Feature

NASA Visit Sparks Interest
10.21.08
 
Dryden life support technician Jim Sokolik explains how a pilot's high-altitude pressure suit works to students in two fifth grade classes at Cielo Azul Elementary School in Rio Rancho, N.M. Dryden life support technician Jim Sokolik explains how a pilot's high-altitude pressure suit works to students in two fifth grade classes at Cielo Azul Elementary School in Rio Rancho, N.M. NASA Photo / Tony Landis. How cool is NASA when students in two fifth grade classes forgo recess to ask more questions?

For Gary Sandberg and Robert Doyle's two Cielo Azul Elementary School classes in Rio Rancho, N.M., studies Oct. 7 included some lessons on NASA aeronautics. Delivering the information were three NASA representatives.

"NASA is about space, but it's also about aeronautics," said Mary Ann Harness, public outreach specialist and exhibit coordinator at Dryden. In fact, the three NASA representatives were in Albuquerque, N.M., to provide NASA aeronautics information to attendees of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Students knew about the space shuttles and NASA's space mission and they were equally enthusiastic to learn about the agency's airplanes.

That enthusiasm grew when Dryden life support technician Jim Sokolik asked students about the high-altitude pressure suit he brought with him. Students watched as Sokolik instantly inflated the suit with a pump and explained how the lack of oxygen and pressure 11 miles up would cause pilots to pass out without suits like the one he brought with him.

At Dryden, ER-2 pilots must wear such suits to survive in the harsh environment of high-altitude flight. The ER-2 is the civil variant of the military U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. NASA's ER-2 aircraft are used for environmental sampling and atmospheric observation missions.

"The pilot flying the aircraft in the pressure suit is like you wearing your winter clothes to ride your bicycle," he further explained.

Mary Ann Harness, left, squeezes some pudding from the kind of tube used by high-altitude pilots as Reneé Harness, center, looks on. Mary Ann Harness, left, squeezes some pudding from the kind of tube used by high-altitude pilots as Reneé Harness, center, looks on. NASA Photo / Tony Landis. Students asked him about what people eat at high altitude and how the pilot gets to it. A hole in the side of the helmet with a spring-loaded valve allows a straw to be inserted. Drinking is by straw and food is "eaten" from a tube that students were allowed to try.

"This is chocolate pudding and it has plenty of sugar," Sokolik said.

Students appeared to like the brown substance that oozed from the silver tube.

He explained the suit is made of a fire retardant material called Nomex and that a white mesh underneath is used to customize the suit for each pilot.

"They knit this mesh together, just like your grandma does," Sokolik joked. Excellent student questions earned a special life support patch, such as the one Anthony Alvarado asked.

"Why is there a little ball in the front of the suit?" Anthony asked.

"When the suit inflates it generates a lot of energy. Even if they can't see because the force of the inflation pushes the helmet to a position they can't see, they can find the golf ball for the helmet adjustment. The glove inflates too and they might not even be able to easily feel the golf ball, but they know it's there," Sokolik answered.

Maria Verdoren also earned a patch by asking what happens to air already in the helmet when the suit inflates and gives oxygen to the pilot. Sokolik explained the suit and helmet were separate elements and the air in the helmet is sucked out as the fresh oxygen is pumped into the helmet.

Darlene Mendoza, who is based at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., rounded out the group of speakers. She gave a brief overview of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy program. The SOFIA aircraft is a specially modified NASA 747 that will carry the world's largest airborne infrared telescope, which was built by Germany, a key U.S. partner.

"What happens if they run out of energy?" asked Valerie Harness.

Mendoza explained the aircraft can return to Earth if it encounters challenges and can go back to complete the mission.

What appears unlikely to run out of energy is the students' newfound enthusiasm for aeronautics.

 
 
Jay Levine
X-Press Editor