Sunday, October 28, 2007

NASA Open House and 90th Anniversary

Yesterday the NASA Research Center at Langley threw open its hangar doors and welcomed the public to celebrate 90 years of knitted brows, furiously scribbling pencils, and AHA! moments. Even though it as a gloomy, rainy day, we went to see NASA, because, you know, they aren't exactly known for being hospitable and they probably won't do this for another 10 years.

I'm not really sure what the children absorbed. They are 7 and 3, and not really up on composites and air traffic control and 1000 mph winds. Benny loved following the map around and interacting with everyone and asking questions, and Sadie enjoyed the balloon animals and picking up the titanium models of space shuttles and sitting in cockpits. Since they're so young and this was such a dense experience, this trip gets filed with the stuff we do to give them background information when they revisit the subject later. Now they've stood directly under the mechanism used by the Apollo guys to practice docking. Here's Benny standing under it:

I however am old enough (theoretically) to absorb this kind of information, so here's a list of the things I learned:

1. Electron Beam Welding is strange. One guy at one table was telling us that buy building the piece by melting down a wire with a computer, layer by layer, they avoid wasting the metal that would have to be hollowed out and discarded or scraped off and discarded. Another guy at another table was telling us how they scrape off and eliminate everything that doesn't go in the piece, and it gets flushed away because it's all submerged in water. So, huh? Either way, the models were cool. I held titanium! Have I ever held titanium before?

2. They keep NASA brains in big tanks.

3. I have to learn to do balloon animals. The girl that was doing the NASA balloon animals was doing such awesome, incredible, ridiculous, huge, life-altering hats that I was eaten up with envy at her ability. I have to learn to do this, it will definitely improve my parenting, my homeschooling, my entire world. The pictures of that are on my camera, I didn't take any with my phone, but man. You have to take my word for it. She was phenomenal.

4. NASA needs more funding. The word we heard most often from the locals was "budget." This was not said in a hostile, irritated way as in, "Why don't we have a budget?!?!" but in kind of a sweet, sad, nostalgic way like, "I remember when we had a budget..." and then the person would wipe away a tiny tear. All over the facility, we saw scientists trying hard to bend their research to something commercially viable, to make the whole thing profitable, but I just got the feeling that what they really want to do is crunch numbers, try new things, speculate, and be pure scientists.

I suppose this is a conflict which has been going on since the beginning of time, but I just wanted a little less sadness and a little more glee. The next time I talk to a candidate, I'm going to ask not only how they feel about homeschool laws, but also how they feel about NASA. NASA needs buckets of money. And I haven't even started on the appearance of the place -- it looks like a community college, built in the 50s, which has never been improved or expanded, except to add giant wind tunnels. There are rusty pieces of equipment lying around that have just been dragged out and shot, there are containers from trucks rusting behind buildings, the whole place needs a facelift. I know that when there's not enough money for pure science, there's not enough money for cosmetic updates, but still.

I hope that if there are any NASA scientists reading this right now, they don't take this as a criticism. Maybe if there are any NASA scientists reading this right now, they're just glad I got the message in terms of the political significance. I got it.

5. NASA scientists are awesome to talk to. We had a lot of really interesting, informative talks with people who had most certainly given that same talk or explanation, or answered that same question, maybe 200 times already that day. Not ONE person was irritated, not one sounded bored or tired of the repetition, nobody cut off the children's questions or our questions. Every single person was totally nice and kind and smart and helpful. And that's saying something.

6. There is a whole lab devoted to breaking stuff! There are huge, interesting, insane-looking machines designed and used for ripping things apart. According to science, you have to break something to see how strong it is. That makes sense metaphysically too. I liked the breaking machines.

7. Composites are made by combining fibers with a matrix. I have nothing to add to that statement, because that is the total sum of my learning on that topic.

8. I like the show "Big Bang Theory" on TV. Do you watch it?

9. I must not have been paying attention. What is wrong with me that I didn't learn 10 things at NASA? I feel like I should be able to say something about flight simulators or acoustics or heat shields, but you know I would just be googling it after the fact, and that would be cheating.

10. Dan now thinks I know lots of people. I ran into blogging friends, and playground friends, and karate friends, and all kinds of friends. You might conclude that I am such a social butterfly that the percentage of the population of Southeast Virginia that attended NASA's Open House, when applied to my number of acquaintances, produced a large number of attendees that I knew. OR, you could assume that the type of person I know is the type of person most likely to go to NASA's Open House. And that would be good research. Here are some blogging buddies we ran into outside the Journey to Tomorrow exhibit, where the kids saw a live moon rock:

Thank you, NASA, for a very interesting Saturday. If I didn't learn enough, it's not because you didn't try, and there's always Dan, who absorbed and processed more information than the rest of us put together. We are nerds, we are superfans, we are technology dorks; of course we had a good time. NASA, we love you. Just tell us who to vote for!


  1. That looks like it was awesome. We have a room dedicated to breaking things, too. Oh, wait, I think that's our entire house! And if you ever make it to Alaska - I can show you how to make balloon animals and outrageous hats. A mom's gotta have some skills to survive winter here.

  2. I love The Big Bang Theory. Best new sitcom in years. Everyone should watch it Mondays on CBS.

  3. I wish I lived close enough to visit that open house - what an awesome opportunity for your kids. I have one son who is especially obsessed with space, rockets, anything in the outer universe! I have an award for you at my blog...

  4. Finally got around to blogging this! *S* and FYI - I saw little party packages in walmart that have the balloons, a little pump thing, and directions for folding them! How awesome is that?? I picked one up, I'll have to give it a shot. *S*