King's College experiences the 5-day Robotics camp at NASA

King's College from Auckland, NZ packed their gear and jetted off to Orlando to their five day Mission Robotics camp at The Kennedy Space Center. During their time at NASA they heard from Astronauts, Sam Durrance and Barbara Morgan, they visited the launch pads, saw the Saturn V, visited the Atlantis shuttle and completed multiple robotics challenges. 

King's College teacher, Mr. Sapsworth has written about their time at NASA and covers how the students found the camp. 

Meeting the Astronauts

Sam Durrance 

We heard from an astronaut called Sam Durrance. Sam headed into space for two shuttle missions as the principal scientist behind a UV telescope. His story was interesting because his path to becoming an astronaut was through scientific means (he was the physicist behind the telescope) and he was supposed to be going up in the shuttle around the time of the Challenger accident. He mentioned that it took 5 quarantines, last farewell BBQ's and special breakfasts before they finally took off. His first mission group had the record for the most amount of time in quarantine before a launch.

Barbara Morgan 

Barbara, a Biology/Science teacher, flew in the STS-118 mission as a Mission Specialist in 2007 and was also the back-up "teacher" for the ill-fated Challenger shuttle flight. It was interesting hearing her talk about her experiences in space, particularly with the emphasis on what led her into being an astronaut. She was interested in space when she was young but ended up being a teacher because nursing, home keeping and teaching were the jobs for females in her time.


Visiting the launch pads

We saw the launch pads for the multitude of companies now doing their rocket programmes. The best launch pads for historical purposes are 39 A and B. These two pads were used for the Apollo and Shuttle launches. 39 A is the current launching pad for Space X, and because of this we couldn't get to close because they are in a launch phase (although it probably won't happen because of a fairing problem). We did get close to 39 B which is the future launch pad for the SLS rocket, which is the biggest rocket since the Saturn V.


The Saturn V & the Atlantis shuttle 

We were then dropped off at the Apollo centre to see the Saturn V and the moon landings. After going through some multimedia presentations on the Apollo developments we went in and saw the awe-inspiring Saturn V. It is hard to comprehend how large it is before you see it. The Rocket is around 100 m tall and with the most powerful engines ever developed (6 000 000 Newtons of thrust in each of the 5 engines). There was plenty to see at this facility with the moon rocks and the presentation on the final moments of landing the highlights.

The Atlantis exhibition is probably the best display at NASA and it definitely lived up to this billing. You start in a theater where you are introduced to the initial idea of the shuttle with the story talking about the meeting in hangar 34 organised by Maxime A. We were then led into a full 360 degree theater for the launch and revealing of the Atlantis Space Shuttle. The shuttle is much larger than anyone expects and it just looks awe inspiring. Alex gave us a little talk about the shuttle then the students were left to explore the interactive displays at the top. After a while the students played in a mock up ISS for little kids and then we went and had another discussion about the landing. The part that the students found the most fascinating was the 60 minutes it takes for the shuttle to travel from one side of the Earth to the other on re-entry. The "shape" of the landing is demonstrated by a large slide down to the lower floor.

 saturn v

The NASA Camp

Day 1: 
First up was an introduction to programming and some attempts to calibrate and code a robot tank. This section culminated in a challenge to see who can get the closest to a space shuttle model on a desk.

After this we had a quick tour around the "NASA Now" display. This had the actual Dragon capsule that Space X used for a recent re-supply mission to the ISS. This capsule is being upgraded to carry passengers next year. We also saw the NASA version called Orion (which has been to space for a supply mission) and a mock-up of the Starliner capsule from Boeing. This was very interesting because it is the current crop of capsules and rockets who are in active service over the next few years.

The second session of the afternoon was dedicated to making the robots move around a course. This proved to be quite a challenge

Day 2:
We had a tour of the rocket garden. Alex described the evolution of the rocket program starting from the Juno 1 launching the first satellite to the two Mercury Rockets launching the first man in space (Alan Shepherd) and the first orbit. The Gemini program was next; this precursor to the Apollo programme was where all the testing was done to get ready for the docking and EVAs required to make the journey to the moon.

We then headed back to the classroom for lunch and the robot competition. Everyone did well except for the teachers who hadn't done much modification since the day before.

After the competition, we headed out on a bus tour around the station. We got to see the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) which is one of the largest buildings in the world by volume. It is 160 m high which is higher than the VERO tower and Metropolis in Auckland, the doors are the tallest doors in the world and take an hour or more to open. The flag painted on the side is 60 m tall! The building was used to assemble the Space Shuttle which is no longer in operation, it will soon be re-purposed for the SLS rocket.


Day 3:
We got straight into our last day of robotics, we had a second teacher who led us through some advanced programming and the use of a robotic arm. While we were playing with these devices groups of students went to have a training session with a mars environment. They had to direct a rover around a Martian landscape that they could not see. The only feedback they get is from a camera on top of the rover and they can push commands to it remotely. We, the teachers, have been impressed with how well the groups are collaborating, communicating and innovating in the challenges.

Day 4:
Today at NASA we start rocketry. We are using water rockets that have been modified to include some soft landing apparatus and specially printed nozzles. We constructed the rockets expecting to be able to take them outside for a launch. 

Space Trek had a test rig that can test fire the water rockets in the class to measure the thrust over time. The students did many tests with varying variables, making sure it was fairly tested to get some data. They even tried Coke as a variable, it was a bit smelly and messy and the performance wasn't the best.

A launch practice was then held out on a grassy area with the students learning the launch procedures and crew positions. The launches went well, it was the landing that was the problem. Between stuck tilt switches and un-primed switches a few of them hit the ground hard instead of a gentle parachute landing.

day 4


Day 5:
Mike talked the students through some advanced lab software in the morning. Using the data from the tank testing and the launches the day before the students were to find a set of variables to hit two targets: 55 ft in height and 55 mph in speed (sorry about the units but we are in the USA). The students could adjust the nozzle size, volume of water, pressure and the launch angle to reach the desired values. They had two chances to hit the target with more points for getting close to both in one shot.

It was great to see the teamwork in the groups, with everyone getting their say. Some launches were very good and some had a few technical glitches.

We headed off after a while to see the Heroes and Legends exhibit. This section is all about the astronauts and was qualities they have to make these big leaps in human endeavour. We started in a room that a presentation on heroes. It was interesting to see who the astronauts considered to be heroes. They ranged from Parents to superheroes. We then moved into a 3d experience that had a focus on the early pioneers and how they have a particular set of qualities to be able to sit on top of a missile and be launched into space. It is a fascinating story seeing the background to the space race and why it happened the way it did.

We then moved into a hall filled with personal stories about the astronauts and what behavioural characteristics they have and the evidence of it. Interactive features also included the original consoles of the Mercury Mission Control room with the world map that was used to follow the path of capsules between tracking stations. Also on display are the Sigma 7 Mercury spacecraft piloted by Wally Schirra during his six-orbit mission in October 1962 and the Gemini IX capsule flown by Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan for three days in June 1966. It was interesting see how small these craft were and to see what they went through to do the space walks into the unknown.

After our last lunch here we had a graduation with Alex coming back to say some nice words about the group and to hand out the certificates. We really enjoyed the experience, particularly with Alex's ability to teach and relate to students.



If you, like King's College, want to plan an action-packed itinerary for your school group & head to NASA then fill out the enquiry form below and get started. 

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