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Employees of the NASA White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) work in science, technology, and engineering jobs, and, yes, they use math every day at work! When four Desert Hills Elementary students visited NASA White Sands Test Facility as a perk for placing in their school’s Science Fair, it was only natural to show the students how the science and math they are learning in school is applied in the local aerospace environment.
One of the Desert Hills Elementary Science Fair judges was Benjamin Sanders, a Financial IT Systems Administrator at the test facility. He offered 5th grade teacher Sheryl Barham a chance to tour the students. Ms. Barham then invited Jayden Perez, Kiana Paz, Renata Starostka, and T J Yoder to participate in the tour. The students and their parents arrived at the test facility and watched a safety and environmental awareness video before they were badged to go on the tour. Next, they went to the hypervelocity facility where Karen Rodriguez, an engineer and NASA Project Manager, explained how fast micrometeoroids travel in space. The White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) Remote Hypervelocity Test Laboratory is capable of simulating micrometeoroid and orbital debris on spacecraft materials and components and was designed to safely handle and test hazardous targets by simulating impacts on shields, spacecraft, satellites, and spacesuits. Four two-stage light gas guns propel single 0.05 mm to 22.2 mm diameter projectiles to velocities in excess of 7.5 km/s. “That’s approximately 17,000 mph,” says Rodriguez, whose team uses math every day to set up the labs’ gun shots. “I also really liked going to see the guns and what they shot,” wrote T J Yoder in a thank you e-mail to the facility. “It was fun and interesting learning about how crucial it can be if an asteroid hit a shuttle. (And it wouldn’t turn out so good). So there they were testing what can help a shuttle when it might run into those situations in outer space.” View Larger Image George Aldrich, a WSTF Odor Panel member, showed the science fair winners how earthly materials react in space-like atmospheres. The test facility conducts odor and toxicity tests on materials and components that fly in space. Under a bell dome, Aldrich set up a vacuum to simulate a space-like atmosphere, where balloons burst and shaving cream expands. Aldrich dipped an inflated balloon in liquid nitrogen and asked the students, “What do you think is going to happen to the balloon?” Aldrich explained that liquid nitrogen boils at 77 K (−196 °C; −321 °F) and is a cryogenic fluid that can freeze skin when touched. Aldrich wore a face mask and long gloves to guard against being splashed by the extremely cold fluid. The temperature of liquid nitrogen mimics that of the moon’s surface, giving the students an opportunity to understand how materials react to temperatures and vacuum of space atmospheres, without actually going to the moon’s surface. Aldrich, who is known as the “Master Sniffer,” demonstrated that pliable materials such as rubber balls, balloons, bananas, and flowers can react differently when exposed to the vacuum and cold temperatures encountered in space. Frozen rubber will now shatter. Balloons will burst in a vacuum, or in the case of the frozen banana, can be used to drive nails into wood. “One of my favorite parts of the facility was when we went to the ‘master smeller’ where we saw what would happen to everyday life objects when we put them in a vacuum,” wrote T J Yoder in his e-mail. “We used things like shaving cream, a marshmallow, and a balloon. What we learned when we were at this part of the tour was objects can expand when in a vacuum.” Sal Placencia, a Personal Protective Equipment technician in the Hardware Processing Department, showed the students how he takes care of the totally encapsulating suits (TES) the test facility employees use when they work on propellant systems. View Larger Image “Safety is important to me,” Placencia says to the students. “It’s important to us because we want our employees to go home safe at the end of the day.” Placencia measured out a portion of an environmentally friendly soap and added it to a water bath. To properly clean and functional check the TES suits, Placencia must first fill them with air. The same process also enables him to make sure there are no leaks in the suits, which he patches the same way one would patch a bicycle tire. Detailed records are kept by Placencia to ensure that the suits are getting cleaned and checked on a regular basis. “Another cool part of the tour was when we saw ‘some suit cleaning’,” wrote T J Yoder in his e-mail. “We saw how important it was to clean a suit, one reason is: so it’s clean. Like would you want to wear the same thing a lot and it never gets washed? YUCK.” View Larger Image Mike Barrett, a Field Engineer from the Propulsion Department, took the students on an underground bunker tour, which included the inside of a test cell. The bunkers are retrofitted with high tech data lines that transfer data from the tests conducted inside the cell to the Data Acquisition Computers. There the information will be reduced, analyzed, and passed on to the customer. The students were amazed by the amount of data cables that lined the tunnels leading to the rocket test stands. WSTF Engineer Tommy Yoder then took the students through the South High Bay where the students explored a part of history while visiting the Apollo Lunar Ascent/Descent module. The test facility retains two prototypes from the Apollo Program: the Lunar Module and the Command Module. The modules’ propulsion engines were successfully tested at the NASA White Sands Test Facility in the 70s. On the walk to the tour area, the students saw some of the various support groups required to operate a test facility such as WSTF. They saw parts being precision cleaned and gained an understanding of what it takes to fly components in space. Once at the test area, they learned about the various component tests that must be performed prior to space flight. In the High Pressure Test Area, the students watched a Standard Materials Test, where a widely used fabric was fire-tested. The fabric burned brightly on the monitor, and then the students reviewed the remnants in the test cell. View Larger Image “One of the last things we did that everyone liked was we got to see a [hook and loop] strip burn to see how long it would last going into shuttle atmosphere,” wrote T J Yoder. “We all liked different parts of the tour the best,” said Renata Starostka, a student at Desert Hills Elementary School, “but all parts of the tour inspired us to become scientists. So don't be surprised if you see one of us at NASA someday.” T J Yoder wrote, “Thank you, NASA, for giving us a tour and sharing information about what you are researching. In the end, it turned out to be a great load of fun for the whole group. I want to give a special thanks to [our tour guides] for driving us around to our destinations, making us laugh, and giv[ing] us more facts. Thanks, NASA WSTF; [you] really inspired me to do well in math and science.”