motley crew including a romance novelist, filmmakers, mulitiple photographers, coffee and tea companies, tech evangelists, science-fiction writers, teachers, college students, bloggers, and more. Our job was to carry the excitement and fascination of space travel back to our respective communities.
36 Very Busy Hours
Our days were early and long! On Thursday, we hit the ground running checking in at 8AM. We received our credentials, signed a waiver, and headed out for a briefing on the CRS-15 payload. In addition to food and other life-support supplies (including Death Wish Coffee), the rocket carried 250 different experiments including cancer research, efforts to measure the thermal signature of plants, and projects by 30 different student groups. The unique environment of the ISS and the absence of the pull of gravity, enables us to discover insights about life here on earth. Top of my list of course was Seaman Jr., the National Park Service’s addition to the payload to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Trails system.
AI in Space
We also met CIMON — the first AI in space. Created in a collaboration between AirBus Space and IBM Watson, CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion) is a voice responsive, self-navigating digital research assistant. In space, an astronaut can call to CIMON and the robot navigates towards the voice to assist the astronaut with research tasks, such as pulling up experiment instructions, filming operations, recording data and communicating with mission control. Time and hands are in short supply on the ISS, and CIMON makes it possible for an astronaut to complete experiments and tasks singlehandedly, saving both time and money. When not helping out with work, CIMON does double duty as an entertainment, information and communications device. Essentially a fancy #SpaceAlexa.
CIMON holds tremendous potential for CS education, such as showing students how far CS can take them (whoa, space!), classrooms interacting with CIMON, and students creating projects inspired by this technology.
A Slow Crawl for Miles
The scale of Kennedy Space Center is impressive. Think ten times what you would expect. We visited the Vehicle Assembly Building, where they assemble the rockets before moving them to the launch pad. This building is 16 stories high and packed with massive cranes, lifts and other tools to assemble a rocket as high as the building itself. The new Orion rocket for crew transport is expected to be even taller than this building.
It takes about 8 hours to move a rocket to the launch pad on a crawler-transporter, a slow-moving platform that travels at just 1 mile per hour on the crawlerway, two 40 foot gravel tracks. The gravel and fill is 8 feet deep and provides a cushion for transporting the rocket without too much vibration or chance of sparking. The crawler-transporter and rockets are so heavy, they have to replenish the gravel every few launches.
The launch pad is equally impressive, with lightning rods placed around the pad to prevent a lightning strike from damaging a (very) expensive rocket, a flame trench that evoked the gates of Mordor, and underground bunkers and escape tunnels to protect the launch team in case of an explosion or accident.
We also visited the Veggie Lab and SwampWorks, an engineering lab trying to figure out how to use regolith — essentially planetary topsoil — as a building material for long term habitation on Mars or the Moon.
Launch Day — Call Time 4AM
We arrived for the launch early in the morning and made our way to the causeway across an inlet from the launch pad. Huddled in the dawn and coating ourselves in bug spray, we waited in hushed anticipation for the 5:42AM launch, with live countdown and reporting from NASA-TV broadcast in the background. I can only describe this experience as #EPIC. Check it out the real-time reporting from the CRS-15 #NASASocial crew for even more reactions.
Anyone can apply to join a #NASAsocial event. Just follow @NASAsocial or visit the NASA Social site to learn more. Now enjoy professional launch video!