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Business, STEM

We Interrupt This Meeting for…an ISS Fly-by

I found some time in my schedule last week to attend a meeting of local engineering and technical professional societies. The guest speaker for this event was NASA scientist, Dr. Liz Warren. Dr. Liz heads the Human Research Program in Houston, TX where she leads a team of engineers and scientist in implementing experiments on the space shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS).  She shared some of her experiences working with this space agency, gave examples of some of the experiments that have been conducted on ISS, and briefly discussed some of the future plans for the agency and its programs.

International Space Station, 03.09.2013 (Source: NASA Photos)

International Space Station, 03.09.2013 (Source: NASA Photos)

During the Q&A discussion, I asked her if asteroids, meteors, and other space debris posed potential hazards for ISS given that we recently observed what some would characterize as a near cosmic event a few weeks ago when a large asteroid passed very close to the earth’s surface and a large meteor hit the northern part of Russia – all in the same week? She responded that the debris floating in space is definitely a problem for the equipment and the crew as they perform research more than 200 miles above the earth’s surface. Dr. Liz indicated that there is always something hitting the exterior of the station and the crew often hears pinging noises as smaller rocks and other trash bounces off the exterior of the space craft. However, NASA tracks the station and it also tracks any potential objects that may collide with its path.

According to Dr. Liz, these potential threats occur an average of four to six times during each six month period. The crew is required to put their research on hold, strap themselves in their seats, and move the space craft out of harms way while waiting for the larger near earth object (NEO) to clear their working zone. While the crew is sitting and waiting, they aren’t working on their research.

Before leaving the group, Dr. Liz shared with us that the ISS was scheduled for a fly-by of the Phoenix, AZ metropolitan area in about an hour, and if we wanted to see it, we’d have to stop our meeting and go outside. I’m thinking to myself, are these folks really going to do this? Since it was a mixed group of technical and non-technical types, would some accept the invitation while others take an unscheduled bathroom break? It’d be interested to see exactly how this particular audience would respond.

International Space Station, 03.04.2011 (Source: NASA Photos)

International Space Station, 03.04.2011 (Source: NASA Photos)

We proceeded with the meeting and went into four smaller break-out sessions. Just about the time that we were finishing up the first session, someone said, “Hey it’s time to go outside to see the space station.” My stars – someone actually set the timer on their mobile phone to remind us. What was I thinking? After all, we have engineers at this meeting! Like robots, bodies began to rise from seats and drift towards the sliding glass door and into the patio area.

Sure enough, in less than five minutes we identified what appeared to be a “cruising” shooting star moving across the horizon. We were all able to differentiate the ISS from airplanes and other objects. This star-gazing moment lasted for 90 seconds and then we took an “official” bathroom break.

Spot the Station

Most of the guests for this event were not aware that they can track the space station from wherever they live or work. As the third brightest object in the sky, after the sun and moon, the space station is easy to see if you know where and when to look for it. NASA makes it easy for you to do this by going to www.spotthestation.nasa.gov. Input your country, state and zip code and it will tell you when the next fly-by is scheduled.

NASA’s Spot the Station service sends you an email or text message a few hours before the space station passes over your house.

International Partnership

International Space Station Logo

International Space Station Logo

An international partnership of space agencies provides and operates the elements of the ISS. The principals are the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada. The ISS is the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken to date. [Ref 1] According to NASA, the ISS Program’s greatest accomplishment is as much a human achievement as it is a technological one—how best to plan, coordinate, and monitor the varied activities of the Program’s many organizations.

ISS Size & Mass

A quick review of info provided by NASA includes:

  • Module Length: 167.3 feet (51 meters)
  • Truss Length: 357.5 feet (109 meters)
  • Solar Array Length: 239.4 feet (73 meters)
  • Mass: 924,739 pounds (419,455 kilograms)
  • Habitable Volume: 13,696 cubic feet (388 cubic meters)
  • Pressurized Volume: 32,333 cubic feet (916 cubic meters)
  • Power Generation: 8 solar arrays = 84 kilowatts
  • Lines of Computer Code: approximately 2.3 million

More ISS News

Grapple bars being delivered to International Space Station by  SpaceX's Dragon capsule, 03.06.2013, (Source: NASA TV)

Grapple bars being delivered to International Space Station by SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, 03.06.2013, (Source: NASA TV)

ISS made more news earlier this week as the first NASA engineers used a robotic arm to unpack the first exterior cargo ever delivered by an American-built commercial supply ship on Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Following the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA is relying on privately built spacecraft to ferry cargo — and ultimately astronaut crews — to and from the ISS. [Ref 2] This is also great news for SpaceX, a NASA contractor and private spaceflight company that has a $1.6 commercial cargo delivery contract with the agency.  Earlier, SpaceX had delivered about 1,200 pounds of supplies to the orbiting lab on March 3rd.

A robotics team at NASA Mission Control in Houston remotely controlled the space station’s 58-foot (17 meters) Canadarm2 robotic arm to unload two so-called grapple bars from the unpressurized “trunk” of the privately built unmanned Dragon space capsule. The Dragon’s trunk is a cylindrical cargo section beneath the spacecraft’s re-entry module.

Many thanks to the Arizona Council of Engineering and Science Associations (ACESA) for hosting the meeting.


1. NASA, www.nasa.gov

2. NASA Unpacks ‘Trunk’ of SpaceX Cargo Capsule, Miriam Kramer, SPACE.com Staff Writer, 06 March 2013, http://www.space.com/20101-nasa-unpacks-dragon-spacecraft-trunk.html?cmpid=514630

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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