21 October 2009

Sleepless and weightless at Space University

Line Drube, a Ph.D.-student with the Mars-group at the Niels Bohr Institute received a grant of 67,000 kroner from the Lundbeck Foundation and 75.000 kroner from ESA in February 2009 to take part in an intensive 9 week course called The International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program. She has now returned from the course and talks about the experience here:

The aim of the course was to gather people together from relevant institutes and companies from all over the world, and give everyone a lot of knowledge about space flight, to inspire and to create opportunities for transnational cooperation. This is due to the desire to accelerate the development of space technology. That is why the 132 participants were chosen from 35 different countries. 

Intensive and hard

Weightlessness in specifically designed airplane

Line Drube experiences weightlessness in a special airplane. 

During the 9 weeks the course lasted, you were simply bombarded with new ideas and knowledge. It was a common joke that the letters ISU actually stood for Insufficient Sleep University, as we had classes 6 days a week from 9-18 and most days after dinner there were events such as lectures and discussion panels with top officials (for example, there was a panel consisting of 4 astronauts and a panel consisting of representatives from Asian space agencies), and you also had to manage to do homework in you “free time”. It was intensive and hard and you got so much out of it.

Because it was so difficult to get into the course, we as students were treated very seriously by our surroundings, which we realised already at the opening ceremony, where we heard speeches from the NASA Ames director, the mayors of the two nearest cities, the governor of California (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and an astronaut on the space station

Insight into the space industry

The course was designed such, that in the first 4 weeks we had a lot of basic courses in 6 main topics: ”Space system Engineering”, ”Satellite Applications”, ”Space Policy and Law”, ”Space and Society”, ”Space Physical Science” and ”Space Life Science”. This resulted in everyone, regardless of their background, getting a general insight into all areas of the space industry.

After that you chose the topic you were particularly interested in. That was then your ”section”, which you received extra lectures in and went on relevant company visits. There were also workshops across sections, such as robot building (here a very advanced type of LEGO was used, which had a programmable computer), and rocket building (ended in a competition between the teams to see which of the 1,5 meter long rockets could fly the highest and whose cargo (an egg) landed safely with a parachute). It was a good method for combining theoretical teaching with practical examples. 

Finally, the 132 people were divided between 3 major projects and the last weeks were used to undertake these. I participated in a project whose goal was to investigate what kind of equipment and developments in technology would be required to send astronauts to Mars.

Weightlessness of your own body

The International Space University, ISU, Space Studies Program was started by 3 people in 1987 and has since been held every summer with great success. Best known of the founding group is Dr. Peter Diamandis, who has done a great deal for space travel. He is responsible for the “non-profit” organization, the X Prize Foundation, which, among other things, gave $10 million to the first privately produced, reusable spaceship. One of the other initiatives Diamandis has undertaken, is the Zero Gravity Corporation, which is the first large commercial aircraft, where one can experience weightlessness for 30 seconds for each parabolic arc the plane makes, which it normally does 15 times in one flight resulting in a total of 7,5 minutes of weightlessness. 

It is used a lot to make experiments, both to observe what influence gravity has on various things and to test things which are to be used in weightlessness in future missions. During ISU I had the opportunity to experience weightlessness myself, which was an incredible experience, as it is really impossible to imagine weightlessness before you have tried it yourself, because it is so far removed from anything the body has tried before. It was a very educational experience. I can reveal that many of the clever tricks in the movie The Matrix is filmed in this plane in weightlessness.

Valuable contacts

During the 9 weeks the course lasted, NASA went to great lengths to arrange social gatherings with researchers from NASA so we could get the opportunity to make cooperative agreements or be recruited. So in addition to the large network I have formed with the ISU students and instructors, I have also made many contacts within NASA. All in all, I think that this experience will continue to demonstrate its worth for many years with the contacts I have made and I know that it has opened my eyes to many opportunities in space flight.

Group photo in front of SpaceX capsule
Line Drube at the International Space University's Space Studies Program. The course was held at
the NASA Ames Research Center in San Francisco, California, USA.